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Q: I heard Saddam Hussein grew up in a mud hut with essentially no prospects. How did he rise to become leader of Iraq? What’s up with that?

A: What undoubtedly helped Saddam get a start in life was the influence of an uncle, Khairallah Talfah, an Iraqi army officer. After that, Saddam got ahead by allying himself with people who could do him good and being utterly ruthless toward rivals.

Saddam was born on April 28, 1937, in lowly circumstances. His family were landless peasants and he lived his earliest years in an impoverished village on the outskirts of Tikrit.

His father disappeared from the scene when he was a baby and his mother married a man named Hassan Ibrahim, nicknamed “Hassan the Liar,” who beat him and forced him to steal.

A turning point came when at age 10 he fled to Tikrit to live with Khairallah, an Arab nationalist who had participated in an unsuccessful uprising against the government and was newly released from prison.

Khairallah gave his nephew encouragement and enrolled him in school. In the fall of 1955, having graduated from primary school, Saddam followed his uncle to Baghdad and enrolled in high school. It was a politically exciting time of demonstrations and riots against the government of Premier Nuri al-Said, which critics saw as too pro-British and not sufficiently Arab nationalist.

Saddam made another fateful decision by joining the Ba’ath party, an anti-British political group, many of whose members were Baghdad Sunni Arabs such as Saddam’s uncle.

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