Iraq's recent attack on one Kurdish faction in the northern city of Arbil raises a far bigger question: How powerful is Saddam Hussein and how stable is his rule? Though no one has a definitive answer, Saddam's future seems to hinge on five interrelated factors. When considered together, they suggest that, despite his forceful move back into northern Iraq, he is far weaker than he was prior to the Gulf war. In the near term, however, he's still resilient.
The first factor that affects Saddam's future is the extent to which he can control his personal security forces, which total over 10,000 men. A coup or assassination attempt could come from these forces, but Saddam has controlled them effectively since the war through a combination of purges, executions, and overlapping security groups that spy on each other.
Second, Saddam needs continued support from the Sunni Muslim elite, which forms another important base of support. Three major events suggest that his position among the elite has diminished. The unprecedented March coup attempt by the Albunimr tribe of the Dulaym clan, heretofore very loyal to Saddam, revealed a serious fissure in the once-unified Sunni elite.
The surprising August 1995 defections of high-level Iraqi officials from Saddam's family pointed to internal strains tearing at Saddam's inner circle. Saddam responded to both events with brutal force. In August 1996 he faced further defections, and a bomb reportedly almost killed him. While his purges worked to preserve his power, they diminished his cadre of experienced people and reflected his weakening internal position.
Another factor is Saddam's control over Republican Guard divisions, his third major base of support and his best fighting forces. Early indications suggest he has retained sufficient loyalty here, despite the Gulf war disaster. Although some soldiers have defected, the Guard played a critical role in suppressing the postwar Shiite and Kurdish uprisings against Saddam and in containing the March 1995 coup attempt.
The fourth factor that will determine Saddam's future is his control over Iraq's complex system of propaganda and terror. At present, he seems to be in full control. The last elections in Iraq, which yielded him nearly 100 percent of the vote, were a farce given the threat of death and banishment hung over the heads of voters. Such an outcome required coordination and domination of Iraq's propaganda machine and security forces. It is no easy task, after all, to rig a national election. Strong public dissension, which occurs in Iran nowadays, remains rare in Iraq. Dissent there is quiet, hidden behind doors. It is still too risky to challenge Saddam openly. Rather, effusive praise, obsequious even, makes more sense to common Iraqis and elites alike.
Fifth, Saddam's power is linked to financial resources without which he cannot keep key individuals and groups satisfied. UN sanctions banning Iraq's sale of oil deprive the regime of $10 billion to $22 billion per year. These sanctions, while imposing unfortunate pain on Iraq's people, are probably weakening Saddam's hand. His recent military action in the north has not only prompted a US military response, but has made it even more unlikely that these sanctions will be lifted.
Six years after the 1991 Gulf war, we can say that Saddam has proven adept at surviving in Iraq's byzantine, dangerous political arena. But the destabilizing economic and political forces that he set in motion by invading Iran in 1980 and then Kuwait in 1990 are still at work. They may yet come back to haunt him. The current saga is just another part of this unfolding drama.
*Steve A. Yetiv is a professor of political science at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va.