President of Iraq (1979 – ). Born April 28, 1937, in the poor farming village of Tikrit, Iraq, where he was raised by his widowed mother. In 1955, he moved to the neighboring city of Baghdad, where he became involved in the Arab Nationalist Movement. As a fervent member of the Arab Baath Socialist Party, Saddam orchestrated the 1959 assassination attempt of Iraqi prime minister ‘Abd al-Karim Qasim. After the failed effort, Saddam escaped to Egypt. He settled in Cairo, where he attended the Cairo School of Law.
When the Baathists seized control of Iraq in 1963, Saddam returned to his native country and was named assistant secretary general of the party. Within a few months the Baath party was overthrown. After years of struggle between Iraq’s existing government and the opposing socialists, the Baath party was re-established in a 1968 coup. Saddam, who played a prominent role in the revolt, became vice chairman of the ruling Revolutionary Command Council in 1969.
In his new position, Saddam concentrated on improving Iraq’s domestic problems. He nationalized the country’s oil industry, which served as Iraq’s major source of wealth. Benefiting from the rise of oil prices in the early 1970s, Saddam implemented an economic improvement plan that included new factories, hospitals, and schools.
In 1979, Saddam assumed the presidency of Iraq. That same year, he led Arab opposition to the Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt. Under Saddam’s direction, Iraq invaded Iran in 1980, in an attempt to gain control of the Strait of Hormuz. The attack led to a war of attrition, during which Saddam quelled a Kurdish uprising by the widespread use of chemical weapons. The Iran-Iraq War lasted for eight years, until Iran agreed to a cease-fire in 1988.
Burdened with a $75 billion war debt, Iraq pressured neighboring Kuwait to pay some of the balance with their vast oil revenues. In August 1990, Saddam invaded and annexed Kuwait, but was forced to withdraw when he was defeated by a coalition of U.S.-led forces in the Persian Gulf War. Also known as Operation Desert Storm, the six-week-long war (coupled with UN trade sanctions) further devastated Iraq’s suffering economy. In 1993, Saddam brought further military strikes against his country for continued breaching of peace terms. In 1998, his failure to comply with UN weapons inspectors led to a four-day air strike by the U.S. and Great Britain, but a satisfactory agreement was met.
Following the Gulf War, the U.N. passed a resolution that created a commission to inspect Iraqi weapons facilities. As a result of the resolution, Saddam stayed in power, but economic sanctions remained. From the first inspection held in June 1991, Saddam refused to comply with inspectors and continued to conceal weapons of mass destruction. In 1998, Saddam ended Iraqi cooperation with the commission and accused the U.N. of espionage.