Saddam's reign leaves destruction behind - East Valley Tribune: Nation / World

Saddam's reign leaves destruction behind

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Posted: Friday, December 29, 2006 7:44 pm | Updated: 2:30 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

CAIRO, Egypt -- Saddam Hussein boasted of being the "builder of modern Iraq." Iraqis are likely to remember his reign much differently. Even before the U.S.-led invasion to oust him, Iraq's economy was in tatters after decades of wars and U.N. sanctions, its people cowed by a dictator's brutality.

Before Saddam led his people into the disastrous 1980-88 war with Iran and the 1990 invasion of Kuwait - which led to the Gulf War - Iraq was the envy of the Arab world.

During the 1970s oil boom, Saddam's Baath Party envisioned a country ruled by Arab socialism.

As deputy chairman of the ruling Revolutionary Command Council, Saddam headed an economic planning council that oversaw the building of vast industrial plants, huge housing projects, eight-lane highways, bridges, airports, universities and communication systems.

His name and the slogan "builder of modern Iraq" adorned streets across Iraq as well as airports and new towns. He even ordered his name inscribed on stones in reconstructed monuments in ancient cities like Babylon, alongside those of the kings Hammurabi and Nebuchadnezzar.

The building spree was paid for with earnings from the country's oil reserves, second largest in the world after Saudi Arabia's. From 1970 to 1974, revenues from oil exports increased from $896 million to $7.6 billion.

"People overlooked their political deprivation and lack of participation, they only saw buildings sprouting here and there," said Iraqi economist Ghanim Hamdoun, who researched Iraq's 1970s economic experiment.

Under Saddam, imprisonment or summary execution of political foes was common. Political parties, unions and civic groups not controlled by Baathists were banned. Traditional bonds were reshaped to support a one-party state.

Millions of Iraqis, though, were able for the first time in their lives to wear designer clothes and vacation in London, Madrid or Paris. Others started tasting imported foods and driving Japanese, German or French cars - all at government subsidized prices.

Baghdad was a hub for Arab writers and artists who gathered at annual festivals. An Iraq-based foreign development fund provided economic aid to poor nations in Africa.

Tens of thousands of young Iraqis were sent to colleges in the West on state scholarships.

"Saddam seemed to be building an empire and only waiting to declare himself its emperor," said Hamdoun.

But the oil boom also ushered in an era of heavy-handed, centralized decision-making. In the 1975 state budget some $13.7 billion, or 27 percent of public expenditures, went to the army, police and other security forces.

Saddam suppressed opponents at home and embarked on military adventures abroad.

His 1980 invasion of Iran, portrayed as a fight against the Persians on behalf of all Arabs, set off an eight-year war that drained Iraq's economy and killed hundreds of thousands on both sides.

Weary soldiers returned home to few or no jobs. Soon the regime found itself in the throes of deep crisis. Iraqis protested the presence of millions of Arab workers, mainly Egyptians, brought by Saddam to run the factories, construction projects and farms while Iraqis were away fighting Iran.

With the decline in oil prices, the economy stagnated. Funds were slashed for development and imported Western goods. Saddam, desperately in need of cash, demanded that Kuwait and Saudi Arabia forgive debts incurred in the long war with Iran.

When Kuwait refused, Saddam accused his neighbor of stealing Iraq's oil through wells pumped under the two countries' border. Claiming Kuwait was historically an Iraqi province, he invaded on Aug. 2, 1990.

The invasion brought the Gulf War, as well as U.N. sanctions that remained in place until the 2003 invasion and further strangled Iraq's economy.

Wahid Abdel Meguid, deputy director of Cairo's Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, said Iraq will need decades to recover from Saddam.

"Saddam leaves behind misery and destruction everywhere," he said. "It is a society imbued with fear."

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