Saddam Hussein (1937- ), authoritarian president of Iraq since 1979) who has led his country into two devastating wars. Born to a poor farming family in Tikrît, a town north of Baghdâd, Hussein was raised by his widowed mother and other relatives. He moved to Baghdâd in 1955 and became involved in politics, joining the opposition Baath Party, an Arab nationalist movement. Hussein rose quickly within the party and in 1959 helped organize an assassination attempt on ‘Abd al-Karim Kassem, the military president of Iraq. Both Kassem and Hussein were injured in the gun battle, and Hussein fled to Cairo.
Hussein studied law in Cairo while continuing party-affiliated activities. He returned to Baghdâd in 1963, married, and rose to the post of assistant secretary general of the Baath Party. The party remained in opposition to the government until 1968, when it seized power in a coup. Years of underground work gave Hussein a small core of like-minded friends, many related to him by blood or marriage and most from Tikrît. After the coup, this clique established itself as a Revolutionary Command Council with absolute authority in the country. Hussein became vice chairman of the council in 1969. He worked closely with General Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr, the council’s chairman and president of Iraq.
Hussein took a leading role in addressing the country’s major domestic problems. He negotiated an agreement in 1970 with separatist Kurdish leaders, giving them autonomy. The agreement later broke down, leading to brutal fighting between the regime and Kurdish groups. He also played a part in the nationalization of the oil industry, Iraq’s major source of wealth. In 1973 oil prices skyrocketed, allowing the government to pursue an ambitious economic development program that included new schools, universities, hospitals, and factories.
In foreign affairs, Hussein at first helped Iraq play a leading role in the Middle East. In 1975 he negotiated a settlement with Iran that contained Iraqi concessions on border demarcation. In return, Iran agreed to stop supporting opposition Kurds in Iraq. Hussein also led Arab opposition to the 1979 Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel. President al-Bakr gradually withdrew from politics during the 1970s and formally retired in 1979. Hussein became chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council and president of the country. In 1979 Iran’s government was overthrown by Islamic fundamentalists and their supporters, and Hussein feared radical Islamic ideas were spreading inside Iraq, especially among the country’s majority Shiite population. In September 1980 Hussein abandoned his 1975 agreement with Iran and invaded. After making some initial gains Iraq’s troops were stopped, and by 1982 Iraq was looking for ways to end the war. Hussein reached out to other Arab governments for financial and diplomatic support and began to target the Iranian oil industry.
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