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Saddam Hussein: 'Not a lunatic'

Part sleepless workaholic, part methodical murderer, he works best when cornered

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 23, 2002


In the high-stakes game of geopolitical chicken in which Washington and Baghdad are engaged, President Saddam Hussein is not going to blink first, according to biographers of the Iraqi leader and others who have studied his character and behavior.

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"He can bob and weave, but he becomes dangerous when he is backed into a corner and he can lash out," says Jerrold Post, a former CIA analyst who pioneered political-psychological profiling of foreign leaders.

Adept at tactical maneuvering, determined to retain power, but aware that bowing to the Americans would destroy his self-image as the new Nebuchadnezzar, President Hussein would fight to the end if it came to war, experts say.

In the meantime, as pressure mounts, expect some fancy diplomatic footwork. "Saddam has always been much better with his back to the wall," says Patrick Cockburn, a British journalist who coauthored a recent biography of the Iraqi leader. "Maybe it's because his vanity has been punctured, maybe because he is better at accepting advice."

Hussein's notorious brutality and his mistakes in launching costly wars against neighboring Iran and Kuwait have earned him the sobriquet "madman of the Middle East."

Nothing could be further from the truth, says Said Aburish, a Palestinian writer who once worked for the Iraqi government and who has written an account of Hussein's life.

"He is not a lunatic," Mr. Aburish says. "In fact he is very consistent – the most methodical Arab leader of the 20th century." Having set himself a goal, whether it be agricultural development, the perfection of a weapon of mass destruction, or the status of the undisputed leader of the Arab world, he is steadfast in pursuing his purpose. He is also a workaholic, reportedly sleeping only four hours a night.

The Iraqi president has shown that persistence, and patience too, in his efforts over recent years to mend fences with neighboring countries and to cultivate foreign governments further afield.

Showing a much more sophisticated grasp of international affairs than he displayed in the run-up to the Gulf War, Hussein has restored his reputation among Arab leaders – he was welcomed back into the fold of the Arab League two years ago – and dangled economic incentives such as trade deals in front of key UN Security Council members China, Russia, and France. The effect has been to complicate the creation of the sort of international coalition that he faced in 1991.

The Iraqi leader has always been skilled in domestic politics, with a good instinct for whom to choose as allies and when to drop them. He has showed special mastery of the extreme violence that has characterized Iraqi political life since the British carved a new country out of the Ottoman Empire in 1921.

Hussein first made his mark on Iraqi politics in 1959, leading an attempt to assassinate Prime Minister Abdul Karim Kassem. Twenty years later, on assuming the presidency, he had 21 senior officials of his Baath Party – potential rivals – murdered en masse. On one celebrated occasion in 1982 he interrupted a cabinet meeting to step outside with his health minister, Reyadh Ibrahim Hussain, who had overseen the purchase of a defective batch of penicillin for the Army, says Aburish. The president shot the offending minister dead in an anteroom, then returned to finish chairing the cabinet session.