Saddam Hussein Abd al-Majid al-Tikriti was born in a suburb of Tikrit, Iraq and moved around quite a bit in his childhood, spending his teen years in Baghdad. He died by hanging in 2006 after being sentenced to death following his capture by American forces.
Saddam was a Sunni Muslim, but the degree to which he was devout is a matter of speculation. Some scholars believe he was not a terribly devout Muslim, but increasingly used religion later in life to increase his political power. Sounding like the secular and tolerant leader he was not, in 1978, speaking about the tensions between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims, he said,
[The Ba’ath Party must] oppose the institutionalization of religion in the state and society. . . . Let us return to the roots of our religion, glorifying them–but not introduce it into politics.
The fact that he never really targeted Christians in Iraq could support the theory that he wasn’t interested in persecuting people based on their religion alone. But that didn’t stop him from committing unspeakable atrocities against Shi’ite Muslims –regardless of whether or not he viewed them as a religious or political threat, or both.
After the Gulf War, Saddam’s own religious rhetoric increased wholeheartedly–although again, whether it was a sincere return to faith or a means of exerting increased political control is a topic of debate. He started the “faith campaign” in 1994 in which government money was allotted for new Islamic schools, religious training centers, mosques, and murals of the president in prayer. He even commissioned an edition of the Koran to be written in his blood.
And just before his execution, in his last letter to the people of Iraq, he sounded like a genuinely devout Muslim. He wrote,
Dear faithful people, I bid you farewell, but I will be with the merciful God who helps those who take refuge in him and who will never disappoint any honest believer.
And so it seems that even if he changed his mind about religion’s role in government, and even if he used religion as a political tool and weapon for persecution, in his last days, he truly believed that he had done right by God.
Saddam Hussein’s political career begins and ends with Iraq’s Ba’ath Party. It started a little rocky–a party out of power, a failed assassination attempt to gain government control, a period of exile, some time in jail spiced with a little torture, a position as vice president. . . which all led eventually to his iconic role as president/dictator of Iraq.
Before his presidency he had a reputation as a progressive and charming politician. As vice president, he capitalized on the country’s oil resources to develop its infrastructure, and to provide free literary programs, public school, and a free public health system that garnered him an award from the United Nations.
For all the generous social programs, the cruel dictator wasn’t far away. When Saddam took over the presidency in 1979, one of the first things he did was execute 21 people who he claimed were conspiring to overthrow his government. That was followed by some of the most horrific human rights violations on record, including an attempted genocide of the Kurds in northern Iraq.
During his tenure as president, he oversaw an invasion of Iran, followed by an eight-year war which ended in a stalemate. And then, after a U.S. intervention following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, Saddam was forced to withdraw all forces from the country. That did not stop him from claiming victory on both occasions.
His aggressive and violent hubris in the face of the world eventually led to his downfall and execution. During the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, based on the false premise that Saddam was building “weapons of mass destruction,” he was eventually captured, tried, and executed by the Iraqi government. And despite the unpopularity of the U.S. invasion of his country, both at home and abroad, few lament the death of the country’s most infamous citizen.