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Will Saddam decide to disarm — or fight?
By Gregg Zoroya, USA TODAY
When Iraq's war against Iran was faltering in the early 1980s, Saddam Hussein startled his Cabinet with a seemingly uncharacteristic request. He sought advice, encouraging the assembled ministers to speak freely.
Health Minister Riyadh Ahmed took Saddam at his word and suggested that he temporarily step down to appease the Iranian religious leader, Ayatollah Khomeini. A peace agreement would be secured and Saddam could later return to power. Saddam thanked Ahmed and then ordered his arrest. The minister was sent home to his wife in pieces, the remains stuffed into a black canvas bag.
It was a classic bit of Saddam stagecraft — tricking a lieutenant into confessing doubt, then sending the chilling message to other advisers that only servile loyalty would be tolerated. Iraqis and outsiders who have known or studied the 65-year-old leader for decades say his career has been marked by a talent for survival and holding onto power at all costs. His ambition, they say, is oversized; he sees himself as a latter-day Arab hero in the image of Nebuchadnezzar, a Babylonian king of 6th century B.C. renowned for conquering Jerusalem.
Such aspirations have driven Saddam to arm himself with weapons of mass destruction, tools that make him a power in his region, feared and respected.
The latest United Nations resolution aimed at forcing Iraq to abandon these weapons carries a strict timetable of disclosure and inspection — and a trigger for war with the United States. The resolution may force Saddam to choose finally between disarming or dying, between a heroic legacy or survival on someone else's terms.
Either choice would dramatically change the arc of Saddam's life. But experts disagree over whether he'll choose survival or legacy.
Adeed Dawisha, a native of Iraq and a political science professor at Miami University in Ohio, believes that, if facing annihilation, Saddam would relinquish his weapons. "Survival is literal," he says. "You either survive or you don't. There are no choices about that."
But others, like Sandy Berger, national security adviser under President Clinton, believe Saddam will cling to his weapons at all costs. "To the extent that he has legitimacy within Iraq, it is based on defiance. And for him at this point to give up his weapons and capitulate to the West, to the international community led by the United States, would be a profound demonstration of weakness."
Saddam's past offers clues as to how he'll react to the U.N. inspection scheduled to resume Wednesday, with the first working contingent of 18 specialists flying in from a U.N. base on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus today.
According to a CIA psychological analysis, the Iraqi leader will back down when forced to preserve his power, as he seemed to this month in reluctantly accepting the U.N. resolution. But the same psychological assessment says he is also capable of recklessness, particularly if the world moves by force to strip away any weapons of mass destruction he is thought to be hiding.
He can be expected to attempt to stall and manipulate the inspections process, but predictions are more difficult whether he feels he has run out of room to maneuver.
'He is the target now'
"He knows he himself is the target now," Gen. Wafic Samarai says. "This is a very, very dangerous situation," the exiled former Iraqi general says, speaking through a translator from his home in London.
"The man is a survivor," says Jerrold Post, who helped create the CIA program of profiling dangerous world leaders and who now heads the political psychology program at George Washington University. "When he does become quite dangerous is when he's backed into a corner. And then he can lash out."
A cornered Saddam is capable of unleashing biological or chemical weapons against allied troops, some analysts say. Or he could deploy terrorists to use those weapons against civilian targets in the USA, Israel or other countries he views as enemies. When his troops were routed from Kuwait during the 1991 Gulf War, he issued orders to set the Kuwaiti oil fields ablaze, creating an ecological disaster out of spite.
Hassan Al-Alawi, a former Iraqi information chief who fled in 1979, says Saddam will take as many people as possible — Americans, Israelis, maybe Iraqis — with him if he falls. "He will use all his weapons," Al-Alawi says.
Saad Al-Bazzaz, Saddam's former broadcasting chief who left after the Gulf War and now lives in London, cites an Arabic proverb to explain why Saddam would lash out if cornered: "If I die thirsty, rain should not come to others."
The Iraqi leader has regularly quashed internal dissent. Tales of summary executions and mass imprisonment are legion. Saddam himself once told a European interviewer that these actions were natural responses to those who challenge his government. He has authorized brutal force to repress the Shiite and Kurdish populations within Iraq, in the latter case using chemical weapons to wipe out the Halabja village in 1988.
This calculated violence has kept him in power for 23 years. He fought a long and costly campaign against Iran in which an estimated 1 million people died. In 1990 his armed forces invaded, occupied and plundered Kuwait, a southern neighbor. That led to the Gulf War, in which a U.S.-led coalition liberated Kuwait but stopped short of deposing Saddam.
From the beginning of his rule, Saddam has displayed a stunning mix of guilt-free ruthlessness and messianic ambition. Soon after he took control of Iraq, he galvanized power with a cunning bit of orchestration at a now infamous Baath party leadership meeting in Baghdad. Saddam trotted out a tortured political opponent who named dozens of alleged conspirators then sitting in the hall. Each was whisked away to trial and execution. Those left behind, and alive, wept with relief.
"The kind of megalomania that defines (Saddam) has absolutely no space for anyone but him," political science professor Dawisha says.
"His strategic objective remains what it has been for decades, and that is to assert control over that region of the world," says Berger, who suspects Iraq is working to develop nuclear weapons.
And yet, on occasion, Saddam has chosen discretion rather than aggression. During the Gulf War, many observers believed that Saddam refrained from using chemical and biological weapons because the alternative would have led to a massive U.S. retaliation.
His main weakness, analysts say, is a narrow worldview that has led to miscalculations. He might not have expected the United States to attack him after his forces invaded Kuwait. He relies almost exclusively on a small circle of family and trusted advisers who know better than to challenge him.
In the days before the U.S.-led military coalition began bombing Iraq in 1991, one of Saddam's generals gave an assessment of the expected outcome: Baghdad faced large casualties if Saddam did not withdraw his forces from Kuwait.
The leader ignored the general's advice. Instead, Saddam sent his 400,000-man military — one of the most powerful in the region — into battle against nearly 700,000 U.S.-led coalition troops. Iraq's military was devastated, and he lost control over large chunks of his country. Almost 12 years after his forces were removed from Kuwait, U.S. and British jets patrol over northern and southern Iraq, where Saddam's defiance of post-Gulf War restrictions on Iraqi aircraft has provoked regular attacks on military targets. Crippled by international sanctions and embargoes, the nation remains largely isolated.
"While he is psychologically in touch with reality," political psychologist Post wrote of Saddam in an early profile, "he is often politically out of touch with reality. Saddam's world view is narrow and distorted, and he has scant experience out of the Arab world."
A documentary by French filmmaker Joel Soler, to be broadcast Tuesday on Cinemax, portrays Saddam as a tyrant who is obsessed with self-image and hygiene, likes to be kissed near the armpit and enjoys fishing with hand grenades.
Experts say Saddam is ruthless but not clinically insane. Post's analysis said Saddam has a "strong paranoid orientation (and) is ready for retaliation and, not without reason, sees himself as surrounded by enemies." But he is not psychotic, Post says.
"I see nothing in his conduct to suggest he's a madman," says Stanley Crossick, director of the European Policy Center in Brussels. "Just look at how this guy has survived. He is a very astute man. He's simply made miscalculations."
Observers describe a tireless leader, who puts in 14-hour days and has a photographic memory. In early November, Saddam told an Egyptian journalist he could outlast Bush's desire to oust him.
Saddam never amassed power by playing to religious fundamentalists in his country, as leaders in other Arab countries have done. He tried instead to build a modern economic power in the Arab world. Iraqis once were among the most educated and highly paid in the region. Saddam built roads and schools and brought electricity to many towns. But the war with Iran and the Gulf War put an end to modernization efforts.
"He's probably conducted the most effective Arab attempt to go modern ever," says Said Aburish, a Middle East scholar and author of the 2000 biography Saddam Hussein: The Politics of Revenge.
Partly because of that, for years U.S. presidents regarded Saddam as a secular Mideast leader who could act as a counterweight to radical Muslim clerics who seized power in 1979 in neighboring Iran. Washington, which viewed Iran as a bigger danger in the 1980s, tilted toward Saddam through his eight-year war against Tehran.
In Baghdad, there are still signs of the former Western acclaim. Among the hundreds of gifts displayed at the Saddam Hussein Museum in Baghdad is a pair of bronzed cowboy spurs from President Reagan during the 1980s.
Saddam was born into the Sunni Muslim minority, on April 28, 1937, in a small village near Tikrit, a town on the Tigris River about 100 miles north of Baghdad. The name Saddam has been variously translated as meaning "the fighter who stands steadfast" or "he who confronts."
His father died before he was born, and his mother remarried. Impoverished, Saddam earned money as a child selling watermelons to train passengers passing through town. According to author Aburish, at age 10 Saddam fled his abusive stepfather and went to live in Tikrit with his uncle, Khairallah Tulfah. The town, on a main artery linking Baghdad to northern Iraq, is renowned as the birthplace of Saladin, a Kurdish sultan who liberated Jerusalem from the Crusaders in the 12th century.
Politically minded uncle Tulfah had a strong influence on his nephew. The uncle, who would become governor of Baghdad, authored a tract that Saddam later had republished. It was titled Three Whom God Should Not Have Created: Persians, Jews and Flies.
The family moved to Baghdad when Saddam was 12. In the capital, he scraped by, selling cigarettes on the streets and earning tips by opening and closing taxi doors for passengers.
Official details of Saddam's life as a teenager are sketchy, but it seems clear that was when he became an admirer of the greatest pan-Arab leader of his time, Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser. "From Nasser's model, (Saddam) learned that only by outrageously confronting imperialist powers could Arab nationalism be freed from Western shackles," Post said in his profile, written before the Gulf War.
Saddam was soon drawn to the Baath Arab Socialist Party, a hotbed of Arab nationalism. During the 1960s, Saddam married his first cousin Sajida, the first of four wives. He has two sons and three daughters, all in their 30s.
As a young party tough, the 22-year-old Saddam took part in a botched assassination attempt on Iraq's military leader, Abdel Karim Qassim. The coup plotters accidentally shot each other. Wounded in the leg, Saddam escaped to Cairo, where he remained until the Iraqi government was overthrown in 1963. Years later, Saddam authored a television series about his early years to inflate his role in the assassination attempt.
He returned to Iraq after the Baath party formed a short-lived government. When it was overthrown, he spent two years in jail as a political prisoner. After a new Baath party government was created in 1968, he assumed leadership roles and became president in 1979 — after pushing aside the ailing predecessor.
Rarely seen in person
Saddam's concern for his safety has intensified in recent years. Today in Iraq, Saddam is seen everywhere and nowhere to be seen. Baghdad's bookstores stack volumes of Saddam's writings and speeches in their windows. Murals, paintings and statues of the leader grace nearly every public building. The larger-than-life statue commemorating the Gulf War at the foot of the city's communications tower — Saddam Tower — shows him in military uniform looming over the debris of U.S. missiles. A giant portrait of Saddam in Arab headdress is displayed in the VIP reception hall at Iraq's border with Jordan.
But Saddam almost never appears in public. "When we went to meetings, we were instructed not to shake hands with him, not to approach him or hug him," says Khidhir Hamza, a scientist who ran Saddam's nuclear weapons program before fleeing in 1994.
"We were asked if we had had a cold," he says from his home in Virginia. Officials were often driven to meetings in vehicles with blacked-out windows, so they would not know Saddam's whereabouts. "It was more and more difficult to locate where Saddam is," Hamza says. "We were driven round and round in circles in dark cars."
Fearing assassination, Saddam uses lookalikes in fake motorcades and rarely sleeps in the same location twice. "There are eight presidential residences," an Asian diplomat in Baghdad says, "but he probably sleeps in none of them."
Contributing: Vivienne Walt