| Portraits of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in Baghdad. (Reuters)
Dubai, April 9 (Reuters): Saddam Hussein remained elusive to the last.
US Marines moved into his capital and the jubilant residents of Baghdad attacked the symbols of his 24-year-long iron rule. But the man portrayed by many Western governments as evil incarnate was nowhere to be seen.
The US bombed buildings where it thought Saddam was sheltering during its 21-day pounding to rid Iraq of its alleged weapons of mass destruction — and the man who sought them to further his quest for regional dominance.
But Washington still does not know whether Saddam is dead or alive.
Saddam has the sharpest survival instincts of any leader, using body doubles and rarely sleeping in the same bed twice.
He has lived through wars against him, uprisings, coup plots and assassination attempts.
Still a hero to some Arabs for his defiance of the US and Israel, Saddam is demonised today by some of the Western powers that armed and supported him in the 1980s as a bulwark against the Islamic revolution in Iran.
Bush accused the 65-year-old Iraqi leader of defying UN demands to abandon banned chemical, biological, nuclear and ballistic weapons programmes. He said Saddam had links to Osama bin Laden’s al Qaida network and posed a deadly threat to the region, the West and his own people.
Saddam said he no longer had prohibited weapons and scorned the idea that his anti-Islamist Baathist government was secretly in league with bin Laden’s militant conspirators. US forces have so far found no banned weapons in Iraq.
Iraq’s Muslim neighbours believed that Saddam’s once-vaunted military, crushed in the 1991 Gulf War and further weakened by more than 12 years of UN sanctions, was a paper tiger.
They feared that Iraq might fall apart without Saddam’s iron grip, spreading instability across a volatile West Asia where many governments could face challenges to their legitimacy. Saddam Hussein’s personality cult pervaded Iraq.
His craggy face stared from countless heroic portraits and statues, many now toppled by Iraqis and invading US and British forces.
They portrayed him as a new Nebuchadnezzar or Saladin. Others showed him in a white suit, military uniform, tribal costume, Kurdish dress, even a Bavarian hunting outfit.
Saddam, whose name means “collider”, was the face of Iraq.
Known to admire former Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, Saddam was no ideologue, but readily appealed to Arab nationalism, Islam or Iraqi patriotism to cement his personal power.
His global fame was partly due to Bush’s determination to go after “the man who tried to kill my dad” — a reference to an alleged Iraqi plot to assassinate Bush senior in Kuwait in 1993.
Saddam led Iraq into two disastrous wars, with Iran from 1980 to 1988, and with a US-led coalition that expelled Iraqi troops from Kuwait in 1991 after a seven-month occupation.
His disputes with the UN over disarmament helped keep crippling UN sanctions in place since 1990.
UN arms inspectors withdrew in December 1998, after seven years of cat-and-mouse games with the Iraqis. A US-British bombing blitz ensued and Iraq did not let the inspectors back until November, when the UN Security Council gave Saddam a final opportunity to disarm or face “serious consequences”.
Saddam lost control of the Kurdish-held north in 1991, but his grip on power, buttressed by overlapping security agencies and murky clan, tribe and patronage networks, remained strong until this month.
He had outlasted foes ranging from Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to Bush’s father, former President George Bush. And in an October 2002 referendum, the entire electorate voted to give Saddam another seven years in power, his officials said.
Saddam was born on April 28, 1937, according to his official biography, in the village of al Awja, near the poor and violent town of Tikrit, 175 km north of Baghdad.
His two sons, Uday and Qusay, seemed as ruthless as their father.
Uday, who has a history of violence, nearly died in an assassination attempt in 1996.
Qusay ran the Special Security Organisation that protected the president, and commanded the 15,000-strong Special Republican Guard, the troops most loyal to Saddam.