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Sunday, December 14

Context: Saddam’s ruthless ambition sapped Iraq’s prosperity

By John Yaukey, Greg Barrett | GNS

There was a time when most Iraqis lived well under Saddam Hussein. Even if the dictator was most interested in conquest, Saddam’s ruling Baath Party initially kept the masses comfortable.


Long before he replaced ailing Iraqi President Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr in 1979, Saddam was considered his government’s strongman. He effectively ruled as Iraq’s vice president, and he oversaw a prosperous decade when Iraq was among the most educated, sophisticated and privileged nations in the Arab world. Under his charge, Iraq initiated social security, pension plans and universal education.


It was Saddam’s goal to rule a unified Arab world that ultimately led to the collapse of Iraqi society and his own political demise. When he retreated from the invading U.S. soldiers in April, he left a distinct imprint — a nation in ruin.


A year after becoming president, Saddam dragged Iraq into an eight-year war with Iran. In 1990, he invaded Kuwait. The resulting Persian Gulf War and United Nations economic sanctions completely devalued the Iraqi dinar — at one time stronger than the U.S. dollar — and devastated Iraq’s middle class. Food prices in Iraq increased 4,000-fold between 1990 and 1995, and by the turn of the century more than half the population depended on government handouts.


If Saddam had opened up the political process early in his presidency, “he would have won by a landslide,” said Baghdad native Adeed Dawisha, a political science professor at Miami University in Ohio. “Instead, he made two major mistakes: invading Iran, invading Kuwait.”


Pan-Arabian dream


Saddam had long espoused dreams of a unified Arab superpower replete with nuclear weapons, stretching from the Euphrates River to the Suez Canal. Unity has eluded the Arab world since it was carved into artificial sheikdoms after World War I.


It was this Pan-Arabian vision that drove Saddam to invade Iran at a time when he thought the army of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was vulnerable. The war ended in a brutal stalemate that left Iraq’s economy fractured. In a rush to repair the damage, Saddam looked south to the oilfields of Kuwait.


Saddam, whose name roughly translates into "he who confronts," was born April 28, 1937, to poor peasants in the unforgiving Tikrit district of Iraq, north of Baghdad.


Witnessing as a young boy the arrest and imprisonment of his beloved uncle by colonial British forces instilled an early, visceral hatred of the West that radical politics would further inflame.


After running with street gangs, Saddam began his career in thug politics at age 20 by joining the Baath Arab Socialist Party. It would prove a defining moment, giving shape and direction to his passionate anti-colonialism.


The Baath Party doctrine — essentially a combination of Marxist and nationalist ideologies blended under the banner of Arab ethnicity — advocated eliminating the artificial boundaries imposed in the Middle East by the colonial powers.


Saddam would use assassination, torture and war to foment a more virulent strain of that Arab nationalism.


“Like all these despots, they begin by doing a number of positive things in order to gain popularity,” Dawisha said. “Then, as they continue to be in office and gather more power — appropriated to themselves — they acquire qualities they think are above that of any other person. As a result, they become tyrants.”