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Inside Saddam's world

The U.S. likes to portray Iraq's regime as shaky. But TIME's reporting inside Iraq suggests Saddam isn't losing his grip

Inside Saddam's world

By Johanna McGeary/Baghdad
With reporting by J.F.O. McAllister/London, Scott MacLeod/Amman, Massimo Calabresi, Mark Thompson/Washington, Andrew Purvis/Kurdistan

The mad hatter might feel at home in the Wonderland of Iraq. The day is already growing hot as lines of ramshackle buses and black-windowed Mercedes jam the normally empty highway to Tikrit, the rural hometown of Saddam Hussein. It's April 28, Saddam's 65th birthday. Crowds of military men with fat moustaches, sheiks in flowing robes and farmers in shabby pants spill onto the expansive parade ground Saddam has built for special occasions like this. High-ranking guests fill up chairs in a large pseudohistorical reviewing stand where Mussolini would have felt at home.

As the guest of honor arrives, groups of schoolgirls, including a unit clad in the black face masks of suicide-bomber trainees, perform dances dedicated to Saddam's "pulse of life." Then an interminable line of marchers files through, maybe 10,000 strong, singing "Happy year to you, President Saddam Hussein, who brought victory to us." As a group of fist-waving farmers tramps past, one of its members, Abdullah, offers, "We volunteered to come to show how much we love our President."


Trouble is, the man standing high above on that imposing podium is not Saddam Hussein. It's Ali Hassan al-Majid, the Saddam intimate foreigners have dubbed "Chemical Ali" for his role overseeing the 1988 poison-gas attacks that killed thousands of Iraqi Kurds. Al-Majid raises his right arm with palm open in the gesture Saddam uses, smilingly acknowledging the crowd's chants as if he were the ruler. "We sacrifice our blood, our souls for you, Saddam," the mob trills.

Saddam is nowhere in sight for his Tikrit party or any of the other parades and cake cuttings orchestrated across Iraq during the six-day birthday celebration. He is, more than ever, an invisible ruler, his authority wielded from the shadows, where he hides from potential assassins. The Potemkin parties were intended to deliver a message to any Iraqi citizen feeling restive, to any foreign government contemplating his overthrow. The all-powerful puppet master can make his whole nation sing his praises as a blunt reminder: I am still here. It won't be easy to get rid of me.

The Bush Administration hopes the hollowness of that birthday scene is a symbol of the true state of the archenemy's regime: brittle and rotting from within, held together only by force and bribery. The White House has concluded that Saddam poses a clear and present danger that must be eliminated. "He is a dangerous man possessing the world's most dangerous weapons," President Bush has said. "It is incumbent upon freedom-loving nations to hold him accountable, which is precisely what the United States of America will do."

Beyond Bush's advisers, objective monitors too are convinced that Saddam possesses hidden chemical and biological weapons and is working feverishly to build a still elusive nuclear bomb. He's a serial aggressor. Sept. 11 probably opened Saddam's eyes to powerful and unorthodox methods of attack. Terrorists want weapons of mass destruction, and he has them. "The lesson of 9/11 for us," says a senior State Department official, "is you can't wait around."

As Bush repeatedly telegraphs his intention to finish Saddam, the Iraqi leader is not exactly sitting on his hands. "He's not so naive as to ignore the seriousness of this threat," says Wamidh Nadhmi, a Baghdad political scientist in contact with the regime. "He knows it would be very difficult for Bush to retreat from his declared intent." There are signs Saddam is bracing for attack: beefing up his personal security, bucking up the ruling Baath Party and repositioning his military while playing at diplomatic delay with the U.N. He knows the issue for him is existential.

Both Washington and Baghdad foresee confrontation ahead. Here's what it looks like from inside Iraq.


The west has been trying to understand Saddam's psyche for years. A few intimate details have long been observed. Saddam never sleeps in his grand palaces but moves each night to a secret house or tent. He smokes Cohiba cigars supplied by Fidel Castro. He dyes his graying hair black. He walks with a slight limp, allegedly from back trouble, but he looks remarkably fit when seen, usually sitting or standing, on TV. Invariably he now appears wearing immaculately tailored suits in place of the green army fatigues he once favored. Iraqis say he has not worn his uniform publicly since 1998, when, according to local legend, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan told him his image would vastly improve if he donned a statesman's suit instead.

Saddam has limited knowledge of the West and surrounds himself with yes-men who tell him only what he wants to hear. But he shows an eager appetite for certain kinds of information. He constantly monitors CNN and BBC news programs, likes American thriller movies and admires Stalin and Machiavelli. He writes romance novels, supposedly without assistance: just last week a play based on a novel widely believed to have been written by Saddam, Zabibah and the King, opened at Baghdad's elegant new theater. It tells of a lonely monarch in love with a virtuous commoner who is raped on Jan. 17--the day in 1991 that the U.S. attacked Iraq to expel it from Kuwait, which Saddam had invaded the previous August--and killed by a jealous husband egged on by foreign infidels. The king decides he must follow the martyred Zabibah's advice: only strict measures keep the people in line.

In all things about Saddam, contradictions abound. He is known to surround himself with paranoiac security. Yet when Saddam invited Mohammed Sobhi, an Egyptian actor performing in Baghdad last year, to one of his palaces, security seemed almost nonchalant. Sobhi and his troupe were ushered inside with nary a frisk. Saddam chatted easily, about Iraqi poetry, about the Palestinian problem. He allowed each guest to pose for a picture with him. The notorious dictator struck his Egyptian visitors as steady, smiling, relaxed, cheerful, sensitive, amiable, hospitable. He sounded confident that he had weathered a storm. "Saddam said every Iraqi feels inside him that he is a winner, with his pride intact," recalls Sobhi. "Saddam said, 'We did not lose anything. We refuse to be humiliated in front of the Americans.'"

In the weeks before the Gulf War, the CIA presented George Bush Sr. with a psychological profile of Saddam that hasn't altered in its essentials since. Analysts concluded that Saddam was a stable personality and a rational, calculating decision maker. They had no evidence he suffered from mental illness. He was not exactly reckless but was comfortable wielding absolute power, using naked force and taking risks. He was wary and opportunistic and relied only on himself to make decisions. And his sense of mission could taint his judgment.


For Saddam, the Gulf War was not a defeat but a victory: though he was evicted from Kuwait, he remained in power. In the decade since, he has endured strict economic sanctions and has evaded U.N. inspections designed to eliminate his weapons of mass destruction. Today Iraq has emerged significantly from its isolation.

Saddam's "Republic of Fear"--as Iraqi exile Kanan Makiya dubbed Iraq in the title of his 1989 book--looks remarkably tame these days. You can fly into Baghdad's Saddam International Airport on one of the embargo-busting planes from Jordan or Syria or Lebanon that make regular runs--even if you are greeted by blood-red DOWN WITH AMERICA slogans daubed along the gangway in English. All the capital's buildings, bridges and roads damaged in the 1991 war and in follow-up American attacks in 1998 have been rebuilt. Fancy shops selling the goods of globalization line the posh streets of the al-Mansur neighborhood, and even the poor man's market in the Washash neighborhood peddles plentiful fruit and cheap Chinese TVs.

As goods of all kinds flood in, incomes are rising to pay for them. In 1998 Yusef, a Baghdad resident, drove a broken-down taxi and lived in a house that was bare after he sold the furniture to support his five children. Today Yusef is a partner in a fleet of GMC vans that carry people and merchandise to Amman, Damascus and Beirut. "Life is so much better," he says. "We have some money, we have a good house, my children are healthy."

The supply of medicine from abroad, bought with money the U.N. allows Iraq to earn from limited exports of oil, has improved substantially over the past year. Electricity now runs 24 hours a day, at least in Baghdad. There is plenty of money too for Saddam's fantastic construction projects: giant mosques, more palaces and enough statues of him, goes the joke, to have one for each of Iraq's 24 million people. These grandiose projects are widely resented as a waste of money better spent on desperately needed housing. But the new mosques, at least, address a surging religious faith among dispirited Iraqis seeking escape from the bitter realities of daily life.

For years, Saddam ruthlessly milked the suffering of the Iraqi people to erode the global determination on maintaining the U.N. sanctions. Now he has shifted gears to meet a different objective: to keep those same long-suffering Iraqis from rebelling against him. So the taps have opened: more of the money from his legal oil sales and illicit oil smuggling, once reserved for the purpose of bribing regime loyalists, is now being spread around to the populace.

Saddam has always had to buy his friends. "The only ones who love Saddam," says an Iraqi businessman, 32, whom we'll call Ahmed, "are his family. Everyone else, even his closest circle, must be paid to love him." Saddam rules with an exquisite combination of terror and reward. "He will make you a millionaire or kill you," says Francis Brooke, an American adviser to the Iraqi National Congress (I.N.C.), the London-based, U.S.-funded, main Iraqi-opposition group. "Both are effective levers." Sometimes the two are applied almost simultaneously, as when an individual tortured in prison is welcomed home with a new Mercedes.

In his book Saddam's Bombmaker, the defector Khidhir Hamza, who ran Saddam's atom-bomb program until he fled in 1994, writes frankly of the seductive power of Saddam's largesse. His way of maintaining power has always involved carrots and sticks. Club memberships, chauffeured cars, lavish houses, foreign travel and Johnnie Walker scotch are the means by which Saddam keeps the allegiance of those he needs to protect him and advance his interests. Torture, imprisonment and execution are the lot of those who fail or offend.

The tales of Saddam's brutish violence are legion. Abu Harith (not his real name) spent his life in Saddam's inner circle. He still looks the part: he has the characteristic paunch, the moustache, the Rolex, the confident walk of a senior officer. He spent a year in the foreign directorate of the Defense Ministry, then transferred into Jihaz al-Amin al-Khas, or Special Security Organization (SSO), the elite intelligence outfit responsible for Saddam's personal security, the construction and hiding of weapons of mass destruction and other sensitive tasks. In the 1990s, Abu Harith ran a front company in Jordan purchasing computers, chemical-analysis equipment and special paper for forging passports; then he moved on to Dubai to oversee a lucrative oil-smuggling enterprise.

Abu Harith can't feel his fingertips or his right leg anymore. His joints ache, and his fingers are puffy. These, he says, are the aftereffects of being poisoned by the guards of Saddam's son Uday in 1998. One day that October, he was out walking with a young female cousin when Uday, cruising in his car, spotted her and ordered his guards to snatch her for his evening's entertainment, as is his notorious practice. Abu Harith fended them off. That night Uday's thugs grabbed him at his house and sped him to Uday's farm, where he says he was tied to a palm tree for two days and repeatedly beaten. Uday branded him with a hot iron on his back and shoulder. Then one of the guards injected Abu Harith's arm with something that hurt; he still has a lump there. He was driven back to Baghdad and dumped near his home. When he fled to the Kurdish-controlled north, his suspicions were confirmed: he had been given thallium, a heavy metal used in rat poison that kills slowly through internal bleeding. Kurdish officials got him to Turkey, where he received medical attention.

Colonel Hamadi (not his real name) was commander of a tank unit in Iraq's Third Army before he was arrested for links--which he denies--to an opposition party. He was held for 10 months. Saddam's military intelligence, he says, tortured him several times a week. "Sometimes they hung me from a ceiling fan to make me confess to something that was not true," says the colonel. When he was released last spring, he fled to northern Iraq, where the country's Kurdish minority functions almost autonomously from Baghdad under the protection of the U.S.-British no-fly patrols. But Hamadi left his family behind. His father was recently arrested. "If you are against them," says the colonel, "every one of your relatives is in danger."

Inside Iraq, Saddam's constituents can express despair about such oppression only quietly. An entire population has developed a sixth sense about keeping genuine feelings buried deep. "I can never say what I think," Layla, 38, a former office worker, says from the privacy of her home. With those they trust, Iraqis do grumble about Saddam and his excesses, about the way his ruling circle assesses 7% "for the family" on every business deal. But 30 years of Saddam have instilled in Iraqis a reflexive habit of survival. They seem too tired, too disillusioned, too frightened of one another to plot serious conspiracies. And they have total disdain for the opposition exiles scheming abroad.

If Saddam's hold on power is as tenuous as some officials in Washington claim, that is not visible in Baghdad. The government has lost control over the Kurdish north but has tightened it somewhat in the Shi'ite-dominated south and still firmly grips the Sunni center. The country has been weakened, the army especially, but Saddam remains the strongest of the weak. His control over the intelligence and security services appears unshakable. Officers' families are hostages, and the regime is very good at creating a community of guilt, in which everyone has committed crimes from corruption to execution and fears judgment by a more democratic successor government.

Especially since the Sept. 11 attacks, for which he feared immediate American retaliation, Saddam has taken measures to tighten his protection. The inner circle of guardians, known as al-Himaya, is made up exclusively of close relatives. Says a senior U.S. official: "They're the ones standing with weapons in the background of photos you see of Saddam." The next circle is the Murafiqoun, also related by blood or from unimpeachable families, who are in charge of broader personal and family security and crowd control for Saddam. The outermost circle is the elite SSO, run by son Qusay.

For years Saddam's elder son, the wild, thuggish Uday, was considered the heir apparent. But Uday's penchant for excess was too much even for Saddam after the son, in a fit of pique, murdered a beloved bodyguard of Saddam's in 1988; Uday was jailed for several months. He has largely recovered from a 1996 assassination attempt that has left him barely able to walk. Though he is still a feared man, he has clearly been eclipsed by Qusay, 36. Qusay, say observers in Baghdad and Washington, is a force to be reckoned with. Sober, hardworking and deferential to his father, he is considered as cruel and ruthless as Saddam, though lacking his father's charisma. He never appears in public, but his accumulating strength is evident. He has been "elected" to a leading position in the Baath Party.

Qusay's SSO is increasingly the crucial force, in charge of both internal security and internal intelligence. Members of the SSO are recognized even by the military as having near absolute power; soldiers call these civilian watchdogs "the Masters." Says Falah al-Nakib, a senior member of the Iraqi National Movement, a rival of the I.N.C.: "Every corps commander has one of them in his office watching what he's doing every minute."

Saddam appears to be preparing for war. I.N.C. officials and Kurdish intelligence sources say that for the past two months, government agencies have been conducting preparatory exercises, sending top officials to designated safe locations, for example, and protecting official archives. The sources claim that the commanders of the army have been reshuffled and that various military units have been moved around the country. The I.N.C. says its sources report that military factories are being dismantled so that key components can be hidden from bombing.

But ex-Colonel Hamadi says the army he left behind last year was in sorry shape, demoralized, underpaid and ill equipped. Of the 33 tanks in his sector, he says, 15 were out of commission. In a land of oil wells, there was even a shortage of tank lubricant. Washington officials say sanctions have worked well to undermine Saddam's 424,000-man army. Only the 100,000 or so Republican Guards are still considered serious fighters. So a cataclysmic collapse of the army under pressure from U.S. attack is possible. But experts inside and outside Iraq count 15,000 to 25,000 Saddam loyalists in Qusay's SSO and the Special Republican Guard, the elite of the elite, who would put up a tougher fight.


Saddam has always been obsessed with building. The Pharaonic size of his enterprises--vast palaces, gigantic mosques, even the idea of an atom bomb--reflect his self-image as history's hero. He never forgets he was born in Tikrit, home nine centuries ago to the great Saladin, the Islamic victor in the Crusades. Saddam's latest Baghdad palace features columns topped with huge replicas of his own head bearing Saladin's helmet. He shaped the minarets on the grand new Mother of All Battles mosque to resemble the Scud missiles he fired at Israel during the Gulf War. These things give concrete expression--literally--to his central ambition: to be remembered and revered as the leader who restored Iraq and the Arab world generally to their rightful glory. He considers himself, says Charles Duelfer, the former deputy executive chairman of the U.N. weapons-inspection team in Iraq, "the incarnation of the destiny of the Arab people."

Like his hero Stalin, Saddam sees weapons of mass destruction as the great equalizers that give him the global position he craves. A nuke plus a long-range missile make you a world power. Deadly spores and poisonous gases make you a feared one. These are the crown jewels of his regime. He sacrificed the well-being of the Iraqi people and billions of dollars in oil revenues to keep the unconventional weapons he had before the Gulf War and to engage in an open-ended process of acquiring new ones. During the cat-and-mouse game of U.N. inspections that ended in 1998, he seemed determined to hold on to some of everything, as if to keep all options open. The weapons clearly are critical to his ambitions. But no one, perhaps not even Saddam, seems to know what he will do with them.

He appears to have not so much a strategy as a concept of grandeur. He is never satisfied with what he has. He operates by opportunity more than by plan and takes devastating risks if the gambles might expand his power. He believes in the ruthless use of force. When he thought Iran was weak, he invaded. When he thought he could get away with taking Kuwait, he invaded. Such conventional warfare is probably not available to him anymore. But intimidation is just as good, maybe better. Weapons of mass destruction could help him coerce the oil-rich Gulf and other Arab states to act in his favor.

Of course, blatantly using such weapons against his greatest enemies, the U.S. and Israel, would expose him to a nuclear reprisal that would almost surely end his rule. But if he could punish either country and survive, he might do it. He has not contracted out his aggressions up to now. But he might risk supplying terrorists with his deadliest weapons if he saw a way it might redound to his power.

Meanwhile, Saddam is working hard to undercut international support for a U.S. attack on him by deploying his diplomatic weapons. He has found a rich issue to exploit in the Palestinian crisis and has made it a constant theme. His offer of $25,000 to the family of every suicide bomber and every Palestinian family made homeless by the Israeli assault last month on a refugee camp in the West Bank city of Jenin has won wide admiration at home and in the larger Arab world. He is showing muscle in the oil market with his 30-day moratorium on Iraqi oil sales to protest Israel's aggression. He has burnished his reputation as the one Arab leader who says no to Washington and stands up against Israel.

At the same time, he has conducted an astute, quiet campaign to integrate Iraq's economy with those of neighboring countries and to convince Europe that the sanctions are wrong and pointless. He made a rapprochement with Kuwait and Saudi Arabia at the Arab summit in March that he hopes will quiet any regional enthusiasm to join an anti-Saddam coalition. He is playing a fresh chess match with the U.N. on weapons inspections. If he can get more favorable terms, he'll probably let them resume. That would undercut European eagerness for a war on Iraq.

While others would find the situation desperate, Saddam has always managed to make his way through. If the U.S. indeed attacks, his paramount strategy will be to weather the assault, hoping that it will prove inadequate and the world will turn against the Americans before they succeed in taking him down. Until that day comes, if it comes, Saddam will rule on from the shadows that protect him from a lifetime's worth of enemies. For him, as long as he's alive, every birthday that passes is another glorious victory.




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