Saddam joined the pan-Arab nationalist Baath Party in 1957. Two years later, at the age of 22, Saddam was part of a Baathist plot to assassinate General Abdul Karim Kassem, who had overthrown the monarchy of King Faisal II a year before. Saddam escaped Iraq with a gunshot wound in the leg and spent the next six years in exile in Cairo where he had contacts with the CIA. The American spy agency was backing the Baathists at the time.
When the Baath Party took power in Iraq in 1968, Saddam was named Vice President to the aging General Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr and spent the next 11 years mastering the way the regime worked and consolidating his own power and popular support. He launched a popular literacy campaign across Iraq and made education more accessible. He modernized the health system and helped al-Bakr mastermind the nationalization of Iraq's oil resources, seizing petroleum rights from international companies. He also was instrumental in building up the Baath Party's all-pervasive network of informants to ensure loyalty and warn of coup plots. However, in 1979, when Al-Bakr proposed a federation with the neighboring Baathist regime of Syria, an agreement in which Syrian President Hafez Assad would become the heir apparent to a united Syria-Iraqi Baathist republic, Saddam acted. Al-Bakr was thrust out of office and Saddam assumed the presidency. In a single day, he had 68 Baath Party members arrested for disloyalty, 22 of whom were later hanged for treason.
As much as he knew how to manipulate power in Iraq through propaganda and government-sponsored terror, he was inept at international relations and diplomacy. His enemies abroad were myriad. Certainly, he and Assad's regime in Damascus were not friendly, despite the political genetics that linked their ruling parties. But he was also an enemy of Ayatullah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Iranian cleric who had fled the Shah's persecution and sought refuge in Iraq's holy Shi'a city of Najaf in 1965. Saddam did not make it a comfortable stay and Khomeini moved on to exile in Europe. When the Ayatollah became the supreme leader of Iran's Islamic revolutionary government in 1979, a clash was inevitable. In 1980, Saddam ordered the invasion of a southern province of Iran, sparking an eight-year war of attrition that ended in stalemate and the deaths of more than a million on both sides.
Even if Washington was happy to see Khomeini's Iran bogged down in a proxy war with Saddam's forces, the Iraqi dictator quickly disabused anyone who believed that he was the strongman to guarantee Middle East stability. In 1990, just three years after the costly Iran-Iraq war ground to a halt, Saddam, having built up one of the largest militaries in the region, decided to resolve tensions with Kuwait over oil rights and boundary lines by invading. But he underestimated the response from the international community and a U.S.-led multinational force routed his tank divisions. From 1991 until the U.S. invasion of March 2003, Iraq was under international sanctions and U.S. F-16s patrolled "no fly zones" in large portions of its northern and southern regions.
The second Gulf War drove Saddam from Baghdad and power and into the spider hole. In the interim, his Baathist apparatus and military were dismantled. His family dispersed. His heirs, the despicable Uday and Qusay, were killed while fugitives in Iraq. Two years after his arrest, Saddam was put on trial for war crimes before the newly re-constituted Iraqi High Tribunal. In November he was convicted of genocide for ordering the executions of 148 men and boys in response to a 1982 assassination attempt in the town of Dujail. The Dujail trial introduced witnesses and an extensive document trail that proved Saddam's personal hand in the collective punishment that followed the attempt on his life. His death comes in the middle of another trial that had Saddam and other key figures from his regime facing charges of launching chemical attacks against tens of thousands of Kurds in the late '80s. That trial will continue without Saddam as a defendant.
It is fitting that Saddam Hussein died, as many of his political opponents did, dangling from the end of a rope. He had used the gallows at Abu Ghraib to silence opposition and dissent. In doing so, he had controlled Iraq for over two decades, but he created a generation of enemies. And some of those enemies, who never forgot their fathers and brothers who disappeared in the night, were there to watch him die.
For many who watched it, the execution of Saddam Hussein was a personal vindication. He killed their brothers, uncles, tore apart their families and ran their beloved country into the ground. Even if his finger didn't pull the trigger, they blamed him for everything: every nail-biting visit by an intelligence officer, every midnight execution, every tongue cut out by a sadistic guard, every body in the mass graves at Hillah and Hawija and Musayeb. He projected absolute authority while he was in power and now faced absolute responsibility for every death under his rule. The moment the steel trap door below his feet was released, he suffered the absolute punishment a powerless old man, dying alone.