WORLD/COVER

TYRANT OF THE GULF

WITH HIS CONQUEST OF KUWAIT, IRAQI LEADER SADDAM HUSSEIN BECAME THE REGION’S MOST POWERFUL DESPOT

JOHN BIERMAN August 13 1990
WORLD/COVER

TYRANT OF THE GULF

WITH HIS CONQUEST OF KUWAIT, IRAQI LEADER SADDAM HUSSEIN BECAME THE REGION’S MOST POWERFUL DESPOT

JOHN BIERMAN August 13 1990

TYRANT OF THE GULF

WORLD

COVER

WITH HIS CONQUEST OF KUWAIT, IRAQI LEADER SADDAM HUSSEIN BECAME THE REGION’S MOST POWERFUL DESPOT

He was born into obscurity and poverty 53 years ago in a nondescript village on the banks of the historic Tigris River. He became a student revolutionary in his late teens and he spent much of his 20s on the run from the authorities. After his revolutionary cause triumphed in 1968, he rose to supreme power, seizing the destiny of his country in a grip that tightened steadily in the following years. Driven by ruthless ambition, he became the Arab world’s most potent

despot, transforming his country’s army into the region’s most powerful military machine. And last week, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein al-Takriti went one giant step further. Overrunning the neighboring emirate of Kuwait in what President George Bush called an act of “naked aggression,” Hussein made himself the strongman of the Persian Gulf—on whose oil resources the developed world largely depends.

Within hours of the Iraqi invasion, Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Arens referred to Hussein as the Adolf Hitler of the 1990s and declared that he must be stopped at all costs. Although Israeli politicians often compare even the most unlikely of their Arab foes to the late Nazi dictator, the comparison seemed appropriate. For its ruthless boldness and shrewd calculation of the likelihood of an ineffective response from the rest of the world, Hussein’s invasion did, indeed, have an authentically Hitlerian quality.

Certainly, the predawn strike that overran the tiny kingdom in a mere nine hours on Aug. 2 plunged the region into crisis and the world at large into shock (page 23). The prospect of U.S. military intervention seemed initially to be slight, but the invasion set in motion a process that, because of its effect on oil

prices—an almost immediate $3-a-barrel (U.S.) increase on world markets—could have far-reaching effects on an already faltering global economy (page 26).

Hussein, whose first name, Saddam, means “one who confronts,” was demonstrably acting in character when he sent his tanks rolling over the territory of his small but wealthy neighbor. In recent months, he had provided evidence of the ruthlessness that has earned him such nicknames from his enemies as the Butcher of Baghdad and the Bully of the Gulf. Still, the invasion was clearly a surprise to most analysts. Many of them had said that Hussein was merely sabre-rattling last month when he massed 30,000 troops on the Iraq-Kuwait border before a meeting in Geneva of the 13member Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). He later increased their numbers to 100,000 last week, in a dispute with Kuwait over oil, cash and territory.

Bloody: But Hussein was not bluffing. Earlier, he had introduced long-range missile warfare to the Middle East during the bloody conflict with Iran that he initiated in 1980. He used chemical weapons against the Iranian military and killed hundreds of his own Kurdish citizens with nerve gas in March, 1988. As well, he flouted world opinion by executing an

Iranian-born British reporter for alleged spying last March, and launched an allout campaign to acquire nuclear weapons and a so-called doomsday gun.

The ruling al-Sabah family of Kuwait had been among Hussein’s firmest supporters during his eight-year war against Iran, which ended in an armistice in 1988. During that war, Kuwait and the other conservative kingdoms and emirates of the Gulf sent Baghdad billions of dollars in low-interest or interest-free loans. They also shipped vast amounts of war matériel to Iraq. But, in mid-July, Hussein repaid that support by launching a furious propaganda assault on Kuwait and the neighboring United Arab Emirates (UAE).

He accused them of driving down world oil prices by exceeding the agreed OPEC production quotas, costing Iraq revenues totalling more than $16 billion over an unspecified period. He also accused Kuwait of “stealing” $2.8 billion worth of oil by extracting it from disputed territory along their common but illdefined border. And he demanded that Kuwait should forgive repayment of loans, estimated to be worth between $10 billion and $20 billion, that it made to Baghdad during the Iran-Iraq war.

At the July OPEC meeting, other members of the cartel easily convinced Kuwait and the UAE, which industry experts say have indeed been overproducing by more than one million barrels a day, to agree to cut back production and adhere to their quotas.

Later, Iranian Oil Minister Gholam Reza Aghazadeh said, “This time, I am 100-per-cent sure that quotas will be kept.” Meanwhile, Iraqi pressure secured agreement on a new target price for oil of $21 (U.S.) a barrel (about $24 Can.), an increase of $3 from the $18-abarrel benchmark that OPEC set in 1986.

But Kuwait’s conciliatory behavior failed to defuse the dispute with Iraq. The state-controlled Baghdad media kept up their propaganda campaign against Kuwait, even after its representatives agreed to negotiate the other points in dispute. Talks opened in Jidda, the Saudi summer capital, last Wednesday, but broke down quickly when Iraq accused Kuwait of not negotiating seriously. Within hours of the breakdown, the Iraqi armored columns, supported by jet fighter-bombers and helicopter gunships, pushed across the frontier.

Wealth: While governments around the world, including Canada, denounced the Iraqi invasion and the United Nations Security Council condemned it, the Iraqi people reacted with apparent enthusiasm. In Baghdad, hundreds of motorists honked their horns in celebration of the military action, which now gives their nation of 17 million people direct control of 20 per cent of OPEC’s oil resources. The comment of Baghdad college student Ahmed Khalis appeared to reflect Iraqi opinion. Said Khalis: “The Kuwaiti rulers deserve what [Hussein] has done to them. They boast of their aid to Iraq, but it was Iraq that

‘THE BUTCHER OF BAGHDAD’ USES RUTHLESSNESS AND BRUTE FORCE

defended their thrones and wealth with blood.”

Any Iraqis with contrary views will likely remain silent. In Hussein’s harsh police state, dissent is not tolerated, and the president, whose massive portrait peers down from billboards all over Baghdad, is regarded with a mixture of fear and admiration. The fear stems from the knowledge that his secret police, estimated to number at least 100,000, are everywhere and that torture and execution are the common fate of anyone who opposes the regime.

The admiration is a result of the way in which Hussein has raised Iraq to the status of an Arab superpower capable of humiliating the non-Arab Iranians in the Gulf War. Iraqis also claim that, with their standing army of one million soldiers equipped with state-of-the-art weaponry, Hussein has made them the only Arab nation able to pose a credible challenge to the armed might of Israel.

Revolution: Hussein was born in April, 1937, in the village of Takrit, 160 km northwest of Baghdad. His father, a peasant, died when he was only nine months old, and Hussein was raised by an uncle. He did not begin his schooling until he was nine years old. But, at 18, as a student in Baghdad, he entered the world of revolutionary politics, joining the Baath socialist party, which preached Arab unity and social equality.

In 1959, the young Hussein took part in an attempt to assassinate then-Prime Minister Abdul Karim Kassem. The prime minister escaped unscathed from an ambush, and Hus-

sein fled to Syria, later moving to Egypt. When the Baath party seized power in a 1963 coup, he returned home. But, nine months later, the Baathists were themselves overthrown and Hussein again fled. He was soon caught after a gun battle with police and jailed, remaining a prisoner until 1966. Two years later, the

Baathists staged a successful coup and Hussein won the key position of deputy chairman of the ruling Revolutionary Command Council. In 1979, he formally attained power, assuming all the principal offices of state, including president, prime minister, commander-in-chief and head of the Baath party.

Hussein dealt swiftly and brutally with dissenters. He accused 21 senior officials who had

defied his authority of conspiring against the state and ordered them executed. The party meeting at which Hussein denounced the alleged conspirators was videotaped, and he had copies distributed to senior officials in other Gulf countries. Clearly, that was done to strike fear into Hussein’s neighbors. According to officials who have seen the tape, it shows a scene that might have come from a gangster movie. In it, Hussein calmly smokes a cigar as he slowly reads out the 21 names from a list, calling on each trembling suspect in turn to stand up and surrender himself to the security officers waiting to arrest them.

Aura: There are other, less well-documented accounts of Hussein personally shooting to death a troublesome religious leader in 1980 and, three years later, ordering the execution of his own half-brother, Barzan, for his suspected role in a coup attempt. Hussein apparently relishes those accounts, because they add to his aura of ruthlessness and help to maintain him in power. The olive-drab general’s uniform that he usually wears in public adds to his image of strength and power, although in fact Hussein has had no direct military experience.

That lack of experience may have contributed to his near-fatal miscalculation in September, 1980. Hussein invaded Iran in the hope of a quick and easy victory over a country still in post-revolutionary trauma following the overthrow of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and the coming to power of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s theocratic regime. But, instead, he found himself enmeshed in the lengthiest and bloodiest conflict in recent Middle East history. It claimed more than one million lives on the two sides and left the economies of both countries in ruins. Estimates of Iraq’s debt range between $70 billion and $90 billion. Clearly, the burden of that debt influenced his campaign against Kuwait.

Little is known of the Iraqi dictator’s private life, apart from the fact that he married his cousin, Sajida Khairallah Talfah, in 1963 and has five children. He is said to be a sombre, humorless, blunt-spoken man who transfixes visitors with an unblinking gaze and rarely engages in small talk. A former Algerian OPEC official who has had dealings with Hussein describes him as ]“an intense man of enaret mous intelligence.” And with the war against Iran as one exception, Hussein has proved himself, so far, to be a brilliant judge of how far he can press his luck in pursuing personal and national objectives. If the United States, the other Western powers and the Arab world allow him to exploit his Kuwaiti conquest without serious challenge, Hussein will once again have shown that he is as shrewd as he is bold and brutal.

JOHN BIERMAN with correspondents’ reports