Baghdad, Iraq — A full-color picture of earnest leadership, Saddam Hussein smiles out across Iraq from countless portraits, posters, and photographs. In pinstripes, Army fatigues, or peasant's garb, he is exhorting crowds, decorating soldiers, chatting with workers, harvesting wheat, dining with families, or bouncing his daughter on his knee.
His personality dominates Iraq.
"He is an incredible politician. You should see him work a crowd," a diplomat stationed in Baghdad says.
Are the ubiquitous posters a means of stroking a mighty ego?
"No, he has a genuine following. It is the way Iraqis treat their leader. And to most of them, Saddam comes across like a charismatic older brother who happens to be President."
Actually, "president for life" might be more accurate. Mr. Hussein has been the "strong man" in Iraq since the Baath Party (literally, "Resurrection Party") took power in 1968.
He began as liaison between government and party. In 1979, after winning a quiet power struggle with President Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr, Mr. Hussein became President, prime minister, party chairman, and head of the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC).
Saddam Hussein epitomizes revolutionary Iraq.A career activist from central Iraq, Mr. Hussein was imprisoned, exiled, wounded in the many insurgencies of the 1950s and 1960s. He was part of a team of young militants who attempted to assassinate onetime Iraqi strong man Abdul Kassem in 1959. A well-produced movie of Mr. Hussein's life entitled "Long Days" was shown on Iraqi television last month during Independence Day celebrations.
TRue, the Hussein posters remain unmolested and the newspapers totally supportive because dissidents and would-be opponents of the regime are quickly dealth with by the formidable Iraqi secret police.
Iraq claims to abide by the Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Torture, and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment passed by the United Nations General Assembly in 1975. But a 1980 Amnesty International report, drawing on experience before 1979, concludes repression was high.
State brutality has existed in Iraq since well before the Baathist revolution in 1968. It may be decreasing today, diplomats say.
Observers say the Baathist regimes have used brutality in an effort to centralize government control and to eliminate corruption.
Iraqi officials do seem scrupulously honest; most are also afraid of making decisions, according to foreign businessmen, because they fear the consequences of a mistake.
Says one foreign businessman who resides near the Baghdad headquarters of the secret police, "It's chilling to watch some of those people when they come out of there. It really is the dark side of an otherwise very progressive Arab country."
There seems an obsession with security in Iraq. Every journalist entering the country is required to register his typewriter for "your security," as Iraqi customs officers say.
Upon leaving, the typewriter must still be in one's possession. The importance of the typewriter as an instrument of potential rebellion can be seen at the Iraqi National Museum where Mr. Hussein's typewriter, with which he reputedly helped foment in 1968 Baathist revolution, is enshrined in a central display case.
Despite the heavy hand, under Mr. Hussien Iraqis have experienced a domestic policy that has moved from austere Arab socialism -- with great nationalization, collectivization, and land-reform projects -- to considerably more free enterprise and diversity. For example, in April Mr. Hussein abolished the state Farm Collectivization Agency, admitting it did not work for the country. This move temporarily dislocated 5,000 bureaucrats.
Private farming is being encouraged: Egyptian and Moroccan peasants are being given land grants to cultivate private plots in the Tigris and Euphrates valley.
Baghdad is filled with government-owned buildings housing "state enterprises. But day and night construction activity is adding a layer of modern international hotels (Sheratons, Meridiens), convention centers, apartment blocks, and superhighways. This is a face lift, bought with the oil money that flowed in increasing amounts during the 1970s, in preparation for the 1982 summit of the nonaligned nations movement.
Iraq then becomes chairman of the conference, Diplomats say this prospect clearly excites Mr. Hussein, who often talks of Iraq as destined to lead "the Arab homeland" between East and West.
Iraq's post-1968 foreign policy began with strict orientation toward the Soviet Union and eastern Europe. But this appears to be changing. Oil revenue has allowed Iraq to shop the world market for goods and services. It has turned to Europe, North America, and eastern Asia for technology.
Great Britain's exports to Iraq are expected to total $1 billion this year. The US is expected to sell $400 million in agricultural products alone to this onetime breadbasket of the Middle East.
Accelerating Iraq's trend westward was the discovery in 1978 that communist cells existed in the armed forces and were plotting a coup against the Baathists. Executions followed. The Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) was outlawed, and Iraq grew politically distant from Moscow. Iraq was one of the first Arab countries to condemn the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in late 1979.
But ties with the East remain quite strong. In late June Iraq signed a long-term economic, commercial, and technical cooperation agreement with the Soviet Union. While Saddam Hussein may not directly criticize the US -- as many other Arab leaders seem increasingly to be doing -- his deputies do not hesitate to do so.
In the wake of the June 7 Israeli raid, Mr. Hussein was very cool and controlled in a television interview with NBC's Barbara Walters. (He even used the word "Israel" in place of the usual "Zionist entity"). But at the same time a member of the Revolutionary Command Council called for an oil and economic boycott of the US.
"It is hard to say exactly what Saddam Hussein stands for," says a Western diplomat. "But he seems to be a nationalist above all. His radical reputation comes from what he has saidm . But he does not necessarily do radical things. He's a pragmatist."
But Iraqi specialists say a continued relationship with the West could moderate Mr. Hussein. Says a European diplomat: "the early '70s were IRaq's Sturm und Drangm period. But that very definitely has passed. The Iraqis are very aware of the necessity of good standing with both East and West."
Because Mr. Hussein is essentially a one-man show, he ultimately will get credit or blame for what happens to Iraq. Another diplomat warns: "It will be a return to the old hard line if he fails."
Mr. Hussein is believed to have come under some pressure from other members of the Revolutionary Command Council recently due to two problems: (1) the continuing war with Iran and (2) the destruction of the Osirak reactor by Israel. The critics argued that if the war with Iran had not dragged on, Iraq would not have had its guard down June 7.
Mr. Hussein reportedly countered by calling the war with Iran part of a "Perso-Zionist" plot aimed at wrecking the country's industrial progress. For the moment he seems to have silenced critics. But the war with Iran is sure to crop up again as it approaches its one-year anniversary in September.
Mr. Hussein's guiding light appears to be the Baathist philosophy, developed in the 1930s by a Syrian Christian named Michel Aflaq. Baathism favors socialism as an economic system. Its aim is the unity of the Arab world into one nation (this includes today's Arab-speaking countries of the Middle East, plus Palestine, the Iskenderun area of southern Turkey, and Iranian Khuzistan -- which the Iraqi Army moved into last year).
The official religion in Iraq is Islam, but Baathism has guaranteed religious freedom to Christians. Women are recruited into the armed forces and can hold any job a man can. In practice, however, Iraq still is very much a male-dominated society.