The monarchy’s collapse was followed by a decade of even greater instability, ending with a coup in 1968 by army officers linked to the Baathists, a pan-Arab socialist movement that opponents have described as neo-Fascist. A jubilant Saddam Hussein, 31, rode through Baghdad atop a tank. His kinsman, Gen. Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr, had led the coup and became president. Like Bakr, Hussein was from Tikrit, a Sunni town north of Baghdad that historically had fielded a disproportionate share of army officers. But Hussein did not come up through the military ranks in the usual way. After high school in Baghdad, he earned a living as a street tough for politicians, organizing gangs that disrupted opponents’ political rallies and beating up shopkeepers whose stores remained open during strikes. Hussein graduated to assassin and spent almost two years in prison and in exile for political murders or attempted killings.
But his ferocity and cunning had impressed General Bakr, who, as president, appointed him to run the national security apparatus. In that capacity he set out to eliminate his main rivals, and he placed relatives and fellow Tikritis in positions of power and influence in the Baath Party, the armed forces and the government. As Bakr’s power broker, Hussein nationalized foreign oil holdings in 1972, then accepted acclaim as Iraq’s annual oil revenues rose eight-fold, to $8 million over the next three years, then tripled over the next five. Hussein then oversaw state investments in education, health, transportation, agriculture and industry, drawing praise as a model for the Middle East.
When, in 1979, Hussein became president following Bakr’s “resignation”—Hussein almost certainly engineered it—many Iraqis thought he would lead them into prosperity. (Bakr died in 1982.) Instead, Hussein, after having his rivals killed, ruled despotically for nearly a quarter of a century, waging war on Iran (with American backing) and killing many thousands of Iraqis, including thousands of Kurds killed by chemical weapons. Hussein dragged his oil-rich, once-ascendent nation into poverty, and his pursuit of weapons of mass destruction put him on a collision course with the world’s lone superpower.