WASHINGTON — Comedian Jay Leno: "The CIA is reporting that Saddam has another three-level underground bunker he uses as a vacation home 30 miles west of Baghdad. Officials say he'd probably be there now, but it's one of those time-sharing bunkers, and it's Qaddafi's week to have the place."
To some Americans, Saddam Hussein is a cartoon caricature, the butt of Gulf war jokes. But to those who study him, there is nothing funny about Iraq's iron-fisted president.
Indeed, telling Mr. Leno's joke on a street corner in Baghdad could get one arrested. A 1986 Iraqi decree outlaws saying anything that might insult the president. The penalty: death.
In the Mideast, among friends and foes, he is known simply as "Saddam."
He is described as a cross between dictator Josef Stalin and mafioso John Gotti, a cunning and cruel man who slugged his way through an unforgiving Iraqi political system where internecine conspiracies, coup attempts, and purges have produced one of the world's most enigmatic and brutal leaders.
"This is a guy who believes that shooting people is every bit a part of the political process as kissing babies,'' says Yahya Sadowski, a Middle East specialist at the Brookings Institution.
Last week's cruise-missile attack and the expansion of US warplane patrols to cover more than half of Iraqi airspace was meant to punish Saddam for his intervention in the ongoing Kurdish dispute in the US-patrolled no-fly zone in northern Iraq. But Mideast experts say that, given Saddam's character, the effort has instead set the stage for an election-year confrontation between President Clinton and the Iraqi leader.
The stakes are high for both men.
Saddam has vowed to strike back. And yesterday his forces again entered the Kurdish fray, with ground troops supporting Kurdish fighters battling to push rivals from disputed territory.
Who is this man who provokes American presidents to take military action and then thumbs his nose at them? How does he think?
Analysts portray Saddam as a fierce nationalist driven to seize and maintain power no matter the cost.
Saddam has a vision of a modern, secular Iraqi nation rising from the dust of ancient Mesopotamia. His would be a nation armed with chemical and nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, possessing an army strong enough to impose his will on neighboring states.
"His view of history is that of war," says Amatzia Baram, a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "In his mind he wonders how do you penetrate history, how do you gain entrance into the hall of fame? Not by being a philosopher or a physician, but by being a war lord, a war leader," he says.
With Iraq's massive oil reserves - second only to neighboring Saudi Arabia - Saddam's vision might have been close to realization were it not for the Iraqi president's own costly military misadventures, particularly his invasion of Iran in 1980 and his invasion of Kuwait in 1990. The Kuwait invasion has left Iraq on the brink of starvation and bankruptcy following a United Nations embargo on Iraqi oil sales.
At home, Saddam rules Iraq with Draconian measures, answering even a hint of dissent with interrogations, imprisonment, and executions. Sometimes he goes further. In 1988, he launched a campaign of genocide, systematically killing more than 70,000 Kurds before an international outcry halted the effort.
His own family is not immune from his wrath. In February, two of Saddam's sons-in-law returned to Baghdad after Saddam publicly forgave them for defecting to Jordan last year. Lt. Gen. Hussein Kamel al-Majid oversaw Iraq's nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons programs. His brother Saddam Kamel al-Majid headed the security forces. Both men were shot dead within days after returning in an attack widely believed to have been sanctioned by Saddam.
"When the situation is going well, he is selectively cruel," says Phebe Marr, an Iraq expert at the National Defense University. "When he is under pressure, the cruelty increases and is more indiscriminate. He governs by creating a climate of fear," she says. "It is like the Mafia."
Although he is widely despised in the Middle East for the ruthlessness of his regime, paradoxically he has won the grudging admiration of millions of Arabs for his willingness to occasionally take a jab at the United States.
"One of the things that makes him stand out among Arab leaders is that he is a gambler," says Mr. Sadowski. "Other Arab leaders are very cautious. Saddam is the only one, who, when the chips are down, always picks up the dice and rolls again. He did that when he invaded Iran, he did that when he invaded Kuwait, and it is something that you can expect him to do."
Saddam trusts no one and has insulated himself from the world with a cadre of like-minded family members and allies from his hometown, Takrit, 100 miles north of Baghdad on the Tigris River.
Because of his isolation and limited world view, Saddam is prone to fundamental miscalculations in his dealings with Washington. And that, Mideast experts say, is what makes the current confrontation so volatile. It is a combination of his willingness to take risks and his propensity to miscalculate.
Iraq specialists say it is not like Saddam to allow the recent US missile attack to go unanswered. They say he is obsessed with the idea of honor and saving face, and that he must organize an effective response to the attacks or risk losing the respect of his military officers.
"He needs to show to his people that at least for a while he is defying the no-fly zone. He can do it in many ways. The most radical would be to tell missile battery commanders to shoot anything in sight," Mr. Baram says. "If he manages to down an American plane you can imagine what that will mean, particularly if he manages to take a pilot prisoner of war."
Mr. Clinton last week expanded the southern US-patrolled no-fly zone to a line 30 miles south of Baghdad. It was a direct affront to Saddam's sovereignty, dramatically reducing the amount of territory under his direct control.
"His influence is limited to a very small part of Iraqi territory, and that must make him very, very angry," says Mary-Jane Deeb, a professor at American University in Washington and editor of The Middle East Journal.
"He reacts to what he perceives as insults to his honor," Ms. Deeb says. "He doesn't balance or make calculated decisions, but has a tendency to make some rash decisions and then stick to them because his honor is at stake."