When the Ba’ath seized power in 1963, he returned to Iraq but was soon imprisoned for another attempt to overthrow the regime. He escaped from prison in 1966 and was elected assistant general secretary of the Ba’ath.
Under the patronage of Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr, to whom he was related by blood, Hussein rose in power following the 1968 Ba’athist-led coup. In 1975 Hussein and Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi signed the Algiers Accord, which led to the Iran-Iraq Treaty of International Boundaries and Good Neighborliness, whereby the eastern portion of the Shatt al Arab was ceded to Iran. The agreements were a victory for Iran, and Hussein subsequently argued that Iraq had only signed under duress.
In 1979 Hussein ousted the ailing al-Bakr and assumed leadership of the Ba’ath Party and the nation. He emulated the Stalinist approach to government, establishing a totalitarian state based on a cult of personality.
He ruthlessly purged possible dissidents within the Ba’ath Party, closely controlled the media and communications systems, and had the populace—especially the youth—indoctrinated in loyalty to himself. Although not a professional soldier, Hussein often appeared in military uniform, and he curried favor with the army.
His regime was a secular one, and he closely monitored Shi’i clerics and Islamist movements. He appointed relatives and close associates from Tikrit to key government positions and demanded absolute loyalty. However, his regime also improved education, healthcare services, and the status of women.
Hussein initiated the Iran-Iraq War (1980–88) ostensibly to recover the Shatt al Arab but also to contain the Shi’i-led Iranian revolution. The resulting war of attrition led to massive human, military, and economic losses for both sides. Neighboring Arab nations in the Gulf and Saudi Arabia, fearing the export of the Iranian revolution, assisted Iraq with loans and aid.
From the Iraqi perspective the Arab regimes were paying for the war with money, and Iraq was paying with the blood of its soldiers. After the war Hussein downplayed his former secularism and adopted a more Islamic approach. He also launched major offensives, including the use of poison gas, against Kurdish forces in northern Iraq.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, a major ally, Iraq became more isolated and found it increasingly difficult to obtain loans or assistance to rebuild its war-torn economy.
Hussein also recognized the mounting hostility of his former Arab allies and resented the refusal of Kuwait to forgive wartime loans. He also accused Kuwait of illegally slant-drilling for petroleum into Iraq. In August 1990, he ordered the invasion of Kuwait.
Kuwait quickly fell to the Iraqi forces and was incorporated into Iraq. The international community, including the Arab world, condemned the invasion and after a month of massive aerial bombardment in the so-called First Gulf War, coalition forces, led by the United States, moved into Kuwait.
The Iraqi army crumbled and hastily retreated. The coalition established no-fly zones that essentially created an autonomous Kurdish region in the north.
However, Hussein crushed uprisings, especially among the large and disaffected Shi’i population in southern Iraq. Iraq managed to rebuild much of its infrastructure, and water and electricity services were restored to major cities.
In spite of a decade of international sanctions that resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of mostly civilian Iraqis, Hussein clung to power. International diplomacy and arms inspections resulted in the demilitarization and destruction of most of the Iraqi military arsenal, but although severely weakened, the military remained intact. Hussein’s sons Uday and Qusay became increasingly powerful during the 1990s, and their erratic behavior and violence terrorized those around them.
Saddam Hussein’s regime was overthrown in the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq (the Second Gulf War). As U.S. forces entered Baghdad many leaders of the regime, including Hussein and his sons, went into hiding. His sons were found and killed, and U.S. forces ultimately captured Hussein, who was then put on trial for crimes committed during his rule.
During the protracted trial, Hussein adopted a belligerent tone, maintaining that he was still the legitimate ruler of Iraq, but he was found guilty and executed. A new Iraqi regime was established, and the Ba’ath Party was banned from holding positions in government or schools.
The Iraqi army was also disbanded, but the nation continued to face tremendous economic and social problems as sectarian fighting broke out and massive opposition to foreign occupying forces erupted throughout much of the country.