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Rebuilding Iraq

Power of prestige   A photo studio in Baghdad specializes in large prints of Saddam Hussein. His image is plastered all over the capital. (AP File Photo)   Pictures of Saddam Hussein

Decades of survival define Iraqi strongman

By David Filipov, Globe Staff, 3/16/2003

BAGHDAD -- The United States is planning to depose him. The United Nations is trying to disarm him. The Arab allies he thought he had are increasingly vocal in wishing he would just go away.

But Saddam Hussein seems remarkably composed and confident, at least in his frequent public appearances. Puffing on a big Cuban stogie as he listens impassively to his nightly nationally televised briefing from military commanders, Hussein assures his people again and again, and in no uncertain terms, that Iraq will emerge from any conflict as the victor.

How can the man in the cross hairs of the most fearsome force on earth talk about victory, much less seem so sure of it, when the leaders of the world's sole superpower have expressed their determination to take him down?

Been there, done that, Hussein might respond. He has shown that he can lose his army, wreck his economy, and accept a cease-fire that includes a set of humiliating UN sanctions and still declare victory, as he did after his failed incursion into Kuwait in 1991.

And Iraqi and foreign observers in Baghdad say Hussein, who is 65, is convinced that he can pull it off again. His sense of survival has been honed by decades of overcoming long odds, and often his own blunders, which have given him an enormous sense of self-confidence befitting a man who models himself after such dictators as Saladin and Stalin.

''Whether he can do it now is less important than the fact that he refuses to believe he cannot do it,'' said one well-connected Iraqi observer, who, like others interviewed on this most sensitive subject, spoke on condition of anonymity. ''He is convinced that his human will is great enough to emerge victorious this time. And that is what defines his every move.''

Mixing brutal authoritarian methods and a cult of personality that portrays him as the embodiment of Iraqi manhood and nationhood, Hussein has learned how to keep power no matter what happens to his people.

As Amy Dempsey wrote in her biography, ''The Life and Times of Saddam Hussein, ''There is only one consistent ideology -- his own political survival.''

The trick, of course, is in how one determines the terms of victory. Hussein's is a regime that declares victory as a way of maintaining power. Anywhere but here, his contention that he won the Gulf War might seem like the mother of all delusions. The rest of the world remembers the conflict in which Iraqi invasion forces were driven out of Kuwait as an unqualified rout.

But in Iraq, Hussein did win. He faced a mighty US-led coalition and came away not only still in charge, but also with a population even more under his control.

If, at the end of the current conflict, Hussein still controls, as he does now, what Iraqis are allowed to say and hear, he can pull it off.

''The Iraqi strategy of course is to avoid war at all costs through diplomacy,'' said one well-informed Iraqi in Baghdad. ''He talks about attacking imperialism even as he makes all these humiliating concessions to the United Nations weapons inspectors.''

''People see the destruction of our Iraqi missiles, and they are sad about it. Why did we spend so much money building missiles if now we are destroying everything? But as a political tactic to put off the war, it is working. That's all that matters to Saddam.''

''If the war were to occur, the plan is to inflict as many casualties on Americans as possible in the hope that American public opinion can stop the war,'' the Iraqi observer continued. ''If Saddam is still in power when it ends, he wins.''

Hussein has devised a strategy to slow down any advance on Baghdad, and then engage alliance troops in bloody urban warfare.

''The enemy fears ground fighting,'' Hussein told his troops recently. ''This is where the battle will be decisive.''

The Pentagon has reported that Iraqi forces are placing explosives at oil fields in northern and southern Iraq. Baghdad has denied these claims.

Alliance military planners also fear Hussein could use chemical or biological weapons fired from 150mm howitzers that have been deployed around the outskirts of Baghdad or launched on short-range ballistic missiles. Once American-led troops reach Baghdad, Hussein ''is going for a Stalingrad siege,'' Air Marshal Brian Burridge, commander of British forces in the Gulf, was quoted as saying in the Guardian last Tuesday. ''He wants to entice us into urban warfare.''

Hussein had the potential ''to cause a great deal of suffering,'' Burridge said. ''We don't know what he has up his sleeve.''

The reference to Stalingrad is not incidental. Stalin is Hussein's hero, according to Said K. Aburish, who has written extensively about the Iraqi leader. Both came from humble backgrounds and were brought up by their mothers. Both men relied on purges, conspiracies, and a ubiquitous security service to consolidate power. Both men used their authoritarian rule to drag their country into modernity, but at a huge cost in lives.

As hardships mount, Hussein's power grows

Most of the Iraqi and foreign observers interviewed in Baghdad for this story spoke on condition of anonymity, and even then, they had to watch what they said. To criticize the president in public is a crime punishable by death. That is no empty threat in a land where tens of thousands have been executed since the Ba'ath Party seized power in a 1968 coup d'etat.

There is much they would criticize about the rule of a man whose country's coffers boasted a $37 billion surplus when he came to power in 1979 and who has driven Iraq into destitution and isolation by leading it into two ill-conceived wars and the ensuing 12 years of sanctions.

''It's clear that this country has gone through a governance crisis probably started in 1980,'' said one foreign official here.

In 1980 Hussein ordered Iraqi troops into Iran to resolve a border dispute. He appeared to think that his Soviet-equipped, well-trained military would score a quick victory against Shi'ite Muslim Iran and make him a hero to the largely Sunni Muslim leaders of the Arab world.

But Hussein, whose application to enter the Iraqi Military Academy was rejected as a youth, miscalculated badly. The fighting lasted eight years. It also sapped the Iraqi economy before the 1988 cease-fire that Hussein claimed as a great victory in a war he had dubbed his ''Qadisiyah,'' in honor of a 7th-century battle between Sunni Muslims and a Persian king.

The 1991 Gulf War and the ensuing sanctions further stripped Iraqis of their wealth and their comfortable lifestyle. As the hardships mounted, Hussein's control over Iraq has increased. Now nearly everyone depends on government handouts for food and medicine.

''The sanctions have empowered the government and made the people more dependent on the government,'' said one of the Iraqi observers. ''If the US thought they would weaken Saddam with sanctions, they have done the opposite.''

Instead, Hussein uses the sanctions to give his suffering people an enemy they can blame for their hardships: America.

Publicly, at least, many Iraqis appear to believe Hussein when he says Americans are coming to Baghdad not to protect human rights and foster democracy, but to divide up Iraq to further the interests of oil companies close to the Bush administration.

''Iraqis in general are dispirited. Some may consider him responsible for their poor lives,'' said Wamidh Nadhmi, a political science professor at Baghdad University who is one of the few people allowed to criticize Hussein. ''But they do not see an alternative in the Anglo-American alliance or in the Iraqi opposition, which many people see as the puppets of the Americans.''

A similar feeling is spreading across the Arab world, where Hussein was once widely seen as a hero for standing up to the United States. But today, Arab observers outside Iraq increasingly portray the Iraqi leader as a reckless despot who endangers his own people and the region.

Three Arab countries have asked publicly for Hussein to step down and go into exile, and analysts say others would be happy to see him leave.

''Arab leaders want to be rid of Saddam,'' said Taher Masri, the former prime minister of Jordan, in a recent interview. ''The only thing stopping them from supporting the American effort to remove him by force is that all of them worry about being the next leader the Americans decide to remove.''

Employing Stalin-like tactics, Hussein banks on fear, prestige

If Iraqis have soured on Hussein, they are not allowed to show it. His image is everywhere in Iraq, and as long his face is up there, people will rally around him.

''You are not allowed to be silent,'' said one Iraqi analyst. ''You have to publicly declare support for the regime.''

That support may be only as deep as each Iraqi's fear that failure to express it could result in grave consequences. Maintaining that fear is the job of Hussein's security apparatus, controlled by his family -- including his sons Uday and Qusay -- and the Ba'ath Party, with 50,000 active members who maintain discipline among everyone else.

The regime may survive on fear, but Hussein projects an image of imperial greatness to his people through his omnipresent persona, which ranges from gruff commander to avuncular man of the people, another one of Stalin's tactics, and through his grandiose civic projects.

One striking feature of Baghdad for a first-time visitor is the incredible number of new mosques and war memorials. Hussein has built some 30 mosques in Baghdad alone -- so many so that the mosque-making industry has served as a significant source of employment for poorer Iraqis, Syed Saleem Shahzad wrote recently for The Asia Times.

To an outsider, building mosques at a time when a quarter of Iraq's children suffer from malnutrition might seem like an extraordinary misallocation of funding, but the mosques are a cost-effective way for Hussein to project the image of complete control.

''It's a prestige thing,'' said one western observer in Baghdad. ''It's much cheaper than raising the salaries of the military from $5 per month to $10 per month. Once you raise the salary you can't bring it down. The mosque stays there.''

Such largesse for the sake of prestige at a time when much of the population languishes in poverty would be political suicide in a democracy. But the mosques also show how adept Hussein is at adapting ideology to meet his basic demand of maintaining political supremacy.

''Saddam realized that the Cold War was over and that his nation needed a new uniting ideology. What it got was the new Islamic crusader Saddam,'' Shahzad wrote.

''There were new television programs about Koranic recitations that began broadcasting day and night. At Baghdad's large Saddam Hussein University, courses in Islamic sciences were added. Saddam's newest portraits now include `Saddam at prayer.' ''

Some of the people interviewed for this report spoke with grudging admiration for the survival skills of the man born in poverty near Tikrit, the birthplace of Saladin, the Kurdish leader who chased the Crusaders out of Jerusalem in the 12th century.

A passion for nationalism spurred Hussein to join the insurgent, pan-Arab Ba'ath Party when he was about 20. Within a year, he allegedly shot and killed a Communist Party member in Tikrit. Hussein worked his way up in the party by proving to be both a willing gunman and an able conspirator. He took part in a failed assassination attempt on General Abdul Kareem Qassem, Iraq's leader in 1959, and later emerged as the party's kingmaker after the Ba'athists took power in the 1968 coup.

Hussein's first major act upon assuming the presidency in 1979 was to execute a third of the Ba'ath Party's decision-making body, the Revolutionary Command Council, videotaping the event so that others could see, according to Con Coughlin in his book ''Saddam: King of Terror.''

If Hussein were to describe himself in his own terminology, he might call himself ''the mother of all self-made men,'' one of the Iraqi observers said. ''He believes he can overcome anything.''

It is a belief born of experience. Hussein's disastrous decision to invade Kuwait nearly brought about his undoing. In 1991, 14 out of 18 provinces rose up against Hussein only to be put down violently by the elite Republican Guard and Fedayeen special security forces. Tens of thousands of people were killed.

''The mere fact that he stayed in power defied everyone's expectations,'' said one of the Iraqi observers. ''This is why he can make concessions that are grating to ordinary Iraqis and fly in the face of his predictions of victory every night on the military news.''

When the military news is over, Hussein does not go away. He shows up on spots about hygiene and the need to read.

''Do you read a lot?'' he asked in a recent meeting with police officers shown on Iraqi state television. ''I think you should read more. A policeman deals with people directly and confronts a range of social problems. Reading will help you do your job right.''

The officers invariably respond by expressing their readiness to die in defense of Hussein and Iraq. Then they gather around him for souvenir pictures.

David Filipov wrote this story before he was expelled from Iraq on Thursday.

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 3/16/2003.
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