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Saddam and the tug on the American psyche

Will the terror he began with be his undoing?

By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Times Senior Correspondent

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 16, 2003


It is reality TV, Iraqi style.

The date: July 18, 1979. The place: a conference hall in Baghdad, where Iraq's new president, Saddam Hussein, has convened hundreds of Baath Party members to announce there are traitors among them.

As the camera rolls, Hussein watches as one man, then another and another, is yanked from his seat and led from the hall. The rest of the assemblage knows all too well what is happening; the camera shows burly men wringing their hands and mopping sweat from their brows.

Suddenly, one man springs from his chair.

"Long live Saddam Hussein!"

"Long live Saddam Hussein!" echoes a terrified chorus.

It was a classic purge. Those ushered from the hall were never seen again. In one ghastly afternoon, Hussein eliminated his rivals.

"They were too competent and becoming too powerful," said Arthur Lowrie, a former U.S. diplomat who served in Baghdad in the '70s. "The really frightening part is that with the same kind of arrogance of power that he had a video made, he wanted it shown and he wanted people to see it."

Power and fear -- those words sum up Hussein's regime and explain its longevity. Hussein has remained in power nearly a quarter century by instilling such fear in Iraq's people that few dared challenge him even as he led the country to ruin.

The great irony of Iraq is that it could have become a rich, progressive nation instead of a ravaged pariah. In their early days, Hussein and his Baath Party used Iraq's vast oil wealth to build schools, dams and highways. The health care system was the pride of the Middle East. A middle class bloomed.

"If he hadn't been prone to these colossal strategic blunders, Iraq could be the envy of the Arab world," said Michael Hudson, professor of international studies at Georgetown University.

In 1980, Hussein invaded neighboring Iran, a country with three times as many people. That conflict -- the longest major war of the 20th century -- ended with at least 150,000 Iraqis dead. Yet Hussein hung on, and two years later invaded Kuwait, which ultimately prompted the harshest economic sanctions in history.

Today, nearly 75 percent of Iraq's 22-million people live on government food rations. Almost a third of all children under 5 suffer from chronic malnutrition. The childhood death rate has doubled in the past 10 years.

Now Hussein faces a third war -- and his own demise -- for refusing to comply with U.N. demands that he divest his weapons of mass destruction. It is another irony that Iraq's arsenal was developed in part with materials and know-how from the United States, the nation most determined to get rid of him.

Yet even as the hours tick away, Hussein projects the image of a man with nary a care. Night after night, Iraqi TV shows him, cigar in hand, joking with his inner circle.

Those who have studied the 66-year-old dictator stop short of calling him crazy. Rather, they see him as a brutal, cunning man whose baser instincts have never been subject to restraint. Like despots throughout the ages, his greatest flaw is an insatiable thirst for power.

"He obviously needs constant ego satisfaction, and that's really been a tragedy for Iraq," said Sandra Mackey, author of The Reckoning: Iraq and the Legacy of Saddam Hussein. "The country has basically been brought to its knees by the psychological needs of one man."

'People would listen to him'

Saddam Hussein was born April 28, 1937, to a peasant family in Tikrit, about 100 miles north of Baghdad. Little is known of his biological father; a stepfather reportedly mistreated Hussein as a boy.

The Iraq in which Hussein grew up was independent in name but still under heavy imperial influence. Anxious to protect their oil interests, the British had installed a pro-Western monarchy in 1921 that was the target of numerous coup attempts over the next four decades.

Around the age of 10, Hussein went to Baghdad to live with an uncle, who had been expelled from the army because of his role in one aborted coup. The family's hatred of foreigners would shape Hussein's entire life.

As a teen, he joined the Baath Party, largely made of up men like him from poor, rural backgrounds who advocated socialism and a single pan-Arab state.

"Education and work in the party was a way of achieving status and mobility," said Phebe Marr, an expert on Iraq and former fellow at the National Defense University in Washington.

"These were poor people driven to dislike richer people. There was a very strong desire for equality and spreading the wealth to make sure the poorer areas got a larger share of that wealth."

In 1958, a group of army officers executed King Faisal II, ending the monarchy and aligning the new Iraqi republic with the Soviet Union. Concerned that the new regime was too pro-Communist, Hussein and others staged an unsuccessful coup. Hussein, the triggerman, was sentenced to death and fled the country disguised as a woman.

Just 21, he escaped to Cairo, where he fell in with a lively, intellectual crowd that frequented student cafes and recited poetry as the sun rose over the Pyramids. Just a few years before, Egypt had nationalized the Suez Canal -- forever ending British influence in the region -- and Hussein talked passionately of Arab unity.

"He never gave us the feeling that he was after the throne, but he did have a trace of leadership in him," says Ilham Abu Ghazaleh, who later taught at a Palestinian university in the West Bank. "You could see that when he started to talk -- very calmly, very sweetly -- people would listen to him."

But his thuggish side soon re-emerged. In 1963, Hussein returned to Iraq and began building a secret police force that helped the Baath Party seize control five years later. His distant cousin became president, but there was little doubt where the true power lay.

Hussein's security force, laced with informers, torturers and executioners, grew into "a system of terror we've known in only a half-dozen regimes in the world: North Korea, Stalin's Russia," Marr said. "It pales beside your garden-variety dictator."

In 1972, Arthur Lowrie became the first U.S. diplomat to enter Iraq since the two countries broke off relations during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Eager to know what the Americans were up to, police staged a minor auto accident and arrested Lowrie's Iraqi driver so they could interrogate him.

"They held him incommunicado for three weeks, tortured him and dumped him out on the street in his pajamas," Lowrie recalled. "That's one little example of the kind of thing every Iraqi was fearful of every day."

Yet for all the brutality and ruthlessness, Iraq was entering the best period in its modern history. The new government nationalized the oil industry, and as oil prices soared, it embarked on ambitious programs that improved the lot of millions of Iraqis.

Eager to share in the wealth, David Rockefeller and other titans of American industry began flocking to Baghdad. Famous journalists came; so did Ted Kennedy and other members of Congress.

"In the '70s, people held out hope for Saddam," Lowrie said. "Here was a newly rich country, with unlimited potential, with enormous oil reserves. Saddam had some very good people working for him, a lot of them U.S.-educated. Put all these things together -- money, personnel, competency -- and people began to have real hope that he was going to lead the country in the right direction despite being a tyrant."

In the early '70s, Iraq took delivery of its first Boeing jet, which arrived to great fanfare with a load of Boeing executives. As the passengers began to get off, they noticed several Iraqis slitting sheep's throats and smearing blood on the plane.

It was a traditional Iraqi blessing, but some of the Boeing crowd, perhaps recalling King Faisal's gory execution, wheeled around and headed back up the stairs.

In his three years in Baghdad, Lowrie met Hussein once, at a diplomatic function. "The only thing I really remember was his handshake. It was a soft, limp handshake -- it was not something you expected because he is pretty imposing physically."

In 1979, Hussein had his cousin arrested and took the title of president. He now held unchecked power and his first big blunder was invading Iran.

Iran, a non-Arab country, was in chaos after the 1979 revolution that installed a fundamentalist Islamic government. In his mind, Hussein had two good reasons to attack his neighbor:

He feared the revolutionary fervor might spread and topple his own secular regime; and he thought he could grab a key Iranian oil region and control the Shatt al-Arab, the waterway both countries use to reach the Persian Gulf.

But the 1980 invasion galvanized Iranians and erupted into a war that lasted most of the decade. Seeing Hussein as a lesser evil than the religious fanatics next door, the United States and other nations supported Iraq with military intelligence, financial aid and the technology to make weapons of mass destruction. Hussein spent an estimated $100-billion during the war -- much of his nation's budget -- buying arms and developing his own weapons industry.

By the time it agreed to a cease-fire in 1988, Iraq had nothing to show for eight years of war except a wrecked economy. But it was a psychological victory for Hussein, hailed as a hero in the Arab world for stopping the spread of Islamic fundamentalism.

"He thought all the Arab countries owed him a debt," said Mackey, the author. "The Saudis and some of the emirates were willing to pitch in money to help rebuild his economy after the war, but Kuwait was not willing to buy him off so he invaded Kuwait" in 1990.

For the second time in a decade, Hussein had badly miscalculated. Most Arab nations were aghast at the unprovoked invasion. Despite warnings that Hussein had massed the "mother of all armies," Iraq succumbed to a Western-Arab ground attack in just 100 hours.

But the first Bush administration didn't go after Hussein, convinced his own people would oust him. Uprisings occurred in northern and southern Iraq, but, with no U.S. military support, they were quickly crushed. Once again, Hussein survived.

"This was the fatal flaw in the (administration's) Iraq policy at the end of the Gulf War: Its actions were (predicated) on the certainty that Saddam would fall from power," writes Kenneth Pollack in The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq.

"When he defied the odds and stayed in power, the United States was left with an unstable containment regime that would require great skill and attention, and the repeated application of military force, to keep in place."

If Hussein survived unscathed, the war devastated ordinary Iraqis. For five years, they went hungry, until Hussein and the United Nations agreed on a plan to let Iraq sell oil to buy food, medicine and other humanitarian needs.

Since the program finally got off the ground in 1997, Hussein has skimmed countless millions from oil sales to develop illicit weapons and indulge his whims.

While schools go without textbooks, he printed 2-million copies of a novel he wrote: the story of a beautiful woman (Iraq) raped by a violent husband (the United States).

While hospitals go without oxygen, he has built dozens of monuments and palaces so vast they cover dozens of city blocks.

While most Iraqis subsist on rice and beans, he assures the loyalty of his inner circle with Cuban cigars, fine whiskey -- and the ever-present threat of death.

"There are plenty of rewards and plenty of punishments," said Marr, the former National Defense University fellow who is writing a book on Iraq. "He has created a climate of fear. He has created a group of people who censor themselves. It is a true totalitarian state."

It's a totalitarian state in which Hussein and his family are part of a violent, murderous web.

His eldest son, Uday, controls Iraq's media and is chairman of the nation's Olympic committee. After he killed Hussein's favorite bodyguard in 1988 in a fit of rage, the elder Hussein threatened to murder him. Uday was spared only after Hussein calmed down and gave him a short jail term.

When Hussein's son-in-law, Hussein Kamel, head of Iraq's secret weapons program, defected to Jordan in 1995, Hussein lured him back on the promise all would be forgiven. Kamel was dead within a week.

Except for the well-publicized defection, Iraq and Saddam Hussein avoided attention for much of the '90s and the first 18 months of this decade. There was a brief threat of war in 1998 when U.N. inspectors withdrew because Hussein refused to give them free access to his weapons sites. But apart from humanitarian groups decrying the effect of sanctions on Iraqis, the world soon shifted its focus elsewhere. Hussein even began making friends with most of his neighbors. Iraq's trade with Turkey, Syria and Saudi Arabia has soared in the past few years.

Then came Sept. 11 and the fear that rogue states like Iraq could share their weapons of mass destruction with terrorist groups. To the Bush administration, Hussein again was Public Enemy No. 1.

Now, "I think the only way this war can be headed off is he's toppled before fighting starts," Mackey said.

Lowrie, the former diplomat, is among the many who oppose an attack on Iraq now because of the danger of fanning Islamic extremism. But that doesn't mean he has any fond thoughts of the man whose hand he shook three decades ago.

"There are absolutely no redeeming qualities to Saddam Hussein. What can I say -- he's a monster."

-- This report includes material from a 1998 St. Petersburg Times profile of Hussein. Susan Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com .

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