Saddam Hussein Abd al-Majid al-Tikriti was born on April 28th, 1937 in al-Awja, a suburb of the Sunni city of Tikrit. After a difficult childhood, during which he was abused by his stepfather and shuffled from home to home, he joined Iraq's Baath Party at the age of 20. In 1968, he assisted his cousin, General Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr, in the Baathist takeover of Iraq. By the mid-1970s, he had become Iraq's unofficial leader, a role that he officially took on following al-Bakr's (highly suspicious) death in 1979.
Hussein openly idolized the former Soviet premier Joseph Stalin, a man notable as much for his paranoia-induced execution sprees as anything else. In July 1978, Hussein had his government issue a memorandum decreeing that anyone whose ideas came into conflict with those of the Baath Party leadership would be subject to summary execution. Most, but certainly not all, of Hussein's targets were ethnic Kurds and Shiite Muslims.
The two dominant ethnicities of Iraq have traditionally been Arabs in south and central Iraq, and Kurds in the north and northeast, particularly along the Iranian border. Hussein long viewed ethnic Kurds as a long-term threat to Iraq's survival, and the oppression and extermination of the Kurds was one of his administration's highest priorities.
The Baath Party was dominated by Sunni Muslims, who made up only about one-third of Iraq's general population; the other two-thirds was made up of Shiite Muslims, Shiism also happening to be the official religion of Iran. Throughout Hussein's tenure, and especially during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), he saw the marginalization and eventual elimination of Shiism as a necessary goal in the Arabization process, by which Iraq would purge itself of all perceived Iranian influence.
The Dujail Massacre of 1982:
In July of 1982, several Shiite militants attempted to assassinate Saddam Hussein while he was riding through the city. Hussein responded by ordering the slaughter of some 148 residents, including dozens of children. This is the war crime with which Saddam Hussein was formally charged, and for which he was executed.
The Barzani Clan Abductions of 1983:
Masoud Barzani led the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), an ethnic Kurdish revolutionary group fighting Baathist oppression. After Barzani cast his lot with the Iranians in the Iran-Iraq War, Hussein had some 8,000 members of Barzani's clan, including hundreds of women and children, abducted. It is assumed that most were slaughtered; thousands have been discovered in mass graves in southern Iraq.
The al-Anfal Campaign:
The worst human rights abuses of Hussein's tenure took place during the genocidal al-Anfal Campaign (1986-1989), in which Hussein's administration called for the extermination of every living thing--human or animal--in certain regions of the Kurdish north. All told, some 182,000 people--men, women, and children--were slaughtered, many through use of chemical weapons. The Halabja poison gas massacre of 1988 alone killed over 5,000 people. Hussein later blamed the attacks on the Iranians, and the Reagan administration, which supported Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War, helped promote this cover story.
The Campaign Against the Marsh Arabs:
Hussein did not limit his genocide to identifiably Kurdish groups; he also targeted the predominantly Shiite Marsh Arabs of southeastern Iraq, the direct descendants of the ancient Mesopotamians. By destroying more than 95% of the region's marshes, he effectively depleted its food supply and destroyed the entire millennia-old culture, reducing the number of Marsh Arabs from 250,000 to approximately 30,000. It is unknown how much of this population drop can be attributed to direct starvation and how much to migration, but the human cost was unquestionably high.
The Post-Uprising Massacres of 1991:
In the aftermath of Operation Desert Storm, the United States encouraged Kurds and Shiites to rebel against Hussein's regime--then withdrew and refused to support them, leaving an unknown number to be slaughtered. At one point, Hussein's regime killed as many as 2,000 suspected Kurdish rebels every day. Some two million Kurds hazarded the dangerous trek through the mountains to Iran and Turkey, hundreds of thousands dying in the process.
The Riddle of Saddam Hussein:
Although most of Hussein's large-scale atrocities took place during the 1980s and early 1990s, his tenure was also characterized by day-to-day atrocities that attracted less notice. Wartime rhetoric regarding Hussein's "rape rooms," death by torture, decisions to slaughter the children of political enemies, and the casual machine-gunning of peaceful protesters accurately reflected the day-to-day policies of Saddam Hussein's regime. Hussein was no misunderstood despotic "madman." He was a monster, a butcher, a brutal tyrant, a genocidal racist - he was all of this and more.
But what this rhetoric does not reflect is that, until 1991, Saddam Hussein was allowed to commit his atrocities with the full support of the U.S. government. The specifics of the al-Anfal Campaign were no mystery to the Reagan administration, but the decision was made to support the genocidal Iraqi government over the pro-Soviet theocracy of Iran, even to the point of making ourselves complicit in crimes against humanity.
A friend once told me this story: An Orthodox Jewish man was being hassled by his rabbi for violating kosher law, but had never been caught in the act. One day, he was sitting inside a deli. His rabbi had pulled up outside, and through the window he observed the man eating a ham sandwich. The next time they saw each other, the rabbi pointed this out. The man asked: "You watched me the whole time?" The rabbi answered: "Yes." The man responded: "Well, then, I was observing kosher, because I acted under rabbinical supervision."
Saddam Hussein was unquestionably one of the most brutal dictators of the 20th century. History cannot even begin to record the full scale of his atrocities and the effect they had on those affected and the families of those affected. But his most horrific acts, including the al-Anfal genocide, were committed in full view of our government - the government that we present to the world as a shining beacon of human rights.
Make no mistake: The ouster of Saddam Hussein was a victory for human rights, and if there is any silver lining to come from the brutal Iraq War, it is that Hussein is no longer slaughtering and torturing his own people. But we should fully recognize that every indictment, every epithet, every moral condemnation we issue against Saddam Hussein also indicts us. We should all be ashamed of the atrocities that were committed under our leaders' noses, and with our leaders' blessing.