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The Pyramid of Skulls: How Saddam Hussein Came to Power

(February 20, 2003) When Genghis Khan's grandson, Hualagu Khan captured Baghdad in 1258, he used fear to strengthen his rule over Iraq by killing every poet, scholar, military, civic and religious leader in the city. Hualagu piled their heads into a pyramid of skulls, topped by the head of their former ruler, the last Abassid Caliph. And some seven centuries later, Saddam Hussein did much the same thing when he took over in Iraq. In his very first week in power he arrested, tortured and executed 450 of the most prominent Iraqis, those whom he feared might someday challenge his rule. Saddam called these crimes, in his own words, a means to "cleanse the nation" of factionalism.

Saddam Hussein was born in Tikrit, Iraq in 1937. His father is thought to have either died or abandoned the family while Saddam was still a young child. His stepfather, Ibrahim Hassan, a brutal and abusive man who made a living by stealing sheep, was Saddam's principal male influence wile growing up. When Saddam was caught stealing sheep, an uncle, Khayrallah Tulfah, took him away.

Khayrallah had been an army officer, but had been forced to resign due to his part in a pro-Nazi coup against the British-installed monarchy during World War II. Khayrallah put Saddam in school and later attempted to have him enrolled in the Military Academy. However, Saddam was refused entry into the academy because of his poor grades. A disgruntled Saddam soon joined the radical nationalist movement known as the Ba'ath.

At that time the Ba'ath had plans to take over power from King Faisal II. However, they were preempted in 1958 by a coup led by General Abdul Qassim. Upset at this, Qassim was killed by the Ba'ath in early 1959.They selected an assain by the name of Saddam Hussein. But during the ambush, and although Saddam sprayed many rounds from his machine gun, he failed to hit the general. Saddam was slightly wounded during the attempted assassination and immediately fled to Egypt.

During Saddam's four years in Egypt he was allowed to enter law school, but did not complete his studies. And then in 1963, Ba'ath officers in the army seized power in Baghdad. The torture and execution of General Qassim were shown on live television. Saddam was invited back to Iraq to be an interrogator at an infamous dungeon called the "Palace of the End." Saddam soon rose in rank to become the chief torturer in the basements of this former royal palace.

And then in 1964, nationalist army officers in Iraq overthrew the Ba'ath in a counter-coup. Saddam was imprisoned but then released due to the intervention by a cousin, General Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr. The general then promoted Saddam to deputy secretary general of the Ba'ath Party and aided him in creating the secret police force, the Jihaz Haneen. Saddam worked diligently to ensure that the Jihaz Haneen became loyal to only two things: Saddam and the Ba'ath, in that order.

Saddam soon became chief of internal security and deputy chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council, where he would play a major and bloody role in General al-Bakr's 1968 coup. During the next ten years Saddam was extremely effective, spying on, threatening or killing anyone who might challenge his cousin al-Bakr. Saddam also used that decade to build and extend his own power by the same bloody methods.

Saddam is quoted as having said that among his proudest accomplishments is his 1978 campaign. He says that he ordered the liquidation of 7,000 people on charges of being "communists." It was in 1978 when Saddam began to undermine the ailing president of Iraq. His first step was to convince his older cousin to resign. And in a rare moment of kindness, Saddam allowed the old general to announce that he was retiring due to bad health.

Once this was accomplished, six days later, Saddam called upon the party leadership to decide on the sucessor of al-Bakr as president of Iraq. But of course, Saddam had already decided who the next president would be.

The meeting of the Revolutionary Command Council on July 22, 1979, started with Saddam Hussein reading a list of enemies of the state. There was a stunned silence at the Command Council, as many of the men present were listed as enemies of the state. Included were trade union leaders and religious leaders who had actually helped to consolidate the Ba'ath power. As names were read from the list, each were arrested and taken away from the council meeting. Within mere hours 21 of the men that Saddam named were dead. Not only did Saddam order the executions, but he also personally participated in the murders.

Saddam's first "cleansing" of Iraq continued for a week. And by August 1, at least 450 of Iraq's most prominent men were dead. They included members of the Ba'ath party, union leaders, financiers, army officers, lawyers, judges, journalists, editors, professors, religious leaders, and leaders of most of the smaller parties and ethnic groups.

An international tribunal could easily prove that Saddam Hussein marched into power on a carpet of dead bodies. His regime was born in a bloodbath, and like other such regimes, more blood is destined to flow in order to stay in power. Even conservative reports by human rights organizations, United Nations commissioners and exiled Iraqis estimate that at least 1.5 million Iraqis have been killed to keep Saddam in power. The murdered include some 15,000 Kurds who were attacked to chemical attacks in 1988.

In 1258 Mongol invaders sacked and looted Baghdad for 40 days. According to Islamic chroniclers of the time, they reported that the streets ran with "rivers of blood." In those 40 days, more than 80,000 people died. Those rivers of blood created by Hualagu Khan eventually stopped flowing. Saddam Hussein started his "rivers of blood" in 1979 and the streams that feed it continue to flow into rivers.

Saddam's number of dead in Iraq represents almost one tenth of the population of that country. But then one should add the more than 500,000 soldiers and civilians that were killed or wounded during Saddam's eight-year war with Iraq. At least another 300,000 were killed when Saddam tried to absorb Kuwait in 1990-1991.

Following the Gulf War, in 1992, Saddam's regime was close to collapse when the Kurds, Shi'ites, "Marsh Arabs" and other desperate people rose in rebellion. The best of the Republican Guard had been kept out of the second Gulf War for just such an emergency. Saddam sent these units to crush the rebellions with murderous brutality -- the same brutality he had shown throughout his rise to power.

Saddam Hussein isn't the type of person who would deny that he kills people. When asked by a journalist if his police "have tortured and perhaps even killed opponents of the regime," Saddam responded in his outwardly calm manner, "Of course. What do you expect if they oppose the regime?"

Many, many thousands of refugees still fleeing Iraq report that death squads continue to hunt for Kurdish and other ethnic leaders. Iraqi secret police agents continuously purge the officer corps of suspected plotters. And it is Saddam's second son, Qusai, who leads that army of secret police.

In 1995, it was Qusai who lured his own brother-in-law back to Iraq and back to his own death. And in 1996, Qusai's agents summarily executed 96 members of the Iraqi Congress at Irbil. Many prominent Iraqis just disappear each week, never to be heard of again.

One Iraqi diplomat among hundreds who had served Saddam faithfully for many years learned that he was next on the list for elimination upon his return to Iraq. He decided not to return home, and applied for asylum in England. During an interview with BBC in November 1998, the former diplomat summarized Saddam's rise to power in one short sentence. "Saddam is a dictator who is ready to sacrifice his country, just so long as he can remain on his throne in Baghdad."
Seyyed Rasuli

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