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Rathole Under the Palace

Grandiosity and defiance cloaked the pain and fear bred in Hussein

December 21, 2003|Jerrold M. Post | Jerrold M. Post directs the political psychology program at George Washington University. He was founding director of the CIA's Center for the Analysis of Personality and Political Behavior. His most recent book is "The Psychological Assessment of Political Leaders."

WASHINGTON — How ironic that it should have come to this: Saddam Hussein, who began life in a mud hut near Tikrit, has now ended his political career in a hole in the ground beneath a mud hut near Tikrit. But considering Hussein's psychological makeup, his end was, if not inevitable, certainly fitting.

The dictator was born in 1937 to a poor peasant family near Tikrit, some 100 miles north of Baghdad. But the central lines of the development of Hussein's political personality were etched before he was born. His father died of an "internal disease" (probably cancer) while his mother, Sabha, was pregnant with Hussein. A few months later, during his mother's eighth month of pregnancy, Hussein's 12-year-old brother died of childhood cancer. Devastated and destitute, Hussein's mother attempted suicide. A Jewish family saved her. Then she tried to self-abort but was again prevented from doing this by her Jewish benefactors.

After Hussein was born, on April 28, his mother did not wish to see him, which strongly suggests that she was suffering from a major depression. His care was relegated to Sabha's brother in Tikrit, Khayrallah Talfah Msallat, in whose home Hussein spent much of his early childhood. At age 3, Hussein was reunited with his mother, who had married a distant relative, Hajj Ibrahim Hasan. His stepfather reportedly was abusive psychologically and physically to the young Hussein.

The first several years of life are crucial to the development of healthy self-esteem, and so the failure of Hussein's mother to nurture and bond with her infant son and the subsequent abuse at the hands of his stepfather would have profoundly wounded his emerging self-esteem, impairing his capacity for empathy with others. One course in the face of such traumatizing experiences is to sink into despair, passivity and hopelessness. But another is to etch a psychological template of compensatory grandiosity, as if to vow, "Never again, never again shall I submit to superior force." This was the developmental psychological path Hussein followed.

From his early years, Hussein, whose first name, Saddam, means "the one who confronts," charted his own course and would not accept limits. According to his semiofficial biography, when he was 10, Hussein was impressed by a visit from his cousin who knew how to read and write. He confronted his family with his wish to become educated, and when they turned him down because there was no school in his parents' village, he left home in the middle of the night, making his way to his maternal uncle Khayrallah in Tikrit to study there.

Khayrallah tutored his young charge in his view of Arab history and the ideology of nationalism and the Ba'ath Party, eventually facilitating Hussein's secondary schooling in Baghdad at a school known for teaching an inflammatory brand of Arab nationalism. He inspired his young charge with "dreams of glory," telling Hussein that he was destined to play an important role in Iraqi history, following the path of heroic relatives and of heroes of the radical Arab world.

When Hussein went to Baghdad to attend high school, the streets were aflame with revolutionary fervor, for Gamal Abdel Nasser had just taken over the reins of Egypt in a military coup. Hussein idolized Nasser and aspired to one day succeed him as pan-Arab nationalist leader. After joining the Ba'ath Party at 20, Hussein had ambitions to rise, and he did, moving from street thug to strategist to leader. But no matter how grandiose a life a person like Hussein constructs -- and he built for himself as lavish a life as is possible, creating a cult of personality in Iraq, dotting the landscape with opulent palaces -- the well of pain and insecurity caused by early wounds can never be filled.

In Hussein's case, his strong desire to never again be humiliated and abused fueled an intense rage. The stories of his cruelty are legion. An example: In 1982, when the war with Iran was going very badly for Iraq and Hussein wished to terminate hostilities, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who was personally fixated on Hussein, insisted there could be no peace until Hussein was removed from power. At a cabinet meeting, Hussein asked his ministers to candidly give their advice, and the minister of health suggested Hussein temporarily step down, to resume the presidency after peace had been established. Hussein reportedly thanked him for his candor and then ordered his arrest. When the minister's wife pleaded for her husband's return, indicating that her husband had always been loyal to Hussein, the dictator promised her that her husband would be returned. The next day, he returned her husband's body to her in a black canvas bag, chopped into pieces.

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