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A dictator's Mideast legacy

What lessons will region take from Hussein's rule?

The execution of Saddam Hussein was a subdued finale for a man whose merciless rule shaped the course of Middle East history for a quarter century.

Mr. Hussein may be gone, but his legacy lives on in the ethnic and religious conflict undermining a nation that he held together through fear. His attacks on nearby countries – Iran, Kuwait, and Israel – won widespread condemnation and, ultimately, little reward.

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While the architects of the Iraq war hoped his ouster would help spread Western-style democracy in the region, violence in Iraq has grown so bad that recent polls say most Iraqis believe life was better under Hussein.

It remains to be seen whether the lesson of his life will be the end of brutal dictatorships in the region or whether current unrest in Iraq will bolster Middle Eastern autocrats and increase resistance to democratic reforms.

"The downfall of Saddam and its aftershocks only empowered the regimes of the Middle East," says Sami Moubayed, a Syrian political analyst. "Leaders can now say 'Look to Iraq. This is what the Americans will bring.' By failing in Iraq, the Americans actually did democracy a great disservice."

While democracy may have yet to flower in the Arab world, the seeds have been sown, other analysts say, with the Hussein experience in Iraq serving as a stark warning of the consequences should the long-term reform effort falter or fail.

"I do believe that the Middle East is coming to a conclusion and learning from the Saddam lesson," says Shafeeq Ghabra, a Kuwaiti professor of politics and president of Jusoor Arabiya Leadership and Consultancy Company.

"Yet the learning is not as quick and fast as one would like. It will take time for the region to understand that era and go beyond it to an era of pluralism and development where people can express themselves without fear," he says.

Hussein's ambition and sense of self-destiny combined with impulsive and vengeful acts propelled Iraq into a series of disasters that has left an indelible mark on the region.

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"He was a catalyst, he made things happen and usually they were not positive and constructive, but he constantly kept the Middle East in a state of turmoil," says Gary Sick, executive director of the GULF 2000 project and professor of international affairs at Columbia University in New York.

Hussein's rise to absolute power began in 1968 when he participated in a bloodless coup that saw his cousin Ahmad al-Hassan al-Bakr become president. In the 1970s, Hussein, who gradually came to overshadow the president, led an economic modernization program, funded by the proceeds of the 1973 oil boom.

He also helped forge a sense of national unity rooted in Baath Party ideology, overcoming Iraq's diverse ethnic and sectarian composition. "He was able to bring to Iraq a sense of development for a period.... Then it was all destroyed year after year with adventurous decisions," says Professor Ghabra.

Hussein pushed aside the ailing Bakr and became president in 1979, the same year that Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was toppled in neighboring Iran by the Islamic revolution that brought Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to power.

The rise of a militant Shiite theocracy in Iran alarmed the Sunni Arab states. Hussein, fearing Khomeini's influence over Iraq's restless Shiites and tacitly backed by his Sunni Gulf neighbors, invaded Iran in 1980, setting in motion a devastating eight-year war that cost hundreds of thousands of lives.

Hussein intended to smash the disorganized fledgling Islamic regime in Iran, an act that would confirm his leadership of the Arab world and earn the gratitude of his neighbors. But the war was to have the unintended consequence of strengthening Mr. Khomeini's rule.

"It forced the Islamic revolution to get out of its zealous craziness and begin to organize itself and pull itself together," says Professor Sick, an Iran specialist. "In a way, Saddam stabilized the Iranian revolution and kept the mullahs in power."

The conflict also triggered an alliance between Iran and Iraq's archenemy, Syria, which was ruled by a rival branch of the Baath Party. The Iranian-Syrian relationship has proved enduring, and in the past year has further strengthened to become one of the region's most significant geo-strategic alignments.

When the Gulf War ended in 1988, the Iraqi economy was in ruins with some $75 billion owed to Iraq's Arab nation backers. Relations between Iraq and Kuwait steadily deteriorated over the next two years with the latter's refusal to forgive the war debt and cut oil production to raise revenues for Iraq.

A bitter Hussein sent his war-weary army into Kuwait in 1990, triggering a fresh convulsion in the Middle East. The US assembled a coalition of Arab and European allies to remove Iraqi forces from Kuwait. This Gulf war also marked the beginning of a prolonged US military deployment in Saudi Arabia, which would later be used by Osama bin Laden to partly justify his anti-American actions, culminating in 9/11.

The UN sanctions against Iraq during the 1990s, the most severe ever against any country, devastated an already weakened economy, but failed to bring down Hussein's regime.

Although the 2003 invasion of Iraq finally ended Hussein's tyrannical rule, its aftermath has turned Iraq into a byword of sectarian violence.

Although Hussein is dismissed by most Arabs as a tyrant who ran a regime of unmitigated brutality and greed, some regard him as a champion of Arab steadfastness against American "imperialism" and Israeli aggression.

The mock funerals in the West Bank Sunday testified to Hussein's lingering support among Palestinians. Hussein adopted the Palestinian cause as a cornerstone of his foreign policy, dispensing millions of dollars to armed Palestinian groups. Analysts say Hussein manipulated the plight of the Palestinians to curry popularity and burnish his Arabist credentials. "You can't judge the Palestinians by their reaction [to Hussein's death]," says Sateh Noureddine, columnist with Lebanon's As-Safir newspaper. "They are a desperate people looking for any sign of support from anyone. Saddam was a tyrant, and there was nothing positive from his era."