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Saddam Hussein: A Profile

WEDNESDAY 17th April 2002

When those planes went into the World Trade Center and the words "terrorist attack" were mooted, the first name on most people's lips was that of the Iraqi leader. Pentagon observers already had their eyes on another Middle-eastern enemy, but across the Western world it was Saddam Hussein who, until 11 September, was Public Enemy Number One.

He has been an international bugbear since 1990, when he burst onto the world stage with his invasion of Kuwait. And despite his removal from the emirate by Allied forces, tales still abound of Saddam's arsenal of weaponry, his links with the al-Qaeda network and his insatiable hunger to topple the West.

One of his most senior military defectors, Abu Zeiinab al-Qurairy, watched the September attacks on television from his hiding place in the Lebanon, and reportedly commented, "That's one of ours."

Childhood beatings and a failed assassination

If such despotic acts seem typical of the Iraqi leader, it also appears that, since he was a boy, Saddam has never known another way to behave. In his hometown of Takrit, central Iraq, where he was born in 1937, his stepfather frequently beat the young Saddam, introducing him to the brutality and bullying that have marked his life.

A young Iraqi in search of an identity, Saddam soon joined the clandestine Baath party, and aided its failed attempt to assassinate the country's ruler General Kassem. Saddam spent four years in exile, but enjoyed a re-emergence as the party's number two behind General al-Bakr when it seized power in 1968.

America's blind eye

A decade later, Bakr was quietly shunted aside, Saddam took centre stage and a reign of terror began.

His first mission was sorting out a troublesome neighbour. Perceiving a threat of Islamic revolution in Iran, Saddam poured his army across the border and started a war. It would last eight years and claim about a million lives.

The United States had quietly supported this war against Iran. They had turned a blind eye to Iraq's terrible human rights record, including the gassing of Kurdish villagers of Halabja.

But they were never going to be so benevolent about Kuwait. When Saddam Hussein invaded and annexed the emirate over disagreements about oil quotas, he wrought havoc on his own country.

Surviving "The Mother of all Battles"

Weeks of Western bombing, during what Saddam christened "The Mother of all Battles", reduced Iraq's infrastructure to ruins. Burning oil wells in retreat from Kuwait, Saddam's troops turned the sky black and precipitated a vast ecological disaster. In the subsequent ground assault, thousands of his soldiers were killed or wounded.

The Shiites of southern Iraq revolted, but Saddam was somehow able to restore his grip, while in the north he attacked the rebellious Kurds. It was left to Western powers to create safe havens in both areas, and attempt to force the defeated leader to eliminate all his weapons.

Even in this humiliated state, Saddam remained defiant. His continual refusal to submit to UN inspections of his national arsenal led to more Anglo-American attacks on Iraqi targets in 1998.

Tony Blair explained, "Just because we can't get into the cage, doesn't mean we should leave the cage untouched."

Since then, stringent international sanctions have remained, crippling Iraq's economy and causing a near-collapse of its currency.

Desperate infighting has revealed Saddam's ruthless paranoia. At home, he stamps down on any insubordination. His two sons-in-law attempted to leave the country, and were executed on their return. Meanwhile, his son Uday is being groomed for power, and continues to wield the axe of fear handed him by his father.

And his use of secret intelligence organisations is matched by his love of highly visible adulation. His features and monuments are all over Iraq. He has even had Nebuchadnezzar's palace rebuilt, with his own name printed on every brick. The West may continue to call for his overthrow, but Saddam Hussein goes on, as defiant and brutal as ever.