How 'Baghdad Bully' Endures
Strategic retreat fits Saddam's pattern of behavior. A look at his rise from poverty to power.
Over the 30 years he has ruled as one of modern history's most tyrannical dictators, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has managed to stay a step ahead of political disaster.Skip to next paragraph
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From the 1980 to 1988 conflict with Iran that cost Iraq 250,000 casualties and ravaged his country, to the 100-hour air attack in 1991 that plunged his 23 million people into destitution and hunger, Saddam has clung to power, battered but defiant, painting defeat as triumph.
The showdown over the hunt by the United Nations for his weapons of mass destruction is no different. As Saddam called for celebrations, his Revolutionary Command Council crowed over this week's accord for a resumption of UN inspections: "The will of the Iraqis was victorious over the will of evil."
Yet for all the bluster, Saddam did what he has done before when he believes he has gotten as much as he can without risking catastrophe: He retreated. This time it was in the face of an American-led military force poised to pulverize his life-support system, the ubiquitous Iraqi security machine.
But the crisis may be far from over. If Saddam stays true to his past, he will challenge anew the United States over the UN sanctions he considers a humiliating threat to his rule. He is like a gambler who risks ever-higher stakes in an obsessive drive to win all. Eventually, however, his options may run out.
Risk-taking has been a key element in Saddam's rise from a barefoot peasant born in a mud hut to the chief of a Middle East oil state who defies the world. But in gaining and keeping power, he has also relied more than many of his ilk on the tools of despotism: war, mass murder and executions, assassination, betrayal, show trials, and repression.
"In the permanently beleaguered mind of Saddam Hussein, politics is a ceaseless struggle for survival," write Efraim Karsh and Inari Rautsi in their book, "Saddam Hussein: a Political Biography." "The ultimate goal of staying alive, and in power, justifies all means."
Those means also include a personality cult like that of Adolf Hitler, a man Saddam has studied and praised. Like Hitler, his hagiography equates Saddam with the state itself. In this way, to his subjects, the existence of one embodies that of the other.
But unlike Hitler, Saddam believes in no ideology. He has portrayed himself during his reign according to his political needs of the moment: pan-Arab nationalist, secular revolutionary, modern Mesopotamian warrior-king. He has even claimed to be a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad. Under Iraqi law, disputing his assertions brings death.
This shape shifting also illustrates Saddam's confidence in his own uniqueness.
"I know that there are scores of people plotting to kill me," he once told an interviewer. "However, I am far cleverer than they are. I know they are conspiring to kill me long before they actually start planning it. This enables me to get them before they have the faintest chance of striking at me."
Such assertions aside, Saddam has proved an adept tactician, playing supporters off against each other, eliminating perceived and real rivals by the score, and foiling CIA-backed coup plots. His brutal purges of the Army helped tame it as a traditional Iraqi hotbed of political intrigue.
He has also exploited Iraq's ethnic and religious rifts and tensions with his neighbors.
Demonstrating his trait of retreating when necessary, he granted humiliating concessions in 1975 to rival Iran to win an end to its support for rebels of Iraq's Kurdish minority. He then launched a campaign that by 1978 had killed thousands of Kurds, driven 200,000 from their homes and fractured the uprising. The next year, he renounced the pact with Iran and invaded, igniting the war that saw his extensive use of chemical weapons.
He has also manipulated the major powers, including the US, which gave him intelligence on Iranian troop movements. When the information led to Iraqi wins, he claimed the glory as a brilliant general - losses he blamed on collusion between Iran, the US, and Israel.