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Saddam's bark and bite
The bogeyman of Baghdad threw the world another curve this week. After months of defiance, he suddenly told the UN its weapons inspectors are perfectly welcome in Iraq. Is this a true change of heart or the latest gambit by a cold-blooded despot determined to stay in power? STEPHANIE NOLEN explains
With a report from Timothy Appleby in Baghdad

Saturday, November 16, 2002

He sees himself as another Saladin, the great Arab leader who battled the Crusader hordes, but in the West, he is painted as Stalin reborn.

It has been more than a decade since Saddam Hussein first gained the title of Western Enemy No. 1, and yet we seem to know him no better now than we did the last time he provoked the mightiest armies in the world. He has overtaken the elusive Osama bin Laden as the prime target of the United States, and yet neither those who call him a genuine threat nor those who dismiss him as a straw man can claim to understand him.

As the Bush administration draws nearer to declaring war on him, if not his people, the man's psyche is parsed with anxiety in Washington: Will he unleash chemical or biological attacks? Or will he give up his cherished weapons, appease and conciliate, in order to maintain his position?

His most recent round of political manoeuvring has done little to help answer such questions. This week, he had his pet parliament unanimously reject a United Nations resolution demanding that Iraq disarm and allow weapons inspectors to return. Then two days later, he announced that Iraq would comply fully with the demands after all.

The letter was signed by his ambassador to the UN, but diplomats agreed that it was vintage Saddam. Even as he appeared to be buckling under, he lashed out: "Is there any good to be hoped for, or expected, from the American administrations, now that they have been transformed by their own greed, by Zionism as well as by other known factors, into the tyrant of the age? . . . Advise the ignorants not to push things to the precipice, because the people of Iraq will not choose to live at the price of their dignity." Are those the words of someone finally ready to throw in the towel? Iraq watchers don't know; they're little better at predicting what he will do next than they were 10 years ago.

The fact file on Mr. Hussein is woefully slim. He rules virtually alone; only a very small circle is close enough to know his personal habits. Those who fall out of favour tend to end up dead, not loitering in Baghdad cafes with tales to tell. Defectors from Iraq offer stories, but as long-time Middle East correspondent Patrick Cockburn points out, those are hard to trust.

"Any Iraqi who defects has to up his value to get visas or work permits when he turns up at the U.K. or U.S. embassy in Amman. So there is pressure to provide more and more intimate stories -- and these tend to be second- or third-hand," says Mr. Cockburn, who, with his brother Andrew, is the author of Saddam: An American Obsession.

One of their more reliable sources, Wafiq Samarai, former head of national intelligence for Mr. Hussein, says it was "dangerous to notice things," so he never asked questions and did his best to simply file away any personal information he inadvertently acquired.

The one undisputed fact about Saddam Hussein's years in power is his monstrous cruelty. He has forced suspected traitors to watch videos of their wives being raped or their children tortured. "From 1982 on, it's been known that any opponent of the regime will not only be jailed, shot and tortured, but their family will suffer the same fate," Mr. Cockburn says. "Consequently, it's very difficult to organize an effective opposition. People just won't do it, for perfectly understandable reasons."

Mr. Hussein has an intimate understanding of how people behave, say those who study him. "He has an extraordinarily cool ruthlessness," says Laurie Milroy, an analyst with the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Washington, who has written extensively on Iraq. "He is methodical, defensive, vengeful, he lives for revenge against the U.S. -- and he has an enormous capacity for cunning and deceit, with an unusual understanding of how you use violence to achieve your own goals. He understands the weaknesses of human beings."

An armchair psychologist might look to Mr. Hussein's childhood for an explanation. His father was killed by bandits either just before or shortly after his birth in 1937. His mother, Subha Tulfah al-Musallat, was a settled Bedouin; she quickly married again, to a cruel man named Hassan Ibrahim, who tormented and beat his stepson. The illiterate stepfather denied Mr. Hussein an education and made him work as a farmhand and shepherd, according to biographer Said Aburish, a London-based academic with an expertise in Arab regimes. Mr. Hussein would, decades later, execute a general in his army who claimed to have slept with his mother. Yet Mr. Hussein speaks proudly of his village roots, and has never disputed the facts of his origins. He comes from Al-Auja, a tiny village of mud huts near the town of Takrit, on the banks of the Tigris River 160 kilometres north of Baghdad. Still visible on one of his hands is the three-dot tattoo given to village children at birth. Al-Auja's inhabitants are Sunni Muslims, part of the minority who make up a third of the country's population but disproportionately control its wealth and power. The village had no electricity, school or running water in 1937.

Among his own people, the Iraqi President is known, with either affection or derision, as Saddam -- his given name (pronounced Sad-dahm), meaning "one who confronts or clashes." Hussein is his father's first name, following Arab convention. His last name, in the Western sense, is actually al-Khatab, the name of his clan, part of the larger Takriti tribe.

Mr. Hussein was betrothed to a first cousin named Sajjida when he was 6, and married her when they were both quite young. There are conflicting reports that he has up to three other wives, including recent rumours that he has wed an engineer 38 years his junior. She is said to be Iman Huweish, 27, the daughter of Mr. Hussein's Minister for Military Industrialization.

Sajjida, so the story goes, is resigned to serving as the "official" wife and to the fact that Mr. Hussein did not divorce her when he married the other women, as most men in largely secular Iraq do if they wish to remarry. The second wife is said to be one Samira Shahbandar -- once the wife of the head of Iraqi Airways, who obligingly stepped aside when the President's eye fell upon his spouse. Mr. Cockburn says he believes that Ms. Shahbandar is, in fact, a mistress. The third woman sometimes cited as a wife is Nedhal al-Hamdani, a dancer from Mosul.

There are also frequent, unsubstantiated reports of affairs, and young women summoned to Mr. Hussein's Baghdad hideouts for brief encounters. In September, a blond, 54-year-old Greek woman named Parisoula Lampsos gave an interview to ABC News in Beirut in which she claimed to have been his mistress for more than 30 years.

She told lurid tales of Mr. Hussein's use of Viagra, his fondness for the movie The Godfather and the music of Frank Sinatra -- of how he likes to relax sipping scotch, smoking cigars, wearing a cowboy hat and watching videos of political opponents being tortured. She said she had to flee Iraq with the help of the opposition because Mr. Hussein would not allow her to live outside his sphere, despite the fact that he had lost interest in her.

Intelligence experts said her revelations about meetings between Mr. Hussein and Osama bin Laden in the 1990s were more interesting than her reports of Mr. Hussein's germ phobia or sexual proclivities, but officials did not appear to take her putative relationship with the Iraqi leader too seriously.

His relationships with his children are predictably fraught. His eldest son, Uday, is a drunken thug, almost as feared in Baghdad as his father. He maintains his own jail for people he dislikes in his office at the Iraqi Olympic Committee, which he heads. Uday was paralyzed in an assassination attempt in 1996, and his father appears now to favour his more level-headed second son, Qusay, as his heir.

Mr. Hussein also has three daughters with Sajjida; in one of his better known incidents of public brutality, he had their husbands killed in 1996 (not a banner year in the Hussein family). The sons-in-law, brothers Saddam and Hussein Kamal, defected to Jordan and told tales about their father-in-law's biological and chemical weapons programs. A few months later, Uday was sent to tell them they could come home and be forgiven; apparently unfamiliar with their father-in-law's feelings about betrayal, they did indeed return home, to an affectionate welcome -- and then were shot to bits, days later, in a mighty gun battle.

Since his earliest days, Mr. Hussein has shown a remarkable ability to manoeuvre the political system in his fractured homeland. He joined the Baath Socialist Party when he was a teenager, and was an early proponent of its agenda of modernizing and secularizing Iraq. In 1959, when he was 22, he joined a plot with Baath party members to assassinate the then-prime minister, Abdul Karim Qassem. The plan went awry, and Mr. Hussein was shot in the leg in a botched ambush; he fled to Cairo, and lived there for three years, until someone succeeded in murdering Mr. Qassem, and Mr. Hussein could go home.

The Baathists were overthrown in 1964, however, and Mr. Hussein spent two years in jail, before escaping by bribing drivers during a transfer.

After a flurry of internecine wrangling, the Baathists seized power again in 1968, and Mr. Hussein was the most powerful figure in the party. He took only the title of vice-president, but it was soon clear he ran the nation.

At first, he legitimized the revolution, pressing ahead with plans to build highways and hospitals and schools. He created a national literacy program -- although he enforced it by declaring that all those who did not learn to read would be jailed for three years. The elite of his generation of Iraqis belonged to his party, and at first they believed that a strong character like Mr. Hussein's might hold the nation together; he was powerful, charming, an intellectual.

But it was not long before another side of Mr. Hussein began to show. He undermined the army, and immediately started to create a network of state police apparatuses, and to eliminate potential rivals. His appointed thugs began their reign of torture and murder; they have killed thousands of Mr. Hussein's opponents over the years.

In perhaps his most famous episode of political theatre, Mr. Hussein summoned 350 members of his Revolutionary Command Council to a meeting in 1979. A one-time intimate associate was pushed on to the stage; for two hours, he named names and gave details of a putative plot against Mr. Hussein.

As he reeled off the list of his alleged co-conspirators, guards appeared and dragged away the weeping or screaming party members, 60 of them in all. Mr. Hussein took the stage afterward and wept over their treachery; thoughtfully, however, he recorded the whole episode on video, rounding it out with footage of the men, their mouths taped, being executed.

Tall, by his country's standards, at 6-foot-2, the President of Iraq has long limbs and big hands. He is vain, dying his greying hair black and shunning his reading glasses in public, so that his speeches must be printed out with just a few large words per page. He rarely walks in public now because an ailment (rumoured to be a stroke, or perhaps back disc trouble) has left him with a limp.

Mr. Hussein adores water, a symbol of wealth in his desert state, and fills his lavish palaces with fountains and pools; he swims laps each day. It used to be said he lost weight in times of trouble and gained it when his state was running well; these stressful days, however, he is looking decidedly thick around the middle.

Mr. Hussein's wife Sajjida and son Uday have both shown a taste for wild extravagance, but the President himself lives relatively modestly. He loves Cuban cigars, which are supplied by his friend Fidel Castro, and expensive Johnny Walker Blue Label scotch. He likes Portugal's Mateus rose wine with dinner -- although he is careful not to be seen in public consuming alcohol, a violation of Islamic law.

He is reputed to be a voracious reader. He has publicly expressed his admiration for Ernest Hemingway; former intimates have claimed he has numerous biographies of Joseph Stalin and of Winston Churchill. He consumes works of Arab and military history and particularly delights in books that enumerate the lost glories of Arab civilizations. And following in a long tradition of barbaric and megalomaniac leaders, Mr. Hussein has his sensitive side: He enjoys declaiming long works of classical Arab poetry, and he has himself penned a pair of romance novels.

One of the novels is an allegorical tale called Zabibah and the King,which he published as the Arabic equivalent of Anonymous. It is the story of a beautiful girl, married to an evil and brutal husband, who falls in love with her king. Zabibah is raped by her ex-husband and the king goes to war to avenge her, killing the ex-husband, though Zabibah also dies.

The king, of course, is Mr. Hussein, the ex-husband former Iraq ally the United States, and Zabibah the Iraqi people. One Iraqi reviewer called the book "an innovation in the history of novels;" the story has been staged as a musical in Baghdad. Mr. Hussein likes to send his work out for criticism to Iraqi writers, who are predictably sparing in their assessments of his stilted, pedantic prose.

Hawks in the United States tie Mr. Hussein to Islamist militants, but he is not a religious man.

Nonetheless, he has indulged in conspicuous public acts of piety, intended to broaden his support base. He donated a pint of blood each month over the course of three years, so that the Koran could be recopied in it. And he ordered a team of historians to "identify" (that is, create) a family tree showing his direct descent from Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet Mohammed.

Iraq's Great Leader is phobic about germs, insisting that all who come in contact with him repeatedly wash their hands. He is said to shun the traditional Arab man's greeting of a kiss on each cheek, obliging subordinates to kiss his shoulder instead.

And he is positively obsessive about the possibility of assassination, employing three surgically altered body doubles and fleets of decoy cars, and obliging staff at his numerous palaces to prepare meals each day, to give the appearance he is in residence. He employs food testers, sheet testers, clothing testers, ink testers. He is said to never sleep in the same place for more than a day or two, and never for more than four hours at a time.

He has rarely travelled outside Iraq, and neither have his advisers. He is isolated as a result, and capable of grave miscalculations such as the invasion of Kuwait that precipitated the Gulf War. Those around him know better than to give him critical advice, so he hears only what they believe he wants to hear; he makes most decisions alone.

But Mr. Hussein has clung to power through every disaster. The war he launched against Iran in 1980 left 400,000 Iraqis, mostly conscripts, dead in the course of eight years. His Kuwait adventure in 1990 brought the total humiliation of the Gulf War, with Baghdad in ruins and rebels in control of 14 of the country's 18 provinces. He has outlasted innumerable coups and plots; the country cannot muster an effective opposition against him.

"He aims to be leader of Iraq forever -- for as long as he lives," Mr. Samarai has said.

Mr. Hussein is utterly shameless about lying, and will completely reverse his position without flinching. Defectors, people once close to him, believe the consummate surviving dictator will offer the United States whatever he can, stopping just short of such total humiliation or public weakness that he is vulnerable to internal enemies. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency has said it does not believe Mr. Hussein will use his chemical weapons against the West unless he is attacked.

But others argue that Mr. Hussein's messianic belief in his own responsibility to return the Arab world to its former glory is so great that he will certainly sacrifice his own life for it -- believing that immortality in history will follow.

"Why expect Saddam to go gently when he has nothing left to lose?" Richard K. Betts, director of the Institute of War and Peace at Columbia University, asked recently. "We have given Saddam all the warning time he needs to concoct retaliation, since the Bush administration has made a coming war the most telegraphed punch in military history."

Mr. Cockburn adds, "Saddam has always wanted to present himself as the great leader of a powerful country, he sees himself as a hero in the tradition of Nebuchadnezzar and Saladin. The Americans want to demonize him as Hitler and Stalin. But Iraq is a pretty weak place, a penny-ante place outside Baghdad, just a lot of mud brick villages: This is not a powerful place. Saddam's fantasies and Western demonology go together to produce a much more powerful image than the reality of Iraq."

Mr. Hussein is convinced that the West is hopelessly weak, that the current hegemony of the United States will be fleeting. Preparing for the coming war, he believes the Arab street will rise up with him. This is probably another miscalculation.

Mr. Cockburn, however, suspects the Iraq President will find himself crucially short of support, should he attempt a final attack on the United States. "The guys who are going to fire the chemical-tipped missiles at Israel, assuming Iraq has any, are all going to be thinking about their future -- when Hitler wanted to blow up Germany [in the last days of the Second World War], nobody would do it."

One Western diplomat in Baghdad feels it will never get to that. "This is a fascist state," he says, "but Saddam is no fool. He sees the writing on the wall with Bush, and now the regime is at the point where it will do anything, and I mean anything, to hang on to power. After what it's done to its own people, it's got no choice."

This, he says, is why Iraq has made so many conciliatory gestures of late. Mr. Hussein has invited the UN weapon inspectors back in "without conditions" after almost four years of keeping them out. He has released thousands of prisoners -- every inmate in the country except "murderers and spies," if the regime is to be believed, political prisoners included. (One Iraqi businessman is not impressed: "There aren't any real political prisoners in Iraq," he says. "Anyone who represented a genuine threat to the regime is already dead.")

Simultaneously, Baghdad handed over to Kuwait the first batch of the roughly two tonnes of government documents it pillaged after it invaded Kuwait 12 years ago. Still unaccounted for are an estimated 600 Kuwaitis captured by Iraq during its seven-month occupation. Nonetheless, with a U.S. gun pointed at Mr. Hussein's head, the message seemed clear.

"Saddam believes in Iraq, in pan-Arabism, in confronting Israel, and he truly thinks that he embodies all of that," the diplomat says. "But more than that, you've got a guy whose whole life and whole purpose comes down to one thing: Survival."

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