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Hussein tactics { December 15 2002 }

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Hussein Reveals a Glimpse of Tactics
U.S. Analysts Expect Two-Pronged Strategy Using Delay and Public Opinion

By Michael Dobbs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 15, 2002; Page A38

Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has adopted a two-pronged strategy in his showdown with the United States, according to U.S. experts. He wants to delay war as long as possible. If that fails, he is preparing his people for a brutal and protracted conflict that would give him hero status in the Muslim world.

A glimpse into the Iraqi leader's plan to outsmart and outmaneuver President Bush came in a revealing conversation last month with an Arab journalist friend, his first interview with any media outlet in more than a decade. Speaking just before the United Nations Security Council voted 15-0 to demand that he surrender his weapons of mass destruction, Hussein predicted that fissures would soon open in the "American-British coalition" that seems determined to topple him.

"Time is working for us," he told the reporter from the Egyptian opposition weekly Al-Usbou, detailing how he could use international public opinion to slow down the U.S. invasion plan. The second part of Hussein's message was that Iraq would not be like Afghanistan, whose militant Taliban regime was toppled by U.S. air power and local insurgents at a minimum cost of American lives.

"We will not turn the war into a picnic for American or British soldiers," Hussein vowed. "No way! The land always fights on the side of its owners."

U.S. experts who have studied Hussein's personality and brutal 23-year dictatorship say he is likely to make a formidable enemy. He is acting in a way that is both calculating and ruthless, reflecting the skills he gained during his rise to power in Iraq and lessons learned from previous confrontations with the United States, including the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

"Saddam has often been characterized as the madman of the Middle East," said Gerald Post, a George Washington University professor who has worked on psychological profiles of Hussein for the U.S. government. "But mad he is not. He is paranoid -- not paranoid crazy, but paranoid in the sense that he constantly sees enemies who are out to get him. He is also unconstrained by conscience, willing to do whatever is necessary to accomplish his goals. It is a very dangerous combination."

So far, say U.S. experts, Hussein has shown little sign of panicking. He has refused to admit he still possesses weapons of mass destruction, an admission that might have led to a resolution of the crisis with Washington. He has yet to significantly redeploy his army, most of which is in northern Iraq facing the Kurds, to defensive positions in the south to face a likely U.S. attack from Kuwait.

For the moment, the main battleground between Hussein and President Bush is the battleground of public opinion. By allowing U.N. weapons inspectors to roam freely around his country, including his own presidential palaces, the Iraqi leader is hoping to convince what he calls the "American and British street" that he is working for a peaceful resolution of his conflict with the United States. At the same time, he has tried to repair his image in the Arab world by opening the doors to Iraqi jails and apologizing to Kuwaitis for invading their country.

Key to the struggle for international public opinion is the question of the level of proof needed to show that Iraq still has weapons of mass destruction. The Bush administration insists it is up to Hussein to demonstrate conclusively that he is no longer building nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. Iraqi spokesmen say the burden of proof is the other way round.

The distinction is important because it is likely to determine the size and cohesiveness of the international coalition arrayed against Hussein.

Although the Iraqi leader has little chance of convincing the administration that he has given up his most prized weapons, he might be able to block a second U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force against Baghdad. Without such a resolution, it will be much more difficult for the United States to mobilize international support for an invasion.

"There is a huge difference whether we go in unilaterally or multilaterally through the United Nations," Post said. "The more personalized this becomes, the more Saddam will be seen in the Arab world as a leader with the courage to stand up to the mightiest nation on earth."

As he gears up for a showdown, Hussein has sought to tap into a wellspring of Muslim resentment against the United States, echoing many of the themes developed by Osama bin Laden, the al Qaeda leader. In the process, he has transformed himself from a militantly secular Arab leader to a devout believer in Islam who prays five times a day and sprinkles his speeches with references to "Allah the most merciful."

Hussein's attempts to reach out to old enemies are reminiscent of the tactics used by one of his political role models, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, when his regime was threatened with annihilation following the 1941 Nazi invasion. After years of persecuting religious believers, Stalin relaxed controls on the Russian Orthodox Church. He abandoned communist ideology in favor of old-fashioned Russian patriotism to rally his people for an ultimately successful life-and-death struggle against the Nazi invader.

Whether these tactics will work in the case of Hussein remains to be seen. Over the past two decades, he has alienated many parts of Iraqi society with policies that have ranged from using poisonous gas against the Kurds to brutally suppressing a Shiite uprising after the 1991 war. At the same time, many U.S. experts on Iraq say they believe that an American-led invasion may not be the cake walk that some Bush administration hawks are predicting.

"Iraqis are fiercely nationalistic," said Joe Wilson, who in August 1990, as acting chief of mission of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, was the last U.S. official to meet with Hussein following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. "While Iraqi soldiers may not have been willing to fight for Kuwait, Hussein has every expectation that they will fight for Iraq. After day three or day four, we will be seen as an occupying power."

As part of his strategy of deterring a U.S. invasion, Hussein has been dropping hints that he is willing to "turn Baghdad into a Mesopotamian Stalingrad," in the phrase of Kenneth Pollack, a Brookings Institution expert on Iraq, referring to the most desperately fought street battle of World War II.

"The Iraqis are sending out the message: If you come into our country, it is going to be a blood bath," Pollack said.

One such hint came in the form of comments by a senior Iraqi official to the London-based Arab-language daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi, which has adopted a pro-Baghdad line. The official recalled that the Iraqi army had not hesitated to use chemical weapons against the Iranians and Kurdish rebels at key points in the decadelong Iran-Iraq war, and reserved the right to use every means available to resist "American aggression."

Hussein has laid the moral and ideological justification for the use of such weapons by echoing bin Laden's argument that the United States is responsible for much greater atrocities against Arab countries, including the alleged deaths of 1.5 million Iraqis as a result of economic sanctions following the Gulf War. In an open letter to the United States following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in New York and Washington, the Iraqi leader wrote that "Americans should feel the pain they have inflicted on other peoples of the world."

Fawaz A. Gerges, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at Sarah Lawrence College, says he believes that most Arab states are likely to end up joining the U.S.-led alliance against Hussein because they perceive their survival to depend on Washington and are "terrified of the costs of staying on the sidelines."

He adds, however, that Hussein is well placed to appeal directly to Arab public opinion, over the heads of these leaders, in much the same way that bin Laden has already done.

"His main target is not Americans or Europeans, but Arab and Muslim public opinion," Gerges said. "He realizes that America has become a scapegoat for all the ills and misfortunes of the Arab world. There is a realignment of forces taking place throughout the Arab and Muslim lands, the heart of which is resistance to the United States."

2002 The Washington Post Company

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