Saddam Hussein first came to the attention of most Americans in 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait.
Early the next year, American, French and British war planes bombed Iraq for weeks. The world had joined forces to defeat Saddam Hussein and soon victory was at hand.
But the Persian Gulf War was not America's first encounter with Saddam.
Saddam Hussein was born dirt poor in 1937 in a small Sunni town outside Tikrit. Even after a rise to power marked by unbridled cruelty, the Iraqi dictator was considered a U.S. ally of sorts. In 1980 he declared war against his neighbor Iran and at the time, any enemy of Iran was a friend of ours. That's the way it started, anyway, for us and Saddam.
"Donald Rumsfeld famously visited him and there were other kinds of collaboration because we were so fearful of the Iranians after they were taken over by the Ayatollah Khomeini and this extreme version of Islam, not just in terms of capturing our diplomats but in terms of wanting to export revolution," CBS News consultant Michael O'Hanlon, senior fellow in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution, told The Early Show co-anchor Harry Smith. "So Saddam was seen as the lesser of two evils and so we did this very Machiavellian calculation that it was better to support him than to allow Iran to go forward."
When the Gulf War ended in 1991, Saddam was allowed to remain in power. But with severe limitations: U.S. war planes flew non-stop missions over Iraq to deny Saddam the ability to attack fellow Iraqis who opposed him. And the UN ordered him to use Iraqi oil money for badly needed food and medicine. Not weapons. But while Iraqis suffered, Saddam got rich selling oil on the black market, and used the money to build huge mosques and palaces — tributes to God and himself.
Saddam Hussein was defiant but contained and this might have gone on for years had Sept. 11 not happened.
"There would have been an argument that Saddam needed to be confronted but it would have been a much harder argument to make without 9/11 and I'm not sure that President Bush would have staked his presidency on an invasion of Iraq if it hadn't been for the tragedy of 9/11," O'Hanlon said.
But the old dictator had no nukes, had no deadly gas, and the minute U.S. forces knocked down his statue, America inherited the decades of hatred Saddam had sown between Sunni and Shia and Kurds. By the time Saddam had been found in a hole in the ground nine months into the war, a full blown insurgency was spinning quickly out of control and has only gotten worse.
"At this point U.S. intelligence estimates more than 1,000 foreign Jihadists are in Iraq and they are carrying out some of the most violent acts," O'Hanlon said.
Even as Saddam ranted in the courtroom against the U.S. and the legal proceedings that would lead to his conviction and execution, civilian casualties mounted. And in a country rife with conflict, Saddam Hussein's execution seems not so much a flashpoint of renewed violence, but a morbid footnote for a man for whom death was a way of life.
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