This Day In History: July 22

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Former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s sons, Qusay and Uday Hussein, are killed after a three-hour firefight with U.S. forces in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. It is widely believed that the two men were even more cruel and ruthless than their notorious father, and their death was celebrated among many Iraqis. Uday and Qusay were 39 and 37 years old, respectively, when they died. Both were said to have amassed considerable fortunes through their participation in illegal oil smuggling.

Uday Hussein, as Saddam’s first-born son, was the natural choice to succeed the feared despot. But even the seemingly amoral Saddam took issue with Uday’s extravagant lifestyle—he is said to have personally owned hundreds of cars—and lack of personal discipline. After Uday bludgeoned and stabbed one of Saddam’s favorite attendants to death at a 1988 party, Saddam briefly had him imprisoned and beaten.

While Saddam began to favor his second son Qusay, Uday continued to make a name for himself among the Iraqi people for his sadism and cruelty. Prone to beating and torturing his servants and anyone else who displeased him, he was known to spend time studying new torture devices and methods to improve his technique. He even treated his so-called friends poorly—in one report, he forced some to drink dangerous amounts of alcohol purely for his amusement. Uday was also a man of unrestrained sexual appetites, sleeping with several women per night up to five nights a week. He was known for raping young women—some as young as 12—whom he found attractive, threatening their and their families’ lives if they complained or spoke out against the crime. He would sometimes torture and kill his victims after sex.

Uday held several jobs during his father’s regime, most notably publishing the most widely read newspaper in the country and heading Iraq’s Olympic Committee. In that position, he is known to have beaten athletes whom he felt did not perform up to expectations. He was also the head of the Fedayeen Saddam, one of his father’s security groups. In 1996, Uday was shot while driving in his car. Though never proven, it has been speculated that his brother Qusay may have been behind the assassination attempt. The incident caused him to suffer a stroke and, despite surgery, left a bullet lodged in his spine. Although he recovered most function, it is said that Uday lived with considerable pain for the rest of his life, which may have exacerbated his sadistic tendencies. The weakness he experienced after the shooting may also have contributed to his father’s growing doubts about his suitability as a successor.

At the same time, Qusay was earning Saddam’s trust. Married with four children, Qusay was said to be less sadistic than his brother, but was still a cold and ruthless killer who was much feared throughout the country. While Uday often bragged about his excesses and violent exploits, Qusay was known to intentionally keep a much lower profile. He worshipped his father and worked hard to impress him. After he proved himself by brutally repressing the Shi’ite uprisings that occurred after the 1991 Gulf War—even doing some of the killing himself—Saddam rewarded Qusay with a series of more responsible posts, including command of Iraq’s elite fighting force, the Republican Guard, and the Special Security Organization, Iraq’s secret police. By that time, it had become clear that Qusay had replaced his brother as Saddam’s likely heir.

Despite Qusay’s superior reputation, observers noted with interest that Uday’s Fedayeen Saddam actually outperformed the Qusay-led Republican Guard during the United States’ 2003 invasion of Iraq. Qusay proved to be an ineffective leader, showing fear and often second-guessing his own decisions. After the invasion, both brothers went into hiding and the U.S. government posted a $15 million reward for information leading to the discovery of either man’s location. Though it was widely speculated that they would not be found together because of their mutual enmity, an informant’s tip led U.S. Special Forces to a house in which they were both staying on July 22, 2003. 

After drawing fire, the soldiers withdrew, until receiving backup in the form of 100 troops from the 101st Airborne division and armed OH-58D Kiowa Warrior helicopters. A battle ensued, after which Americans entered the house and found the bodies of the two brothers, as well as that of Qusay’s 14-year-old son. They were buried in a cemetery near the city of Tikrit, their father’s birthplace.

In the wake of their deaths, the American government drew criticism for releasing pictures of Uday’s and Qusay’s lifeless bodies, but insisted the move was necessary to convince the skeptical Iraqi people that the long-feared brothers were truly dead. About five months later, on December 13, 2003, their father, who also went into hiding after the U.S. invasion, was found and captured alive by American forces. His trial by special tribunal for multiple crimes committed during his reign began in October 2005. On November 5, 2006, he was found guilty of crimes against humanity and sentenced to death by hanging. After an unsuccessful appeal, Hussein was executed on December 30, 2006.