With no military experience, Saddam Hussein declared himself a field marshal when he assumed the presidency of Iraq in 1979. Since that time Hussein has exercised absolute control over his country, committed its military to war against neighboring Iran (1980-88), and invaded and annexed oil-rich Kuwait in 1990. Despite fighting to a draw against Iran and experiencing a resounding defeat by a coalition force led by the United States in Kuwait, Hussein remains in power. His control of the largest military force in the Middle East positions him to remain a threat to his neighbors and to peace in the region.
Hussein began life as the son of extremely poor, landless Sunni Muslim peasants in the village of al-Auja, near the town of Takrit, along the Tigris River, on April 28, 1937. Physically abused as a child by his step-father, Hussein tended the family’s few sheep and did not enter school until the age of ten, when he went to live with an uncle in Baghdad. Because of his late start, Saddam did poorly in the classroom, and his low grades caused the rejection of his application, at age sixteen, to the Baghdad Military Academy.
With his path to becoming an army officer blocked, Saddam turned to his nationalist political movement and in 1956 participated in the unsuccessful coup against the Baghdad monarchy. A year later, he joined the radical Baath Party. In 1958, at age twenty-one, Hussein was implicated in the murder of a government official in his hometown of Tikrit and imprisoned for six months before his release due to insufficient evidence.
At about the same time, Gen. Abdul Karim Qassim led a military takeover of the country, and the Baath briefly supported the new government. In 1959, Saddam participated in an unsuccessful machine-gun attack against Qassim in which he was wounded but able to escape. Later, after Saddam took power, his role in the attack would be greatly embellished with claims that he suffered serious wounds and escaped only by swimming the Tigris and making his way across the desert to Syria. In reality, his wounds were minor, likely inflicted by one of his compatriots in the midst of the ambush, and other Baath members arranged his escape.
For the next four years Saddam hid out in Cairo, where he attended, but did not graduate from, law school. When the Baath assassinated Qassim in 1963, Saddam returned to Baghdad and began his rapid ascent within the party. Opponents overthrew the Baath in 1964, and Saddam again spent a brief time in prison, but when the Baath returned to power in 1968, Saddam became the deputy chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council.
Using the party’s ruthless security forces and close family members as aides and subordinates, Saddam continued his rise through military purges, intimidation and murder of enemies, and close control of party assets. Saddam established himself as the most powerful man in Iraq long before formally assuming the presidency in 1979 at age forty-one. Along with taking absolute control of all aspects of the government, Saddam, the military-academy reject, promoted himself to field marshal and began appearing in battle dress wearing a black beret.
After assuming leadership, Saddam attempted to use the country’s vast oil income to improve educations, agriculture, and overall living conditions. However, these efforts did not hold his attention for long. Field Marshal Saddam went to war with Iran in 19809 to gain control of more oil reserves and to establish himself as an Arab would leader. “Iraq is as great as China, as great as the Soviet Union, and as great as the United States,” Saddam boasted as he ordered his divisions into uncoordinated frontal attacks against the Iranians. When offensives failed, Saddam on occasion killed the unsuccessful commander. After a major assault was repelled in 1982, Saddam executed more than three hundred senior offices. Within the military and the government itself, to disagree with or displease Saddam was to commit suicide.
As the war wore on, Saddam made frequent, highly publicized visits to the front, but his strength as a soldier lay only in his country’s wealth, which allowed him to purchase weapons from the Soviets and the Chinese. After eight years of combat and losses that numbered in the hundreds of thousands, Ira and Iran finally agreed to a truce. Saddam had accomplished nothing militarily, but he had attained his goal of leader of the Arab world.
In addition to atrocities committed against the Iranians and the murder of his own officers, Saddam also exhibited ruthlessness against ethnic minorities within Iraq. Accusing Kurdish villages of aiding Iran, Saddam ordered them sprayed with poisonous gases in 1987 and against in 1988, killing more than five thousand men, women, and children and seriously injuring another ten thousand.
On August 2, 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait, and Saddam announced that he had annexed it as a new province. In response, a coalition of nations, led by the United States, assembled in Saudi Arabia and in early 1991 began air attacks, followed by land assault, which liberated Kuwait and defeated the Iraqi military. Saddam’s “million man army” collapsed with little fight. When the war ended on February 28, somewhere between eight and fifteen thousand Iraqis lay dead in the desert, another twenty-five to fifty thousand were wounded, and more than eighty-five thousand were prisoners of the allies.
Amazingly, despite efforts of coalition bombing to target him during the war and political efforts afterward to oust the world’s reigning despot, Saddam remains in power. The allied generals who led the offensive have retired, the allied political leaders are out of office, but Saddam is in absolute control in Iraq. His army is still one of the Middle East’s strongest and most threatening military forces.
Saddam certainly does not make this list by virtue of any great military prowess of his own. He has gained his power and maintained it in a ruthless manner comparable to that of Adolf Hitler. While his atrocities do not match the number of the German leader’s, they do compare in brutality. Had Saddam been removed from power during the war over Kuwait or had assassination attempts been successful, it is unlikely that he would merit note. However, he is still in control and presents a threat to world peace that maintains his position on this list of influential military leaders.
In 2003, President George W. Bush decided that it would be a good idea to turn the “War on Terror” in the direction of Iraq, to “dethrone” Saddam. In December of 2003, the American troops were successful, and Saddam was captured by United States forces while hiding in a “ventilated spider hole” that was camouflaged by bricks.