(1937-) Iraqi politician, in power from 1968, president from 1979. He presided over the Iran-Iraq war 1980–88, and harshly repressed Kurdish rebels in N Iraq. He annexed Kuwait 1990 but was driven out by a US-dominated coalition army Feb 1991. Defeat in the Gulf War led to unrest, and both the Kurds in the N and Shiites in the S rebelled. His savage repression of both revolts led to charges of genocide and the United Nations (UN) established “safe havens” in the N and “no-fly zones” in the S. Infringement of the latter led to US air strikes Jan 1993. Saddam has continued to defy UN resolutions.
Hussein joined the Arab Ba'ath Socialist Party as a young man and soon became involved in revolutionary activities. In 1959 he was sentenced to death and took refuge in Egypt, but a coup in 1963 made his return possible, although in the following year he was imprisoned for plotting to overthrow the regime he had helped to install. After his release he took a leading part in the 1968 revolution, removing the civilian government and establishing a Revolutionary Command Council (RCC). At first discreetly, and then more openly, Hussein strengthened his position and in 1979 became RCC chair and state president, progressively eliminating real or imagined opposition factions as he gained increasing dictatorial control.
In 1977 Saddam Hussein al-Tikriti abolished the use of surnames in Iraq to conceal the fact that a large number of people in the government and ruling party all came from his home village of Tikrit and therefore bore the same surname. Ruthless in the pursuit of his objectives, he fought a bitter war against Iran 1980–88, with US economic aid, and opposed Kurdish rebels seeking independence, using chemical weapons against civilian populations. The 1990 Kuwait annexation followed a long-running border dispute and was prompted by the need for more oil resources after the expensive war against Iran. Saddam, who had enjoyed US support for being the enemy of Iran and had used poison gas against his own people in Kurdistan without any falling-off in trade with the West, suddenly found himself almost universally condemned.
Iraq’s defeat in the ensuing Gulf War undermined Saddam’s position as the country’s leader; when the Kurds rebelled again after the end of the war, he sent the remainder of his army to crush them, bringing international charges of genocide against him and causing hundreds of thousands of Kurds to flee their homes in N Iraq. His continued indiscriminate bombardment of Shiites in S Iraq led the UN to impose a “no-fly zone” in the area Aug 1992. Another potential confrontation with the West was averted 1994.