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In Unforgiving Iraq, Hussein’s Job--and His Life--on the Line : Political violence: The nation’s bloody history shows that toppled leaders can expect execution.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Several years ago, during a visit to the palace of Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein startled his hosts with a sudden, ghoulish intimation of the violent end that he foresaw for himself.

“If I ever fall,” Hussein said, brandishing his little finger, “you won’t find this much of my body left. People will cut it into pieces.”

The remark, recounted by a Saudi prince who was present, helps explain Hussein’s fierce determination to hang onto his job now, in the face of overwhelming reverses on the battlefield. For in the violent political tradition of Iraq, few top leaders lose their jobs without losing their lives--and sometimes the lives of their wives and children, as well.

For Hussein, a dictator who has taken his country’s political violence to new heights, the dilemma is even more stark. He has already warned his closest aides and advisers--who otherwise might be tempted to end their country’s agony by assassinating their chief--that their fate is tied to his.

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“I’ve told these people: No coup attempts,” Hussein told King Fahd during his visit to Saudi Arabia, referring to his own aides. “If you think that when I go, you live, you’re wrong. When I go, you all go.”

Still, there was a sign last week that Hussein’s confidence in his own aides may be wavering. In an official Iraqi videotape of a meeting of the ruling Revolutionary Command Council, all the men around the conference-room table wore standard military uniforms--except Hussein. He wore a large, bulky overcoat buttoned up to the chin, which some U.S. officials believe was covering a bullet-proof vest.

“This is a man who knows the end is near,” said Christine Helms, an expert on Iraq who recently briefed President Bush on Hussein’s political dilemma. “Saddam knows he can’t retire to a condo on the Euphrates. His back really is against the wall.”

There were unconfirmed reports on Monday that Hussein had sent messages to friendly governments looking for a place of exile. But several experts on Iraq said that sounded like an unlikely solution.

“He’s going to have serious problems ensuring his own security no matter where he goes,” said Laurie Mylroie of Harvard University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies. “His regime has been so brutal that there are hundreds of people who would want to track him down and kill him. There isn’t really any place in the Arab world where he would be safe. I suppose he could ask the Soviet government if they would let him retire to Moscow, but that’s about it.”

Even before Hussein’s Arab Baath Socialist Party seized power in 1968 (with Hussein serving as vice president during the regime’s first decade in office), Iraq had earned a reputation as one of the most violence-prone countries in an already volatile part of the world.

Most Arab countries, mired in various forms of feudal or absolute rule, have seen power pass by military coup, civil war and assassination more often than by other means.

From Algeria in the west, through Egypt to Lebanon and Syria in the east, politics in the Arab world often carries a penalty of death for the losers--a fact that may explain why moderation has sometimes been in short supply.

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But Iraq’s history has been even more unstable and bloody than most of its neighbors’.

“There are a lot of theories as to why that is,” said Harvard’s Mylroie. “People talk about the Mongol invasion. (The Mongols leveled Baghdad in 1258.)

“They talk about Iraq being a frontier country, on the fringe of the Ottoman Empire,” Mylroie said. “They talk about the country’s historical legacy of being fragmented, with no central government. But none of this really explains it very well.”

In 1958, Iraq startled the Arab world when a group of nationalist army officers overthrew the British-installed regime of King Faisal II--and, in the process, machine-gunned the 23-year-old king, his mother, other relatives and servants.

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The following decade was punctuated by coups, countercoups, insurrections and assassination attempts, one of which marked the political debut of Hussein.

He drove the getaway car during an abortive attempt to kill President Abdul Karim Kassem and was wounded in the ensuing shootout. But he later escaped.

“It wasn’t only the Baath that used violence,” Helms noted. “In the struggles between Communists and Arab nationalists during the 1950s, they buried people alive in mass graves and dragged their opponents behind cars until they were dead.”

When his Baath Party came to power in a military coup in 1968, Hussein was put in charge of cementing the party’s rule and its internal security. He did so with a vengeance, building a secret police apparatus that was more pervasive than any in the Arab world.

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Much of Hussein’s energy was aimed at his own allies, to prevent anyone near the seat of power from overthrowing him.

In 1979, he purged the Baath Party of as many as 500 members whom he suspected of independent thinking, including a deputy prime minister who was arrested when he arrived at Baghdad Airport from a trip abroad, interrogated and then shot.

“With our party methods, there is no chance for anyone who disagrees with us to jump on a couple of tanks and overthrow the government,” he once said in an interview. “Those methods have gone.”

That view may help explain why Hussein was so upset last year when the Voice of America broadcast an editorial hailing the overthrow of Romania’s Nicolae Ceausescu by the troops of his own army--and comparing Ceausescu’s regime to Hussein’s.

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“We believe that the 1990s should belong not to the dictators and secret police, but to the people,” the VOA editorial said.

That drew a strong protest from Hussein’s regime--and an official State Department apology.


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