In Iraq, Internal Challenges Rock the House of Saddam

Six years after Saddam Hussein survived the Gulf war, he now faces threats from inside Iraq.

All that remains of ancient Babylon is a magnificent basalt lion, perched on the edge of a desert.

Beneath feet worn by centuries of windblown sand, it tramples upon the eroded figure of a man.

"It is a symbol of Babylon's dominance over all its neighbors," explains an Iraqi guide, providing a link to Iraq's modern-day regime.

But for President Saddam Hussein, the analogy fits inside Iraq's borders as well as out. After 25 years of rule, two disastrous wars, six years of sanctions, and a steady stream of recent blows to his family, the Iraqi leader is still firmly in charge. Still, there are mixed signals coming from Baghdad.

"Saddam may not be clever in war, but in 1991 he had 30 nations against him," said a Western observer in Baghdad. "In 1997 he is still in power, and in no danger at all." In contrast, a CIA assessment last year suggested Saddam might not survive a year. But predictions of the strongman's imminent overthrow have been made in the West since the start of the 1991 Gulf war.

Inside Iraq, that defeat has been officially turned into a victory by "Field Marshal" Saddam Hussein. Uprisings have since been brutally quelled in the north and the south, and the president's portrait superimposed on that of King Nebuchadnezzar - Babylonia's biblical chief who conquered Jerusalem.

Efforts are believed to continue against exiled opponents. Several were poisoned last year in northern Iraq. The British government confirmed that one survivor, treated in a British hospital, was the victim of an assassination attempt.

But in the capital, dinner-table talk focuses on cracks that have appeared in the ruling family. A mysterious attack on Saddam's high profile "first son," Uday, last December left the heir apparent with several bullets lodged in his back.

Reputed to be a violent playboy with few qualms about shooting people - his uncle Watban among them, according to several diplomats in Baghdad - Uday has nevertheless built a considerable black-market business empire.

He is also head of Iraq's Olympic Committee - winning many Iraqi hearts by staging huge soccer matches. But his taste for women and reports of rape have made enemies among top Baghdad families.

The circumstances of the attack on Uday, which occurred just 300 yards from Iraq's intelligence headquarters, reveal a chink in the regime's armor. The culprits have not been found. "The grip is not as good as it used to be, and certain insecurities have appeared," says a diplomatic source. "For the first time it was proven that the security was not in full control, that something unexpected might occur that it couldn't handle."

An earlier blow came in August 1995, when two of Saddam's sons-in-law - both top military figures - defected to Jordan with their wives. Lt. Gen. Hussein Kemal, once considered heir apparent to Saddam, revealed Iraq's efforts to hide nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons programs from UN inspectors.

Months later, on the strength of promises of safety from family members, General Kemal returned to Baghdad. Within days, he and his brother were killed. Two days later the house was bulldozed.

Such detail feeds the hopes of Western intelligence agencies that Saddam's days are numbered. But in Iraq, these details often only confirm the cult of the personality.

US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright says that "evidence is overwhelming that Saddam Hussein's intentions will never be peaceful."

Still, for many Iraqis, the words etched in cuneiform script in Babylon ring true of their defiant leader today: "I am the king of the world...."

Any cracks were well hidden during the celebrations of Saddam's 60th birthday in April in his hometown of Tikrit, north of Baghdad.

Long before the festivities began, the military units on parade were checked to be sure that they had no bullets or hidden weapons.

The vice president cut a large birthday cake and was handed a flag of Saladin, the 12th-century Arab warrior who repelled the Crusaders. For a week, radio stations played "Happy Birthday," with Arab lyrics, every 15 minutes.

Thousands of Iraqis thronged the parade ground, chanting and screaming their devotion and love for Saddam. Uniformed stalwarts of the ruling Baath party led children in cheers.

And posters depicted Saddam in all his permutations: as the saluting field marshal; the benevolent godfather; the highflying business executive; and on his knees in prayer, in military uniform, praying for the strength of Saladin to repulse the modern-day crusaders.

There were no pictures of Uday, but there didn't need to be, judging by one banner: "Saddam Hussein is forever young," it read.

But Iraq's leader - who still moves among safehouses two or three times a day to thwart any assassination attempt - skipped the ceremony.

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