BABYLON, IRAQ — ONE of the permanent exhibitions at the Saddam Arts Center in downtown Baghdad is a display of 50 paintings and photographs of Saddam Hussein.
"They were painted by many different Iraqi artists to mark the president's birthday," says Ahmed Shakr, an exhibition designer and custodian of the many art works at the center.
The overwhelming images illustrate how the Iraqi leader's personality cult contributes to the repressive apparatus that keeps him in power, even after the disastrous 1991 Gulf war. It has since become still more entrenched as the man himself now rarely appears in public.
Contributing to the aura of fear and mystery, Saddam maintains control in Iraq not by overt displays of force or thundering speeches, but through a subtle and pervasive system of informers. They provide the official security apparatus with a constant flow of intelligence from the ground.
According to diplomats, they are in every neighborhood and on every street corner. People cannot even be sure that members of their own family will not betray them. Amputations are carried out as a punishment for crime or desertion.
Accentuating all this is the self-perpetuated, grandiose image of Saddam himself. In the entrance lobby of the arts center stand another 24 huge art works, half of them larger-than-life images of Saddam. All are commissions by well-known Iraqi artists awaiting transportation to the latest Saddam palaces in downtown Baghdad and at the ancient site of Babylon.
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Outside the center, Saddam's poster adorns every bridge, public building, and most storefronts in Baghdad. Just steps away are the Saddam Tower and the Leader's Bridge. Even after going home, one can see a video tribute put to music every evening on an upbeat television channel run by his eldest son, Udai.
Sometimes Saddam himself appears on TV as well - in the form of file footage from two or three years ago. Though his influence and image are ubiquitous, the man is rarely seen and information about his whereabouts is withheld. One European diplomat, a keen observer in Baghdad for the past five years, has never seen him in person.
Rumors abound in Baghdad about where Saddam is at any given time; why he has fired a particular government official; what the nature is of the latest power struggle between members of his family; and what his political intentions are.
When Saddam abruptly fired his half-brother, Watban al-Tikriti, from the key position of interior minister last month, days of speculation by diplomats and analysts followed.
But during that same period, the tightly controlled Iraqi press stayed mum about a major uprising in the town of Ramadi in al-Anbar province, south of Baghdad.
According to accounts that filtered out through Iraqi opposition sources and travelers reaching the Jordanian capital of Amman, members of the al-Duliami clan (regarded as loyal to Saddam) rioted after the body of one of their senior officers was returned to the family mutilated. He had been detained since last September following an alleged coup attempt.
Thirty people are said to have died, and scores were injured after the Army sent tanks to the town.
Just like Nebuchadnezzar
But Saddam's obsession with Babylon - and in particular with King Nebuchadnezzar, who reigned from 605 to 562 BC - may give the best insights into his self-image. Following in the footsteps of the famous king who rebuilt Babylon, Saddam in 1987 completed a five-year restoration of Nebuchadnezzar's vast Southern Palace at Babylon, about 60 miles south of Baghdad.
When the Gulf war broke out, Saddam was investigating how to reconstruct the famous Hanging Gardens of Babylon, which were situated close to the Southern Palace on the banks of the Hilla River, a tributary of the Euphrates.
But he has never been able to crack the secret of the ancient Babylonians: how the water was diverted to travel uphill and irrigate the famous gardens.
This setback has not deterred Saddam in his fascination for Babylon, however. He is having a huge modern palace built for himself within sight of the famous Lion of Babylon.
Visitors are politely told it is a guest house that may not be photographed.