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Inside Saddam’s Head

12 minute read
Johanna Mcgeary

Saddam Hussein–supposing that was he on the grainy videotape aired last week barely three hours after the opening salvo intended to kill him–hardly seemed himself. Pictured alone in a cramped makeshift studio, the dictator, 65, looked shaken and tired, his face puffy behind big spectacles he rarely wears in public. His words, rambling and repetitive, were read from scribbled notes on a large pad held in a hand more often seen brandishing a rifle. In that context, his characteristic call to Iraqis to “draw your sword” to defeat “little, evil Bush” sounded like the recoil of a man just hit by a thunderclap of reality.

During nearly 24 years in power, Iraq’s strongman never seemed to believe he might face a moment like this. He has always been preternaturally good at dispatching his enemies before they could get to him. And he plans ahead. Beneath the opulent marble palaces from which he has ruled, he built deep concrete bunkers reinforced with steel, stocked with weapons and linked to underground escape tunnels–the architectural metaphor for a dictatorship whose grandiose facade has rested on a foundation of insecurity. As U.S. bombs blasted apart those last-resort fortifications, even Saddam presumably had to take U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld seriously when he declared, “The days of the Saddam Hussein regime are numbered.”

How did Iraq’s tenacious leader arrive at this pass? Saddam, after all, built a spectacular career out of survival. Perhaps his luck simply ran out: in the current President Bush, he may have met an adversary even more single-mindedly determined than he is. Still, Saddam could have saved his regime by coming completely clean on his weapons-of-mass-destruction program. He could have saved himself by giving up political power. Other modern strongmen staring at a similar fate, from the Shah of Iran to Congo’s Mobutu Sese Seko, have done it, and Saddam was suspected of stashing away enough secret wealth to make it easy. But he did not, and the reasons lie very much in his own biography.

War was surely not Saddam’s choice. He played his diplomatic cards as cunningly as he could to avoid it. But that was as far as he could go. Forsaking unconventional weapons, from his point of view, would have invited his own demise. His obsession with them seems inexplicable to many minds, but it made sense in Saddam’s. The weapons, symbolizing Iraq’s prowess, are what sustained his claims to grandeur. They made him a feared player on the world stage and earned him dominance among regional rivals. They were crucial to keeping domestic opposition in check–no Iraqi forgets that Saddam sprayed poison gas on rebellious Kurds in the late ’80s. And Saddam believed that possession of those toxic weapons forestalled defeat in his war with Iran and later saved his regime at the end of Gulf War I.

As a new war approached, Saddam appeared each night on national TV, puffing on a Havana cigar as he assured his people over and over that Iraq would emerge victorious. He exuded confidence. That might seem crazy, given the firepower ranged against him. Yet Saddam was lucid enough to know his military was no match for U.S. might. His emphasis was always on symbolic victory, on winning wars in political terms. Never mind that his forces were routed in Kuwait in 1991. He still deemed what he called the “mother of battles” a great Iraqi victory because he heroically resisted the attack by 40 nations and stayed in power. He got away with the brutal suppression of a postwar rebellion that flared in 14 of 18 Iraqi provinces while the first Bush Administration stood back. He made defiance a pillar of his power. “Saddam sees himself as a lone figure, battling the greatest power on earth,” says Dr. Jerrold Post, a psychiatrist who has profiled the Iraqi leader for the CIA. Saddam felt, as did many others in the Arab world, that he had “won” the first Gulf War by not losing everything.

So Saddam may well have thought he could win in similar terms again. “He always thinks he has a chance of beating the odds,” says one of Russia’s longtime official Iraq watchers. His long tenure has meant decades of overcoming formidable obstacles, including his own blunders. During Saddam’s February interview with Dan Rather, the CBS anchorman said he presumed it was the last time the two would meet. Saddam replied that Rather had said the same thing before the first Gulf War.

Even in fighting the U.S. a second time, Saddam may have sensed an opportunity for survival. He apparently was convinced, just as he had been a decade ago, that the U.S. could not stomach casualties, so his strategy was the same–betting that a heavy body count of U.S. soldiers and Iraqi civilians would drive Western public opinion to demand a cease-fire. Not that he has shown concern about the deaths of his people. The Pentagon claims Saddam had tailors stitch up 15,000 British and American uniforms so that disguised Iraqi troops could attack Iraqi civilians, allowing Saddam to blame the allies. The enormous antiwar demonstrations in the West prior to the fighting may have emboldened Saddam into thinking the Americans could be made to fold.

Saddam long ago learned how to keep power, no matter what the cost. It wasn’t just ferocious ambition that drove him from shepherd to dictator by age 42. His Darwinian outlook took root among the clan machinations of his native Tikrit, during the years when Arab nationalism began to flower. Freud would have had a field day with Saddam’s tortured relationships with his family, including, Post says, a suicidal mother who tried to abort him. Saddam’s father died before he was born, and after his mother married a man who brutalized Saddam, the illiterate 10-year-old went to live with his maternal uncle Khairallah Talfah, an ardent nationalist and embittered former army officer who came out on the losing side during a 1941 struggle for power in Baghdad. It was then that Saddam’s formative education began. Talfah spoon-fed the impressionable youth with his grudge against the West and his dreams of Arab glory.

Naked force and utter ruthlessness were Saddam’s preferred methods for staying atop his country’s turbulent politics. From the day Saddam at age 20 launched his career as a gunman for the nationalist Baath Party, he knew what it meant to be in an enemy’s cross hairs. When Iraq’s military toppled the monarchy in 1958, mobs dragged the mutilated bodies of the regent and Prime Minister through Baghdad’s streets and hanged them from city gates. Saddam himself tried–but failed–to assassinate the leader of the coup, Abdul Karim Qaseem. And when Baath plotters did murder Qaseem five years later, his bullet-riddled corpse was shown to the nation on Iraqi TV.

Those experiences taught Saddam that politics was a no-holds-barred struggle for survival amid a ceaseless threat of plots, feuding and betrayal. He rose swiftly in the Baath Party by specializing in the dirty work of security and soon turned himself into a shaqawah, or man to be feared. “He killed lots of people to get to the top,” says Con Coughlin, author of a recent Saddam biography, all the while knowing that “they could get to the top by killing him.” According to another biographer, London professor Efraim Karsh, Saddam once told a visitor he could see betrayal in a man’s eyes before the man had planned anything. “This enables me to get them before they have the faintest chance of striking at me,” Saddam reportedly said. Bush himself has recently been watching a notorious videotape made in 1979 that suggests Saddam personally orchestrated the execution en masse of close party colleagues who had just helped him into the presidency. Ever suspicious of rivals, he filled key posts in his government with family and clan loyalists from Tikrit.

Saddam expected unconditional subservience from his inner circle. According to another oft told story, he asked his Cabinet for candid advice when Iraq was faring badly early in the war against Iran. The Health Minister spoke up to suggest that Saddam resign temporarily to appease Iran until peace could be reached and then return. After thanking the minister, Saddam ordered his arrest. When the minister’s wife pleaded for her husband’s life, Saddam sent him back in pieces, stuffed in a black bag. Advisers learned better than to contradict.

As a result, Saddam came to live in hothouse isolation, in limited contact with any ideas but his own. Except for 3 1/2 years in Egypt, to which he fled in 1960 after the failed assassination, and brief visits abroad in the early ’80s, he knew little of the world outside Iraq. During a 1990 interview, Saddam twice expressed amazement that the U.S. had no laws to jail people who insulted the American President–as Iraq does.

As Gulf War II approached, Iraq’s leader was surrounded by the same clique of toadies who advised him in 1990, with the addition of his son Qusay, 37, the putative heir apparent. They operated like a Mafia family, deeply secretive and mistrustful of outsiders. The members of the inner circle all staked their fortunes long ago on Saddam’s policies, even if it meant that when he went, they would go too. None of them would risk their life to tell Saddam the truth. He probably didn’t care. As he wrote in one of his autobiographies, “I’ve always preferred to make my decisions without the involvement of others. My decisions are harsh, just like my desert.”

That may well account for Saddam’s history of disastrous miscalculations, especially in war. In 1980 he saw the revolutionary confusion inside Iran as a golden opportunity. No military expert, yet commander in chief, he thought a quick strike by his superior forces could snatch back some disputed territory from Iran and earn gratitude from Arab regimes for slaying the Persian fundamentalist Shi’ite threat. But his army failed to break Ayatullah Khomeini’s revolutionary forces for eight years. Whenever they threatened to conquer pieces of his territory, he shelled them with lethal chemicals, setting a pattern of resorting to extreme measures anytime his survival seemed imperiled. When Khomeini’s death finally let Saddam have a cease-fire in 1988, he declared it a great victory.

A mere two years later, Saddam invaded oil-rich Kuwait as a quick way to finance the rebuilding of his war-shattered country. He subsequently misread almost every move the U.S. made in response, starting with his calculation that the first President Bush was not serious about kicking him out of Kuwait. Edhem Pasic, a Bosnian ambassador who befriended Saddam in 1979, went to Baghdad after the July 1990 invasion to persuade Saddam to withdraw. “I told him, ‘Of all the reasons to leave Kuwait, maybe the most important reason for you is that the Western countries will destroy you,'” Pasic says. “He answered, ‘You do not know what I know,'” preferring to believe his own misguided assessment. When, as the Allies ripped through Iraq, a general finally told Saddam that his army was being destroyed, he replied coldly, “That is your opinion.” But he proved right in one crucial calculation: if he could ride out the storm, he could rebound.

This time around, there has been far less scope for miscalculation. The younger Bush has been nothing if not clear about his intention to get rid of Saddam. The dream in Washington was that once Iraq’s leader was convinced of certain defeat, he would depart to stay alive. But among those who knew him, exile did not seem an option. Saddam’s Arab honor would not permit him to flee. “He follows the code of the old-time Arab knights,” says Toujan Faisal, a former Jordanian member of parliament. There are less romantic explanations as well. As head of a regime of cutthroats, Saddam could not afford to show signs of weakness; the minute he started to negotiate flight, he would open himself to a coup. Still, some experts suggest that Saddam might have entertained the option of going underground like Osama bin Laden so that his shadow would continue to make Iraq quake.

But the experts generally believe that for Saddam, power is everything and death is a better alternative than losing it. Any other outcome, says Phebe Marr, a former Pentagon consultant and author of a book on Iraq, would destroy the monumental myth Saddam has spent his life creating. “His legacy would disappear.”

Iraq is Saddam, he likes to say, and Saddam is Iraq. He has been a ruler, says Coughlin, who “has always had one eye on history.” He has longed for his name to go down in Arab history alongside those of the culture’s great heroes, like Nebuchadnezzar, who drove the Jews into Babylonian captivity, and Saladin, who retook Jerusalem from the Christian Crusaders. He wanted to fulfill the modern-day promise of Egypt’s great nationalist Gamal Abdul Nasser, restoring Arab unity and the greater Arab nation to its rightful place in the world. In recent years the standard-bearer of secular Baathism even turned to prayer to exploit Islamic ardor, building gigantic mosques and lacing his speeches with the language of jihad.

That great need for the most dramatic of legacies, U.S. war planners fear, might make Saddam choose not only death but a Samsonian version of it: the dictator, as psychiatrist Post imagines it, “lashing out with all the resources at his disposal.” President Bush must agree, which is why he sent those bombs crashing into Saddam’s bunkers, hoping to get Saddam before he could bring down Armageddon on anyone else. –Reported by Douglas Waller and Adam Zagorin/Washington, Aparisim Ghosh and Helen Gibson/London, Bruce Crumley/Paris, Scott MacLeod/Cairo and Simon Robinson/Nairobi

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