In one of his first acts as Iraqi president in 1979, Saddam Hussein stood the accuser, not the accused.
Puffing on a cigar, he ordered the removal of more than 20 members of Iraq's top legislative body, the Revolutionary Command Council, during a televised meeting. He called them spies and watched as a spotlight followed each being taken away to face execution.
To those officials who cried out their innocence, Saddam shouted, "Itla! Itla!"
No trial, no judge, no defense. Iraqis would remember it as "the night of the long knives," wrote Saddam biographer Sandra Mackey in her book "The Reckoning."
Saddam now awaits his reckoning, as a tribunal this week begins weighing charges against him and seven other defendants in connection with the 1982 massacre of Shiites in a village north of Baghdad.
For Saddam, 68—born into squalor and given a first name that means "he who confronts"—the trial will be yet another test of survival against the longest of odds.
"He has the most traumatized background of any leader I've profiled," said Jerrold Post, a former CIA profiler and author of "Leaders and Their Followers in a Dangerous World."
"His history of defiance—`I'm going to get you before you get me'—has managed to get him points in the Arab world for standing up against a superior force."
As a warrior, however, he proved time and again to be stubbornly self-destructive:
_His 1980 incursion into neighboring Iran, over a border waterway dispute, led to an eight-year war that reached no conclusive result.
The conflict devastated Iraq's once-vibrant economy and cost 1.5 million lives on both sides. At least 5,000 died when Saddam allegedly ordered poison gas dumped on the Kurdish town of Halabja, in northern Iraq, to punish his own countrymen for helping Iran.
_His 1990 invasion of oil-rich Kuwait spurred an international coalition, led by the United States, to drive his troops out with relative ease.
In Saddam's bid to crush uprisings after the Persian Gulf War, his troops are thought to have killed as many as 300,000 Iraqis.
_Accused of stockpiling weapons in the years that followed, he met the impending U.S. invasion of 2003 with characteristic defiance, pledging: "If they come, we are ready. ... We will never surrender."
Only to be pulled out of a hole near his hometown that December, a scruffy ex-tyrant of a nation ruined by war.
Saddam was born in a mud hut outside Tikrit, in north-central Iraq, when the country was governed by a monarchy planted by the British.
Little is known of his father, a peasant who died shortly before Saddam's birth, Post said. The only known employment of Saddam's mother was as a clairvoyant, according to some biographies.
A stepfather purportedly kept Saddam out of school and whacked him with an asphalt-covered stick.
Sent to live with other relatives at age 10, Saddam was mentored by an uncle, Khairallah Tulfah—Arab nationalist, Nazi sympathizer and author of a political booklet trashing "Persians, Jews and Flies."
Said profiler Post: "Most people by this time would be so wounded, they couldn't do anything with their lives. But his uncle filled Saddam with dreams of glory."
At 19, Saddam joined the Arab Baath Socialist Party—then a tiny group whose brochures called for Arab unity and independence from Western colonialism.
The party would soon tap him to provide armed cover in an unsuccessful plot to kill Iraq's leader.
Wounded, Saddam fled to Syria and then to Egypt, where he studied law at the University of Cairo and spent his only years outside Iraq. Returning to his native land, Saddam and other Baath nationalists did prison time before a bloodless 1968 coup brought their wing to power.
His cousin became president, and Saddam appeared content to play the patient No. 2 man behind a small, tidy desk.
A booming oil economy and the Baathists' brand of secular socialism brought a surge of new roads, hospitals and schools. Shortly following Saddam's rise to head of state in 1980, some saw the well-dressed, 44-year-old leader as a promising bridge between radical Arab states and the more developed nations of the Persian Gulf.
Two months later, however, he broke from a treaty and ordered troops into Ayatollah Khomeini's Iran. Iraq won quiet U.S. support, even though Saddam allegedly resorted to using mustard gas and nerve agents on his own people in one of the longest conventional wars of the 20th century.
The ink had barely dried on U.N.-brokered cease-fire when Saddam's forces invaded Kuwait in 1990, prompting a wave of U.N. sanctions that would handcuff the Iraqi economy for years.
With every setback to a nation already cleaved by deep tribal animosities, the increasingly paranoid Saddam, a Sunni, tightened his grip.
The number of victims missing as a result of atrocities during his quarter-century rule is estimated between 300,000 and 1.3 million, according to various sources.
The U.S. State Department says torture involved medical experimentation, rape committed while a victim's spouse watched, and scorpions used to sting naked children in front of their parents. Saddam also is believed to have ordered at least two sons-in-law killed.
By many accounts, bodyguards shuttled him from palace bunker to palace bunker to keep enemies wondering about his whereabouts. He reportedly relied on a cadre of body doubles to make public appearances.
All the while, government music videos on Iraqi TV portrayed the leader as "spreading his love equally among all of us. ... With him at home there is no fear."
But his long hiding after the 2003 invasion, ending in his capture from a spider hole, signaled a desperate vanity that surprised many of his Arab supporters.
After a lifetime of defiance, Saddam would die trying to defend his honor and his nation's sovereignty from U.S. invaders, they thought, not pop up from a hole in the ground with his hands raised.
Saddam's trial is scheduled to begin Wednesday.
(Montgomery reports for The Kansas City Star.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Saddam Hussein
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