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Regional Outlook : Can Saddam, Iraq Survive the ‘Mother of All Battles’? : Some believe it depends on how the dictator feels about martyrdom. The scorched earth of Kuwait may be his legacy.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The thin brown cloud of cordite and dust from the 37th straight night of allied bombs and missiles spread across the sky over Baghdad just before 11 Sunday morning, when suddenly radios throughout the city crackled with news of an important announcement.

It was the voice of the “mother of all battles,” Baghdad Radio, and the identity of the speaker was unmistakable: Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s uncompromising dictator who had brought his army and his nation to this, the eve of destruction.

But the voice was different somehow on this historic morning, choked with emotion and charged with messianic exhortations as the iron-fisted leader broke the news that so few Iraqis wanted to hear.

An allied ground assault, the culmination of the personal crusade that Hussein began with his Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait, had now become his promised “mother of battles.” This was the real war, the voice declared. And now it was time for his entire nation to fight, and to die, for him.

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“Fight them! Fight them! Fight them!” Hussein’s voice wailed over the airwaves that are now his only direct link to his 18 million besieged people.

“Fight them, O Iraqis, with all the values that you imbibed from your great history. . . . Fight them, O brave, splendid men, O men of the mother of battles. Fight them with your faith in God. Fight them in defense of every free and honorable woman and every innocent child. Fight them, and victory will be yours, so will be dignity, honor, glory and martyrdom . . .

“If the opposite occurs, God forbid, there will only be the deep abyss and a lengthy darkness will prevail over Iraq.”

But even before the final echoes of the Iraqi leader’s call to arms had subsided, it was abundantly clear that he still had not answered a key question on which may hinge the fate of the Iraqi nation, its people and the very foundations of its society:

Is Saddam Hussein, the prophet, poet, prognosticator and protagonist, prepared to follow his people down that same road to martyrdom?

Indeed, to some extent, the future of the entire Persian Gulf and the Middle East depends on how far one of the world’s most mercurial dictators is prepared to go for the sake of pride, nationalism and what the Arabs call “face.”

Is the leader who alternately has resisted or exploited all diplomatic and political attempts to drive him from occupied Kuwait now prepared to destroy not only himself but his monolithic Arab Baath Socialist Party and his powerful army as well?

Most of the world’s leading experts on Iraq and the enigmatic leader who has controlled it single-handedly for the last 12 years doubt that Hussein relishes martyrdom.

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Rather, they believe he will attempt to withstand the massive allied ground punishment just long enough to inflict sufficient casualties on the coalition forces to claim a semblance of victory. In this view, he will attempt to withdraw his forces within just a week or 10 days--if the allies permit it.

“There is a peak for Saddam’s survival of about one week or so,” said one European military analyst who was based in Baghdad until late last year. “Through his eyes, he had to face this ground war. If he pulled out after (President) Bush’s ultimatum, he would retain most of his army, but his ‘face’ would not be safe--nor would most of his body.

“In the Arab world, they measure victory by the numbers of casualties that are inflicted,” this analyst added. “So, he wants to see American blood.”

Clearly, though, Hussein can expect to see far more Iraqi blood during the coming days as the allies continue an invasion that Washington has billed as the biggest and most powerful land assault since World War II.

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The battle is widely seen as marking both a political and a military turning point in the war: It is more certain than ever that the allies are determined not just to push the Iraqis out of Kuwait but to humiliate the Iraqi military and, by extension, to crush Hussein himself.

Bush Administration officials have revealed ambitious allied plans to seize and hold Iraqi territory and to maintain economic sanctions after the war in order to force fundamental changes in Iraq’s government.

There’s little question that the allies will win. It’s only a matter of time before Hussein’s forces either throw up the white flag or are “ground into dust,” said one military analyst here.

If the allies can win a quick victory on the ground, “Saddam may not survive. And even if he survives, his power is gone,” said Brookings Institution analyst William B. Quandt, who served on the National Security Council in the Jimmy Carter Administration. Quandt added that “virtually nothing has gone as (Hussein) had hoped.”

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Indeed, Hussein has failed at every key strategic ploy he has used since the allies launched their war on Iraq nearly six weeks ago. The volley of Scud missiles that he sent ripping into Israel failed to draw the Israelis into the war and shatter the fragile allied coalition. His call for street rebellions in Egypt, Syria and other Arab nations in the coalition either fell on deaf ears or was suppressed by internal security.

The network of loyal agents and “fighters” worldwide that he urged to terrorize the allies was neutralized by allied intelligence and arrests. His old friends in the Soviet Union tried but failed to buy Hussein some time that would avert the devastating land war. The only ace he appears to have left is massive use of chemical weapons, which most analysts expect would backfire in the eyes of a horrified world.

Such failures almost certainly will cut deeply into the heroic, “man of the streets” cult image that Hussein managed to project in Arab, Muslim and Third World countries in the early days of the war. It will no doubt undercut him at home as well.

The legacy Hussein already has left in Kuwait clearly will worsen his chances for survival. By all accounts, it reads like hell on Earth: More than 20% of the emirate’s oil fields deliberately set ablaze, an ecological disaster in the oil-soaked Persian Gulf, a sky so blackened by the smoke of oil-well fires that the sun can not penetrate it, thousands of buildings long since looted and reportedly being destroyed as Iraqi troops prepare to abandon Kuwait city, an 11th-hour execution spree in which Hussein reportedly has been killing scores of young Kuwaiti men, women and suspected dissidents.

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“This will have a dramatic effect on any outside power or group considering helping Iraq out of its hole when the war is over,” one Western diplomat in the Gulf said. “He’s actually shooting himself in the foot.”

Still, the experts say it remains unclear whether that tarnish will translate into Hussein’s actual demise. And even if his monopoly on power is broken, many analysts believe Iraq’s basic political, economic and social structures would endure.

“I would never rule out the man’s survival,” said Phebe Marr, a U.S. expert on Iraq at the National Defense University in Washington. “Iraq’s strength lies in the fact that it has not only the very strong personality of Saddam but very strong institutions as well.”

The Arab Baath Socialist Party that Hussein heads “will almost surely survive,” Marr said. “Saddam’s family dominates the security system but not the official bodies of the government or the party.”

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Even if another political faction acting independently or with allied backing did attempt to challenge Baath Party rule in Iraq, these analysts insist it would face a bitter guerrilla war with an underground Baathist movement that would almost certainly result in “Lebanonization"--the breakdown of Iraq into openly warring factions.

Hundreds of thousands of new AK-47 assault rifles and millions of rounds of ammunition were reportedly issued to party workers throughout the country on the day the allied air war began. Marr added: “The party has a cell system which could go underground, literally. If they should go out of power, they certainly have a network there.”

At least 1.5 million Iraqis are either activists or sympathizers of the party--many of them part of a younger generation that could replace Hussein and his inner circle of hard-liners in the Revolutionary Command Council with a more rational and flexible regime.

“The future of Iraq is going to be in the hands of this younger, pragmatic generation,” Marr said. “It isn’t exactly popular to say it, but Iraq has one of the best records of social justice in the Arab world. It has one of the best records on women. It has a good record in spreading education and literacy. It has a middle class which, if we get through this crisis, provides something to build on.”

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If Hussein and his ruling clique are somehow killed or overthrown as a result of the ground battle, other analysts look for a leadership that would combine those younger party members and more enlightened senior military officers in a makeshift junta. That junta would then attempt to rebuild the nation on secular, Baathist principles while rejecting the kind of monolithic cult of personality that Hussein built around himself.

“There is no democratic tradition in Iraq,” said David Newton, a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, in dismissing an exclusively civilian overthrow of the regime. “The opposition is very fragmented.”

What about the chance of a coup d’etat born within the million-strong military machine that has borne the brunt of Hussein’s adventure in Kuwait?

Calling it a “pillar of Iraqi society,” analyst Marr said the Iraqi army “sees its goal perhaps less as the defense of Saddam and the regime than as the defense of the country.” Such a view would imply that there is motivation for a military takeover if it appears that Hussein is indeed leading his nation into the “dark abyss” he referred to on Sunday.

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Another analyst, Don Kerr of London’s International Institute of Strategic Studies, suggests that the cataclysm of the war could damage the unity of the military. Kerr noted that Hussein has held his air force out of the conflict, sending more than 10% of his warplanes into sanctuary in neighboring Iran. “How do you think the infantry taking the pounding in Kuwait is going to feel about the air force that failed to provide them cover?”

But military experts in the Persian Gulf say the logistics of such an internal military breakup or an anti-Hussein coup d’etat would be next to impossible, at least until his massive personal-security apparatus is dismantled. So far, that has not happened.

“The lines of communication that have been cut down (by allied air strikes) for Saddam have been cut down to an even greater extent for any of his commanders who might want to talk to each other,” the European military analyst said. “Everything goes through Saddam.

“Isolating these commanders even more, are the agents of Saddam’s security apparatus,” he added. “They’re sitting everywhere, right beside the military commanders all the way down to the unit level. So, no one can even talk to each other about a coup. As long as the head is not cut off, that whole system will remain there. And I would say getting rid of Saddam that way is as hard as it has always been.”

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Beyond the question of Hussein’s personal survival--or even that of Iraq’s political and military machinery, most of which dates back just two decades to the Baathist revolution of 1968--is the endurance of the Iraqi nation. Most economic analysts conclude that from any vital standpoint--geography, economy, natural resources and culture--the survival of Iraq is virtually assured.

Lying at the historical and geographical heart of the Middle East, the land that was known as Mesopotamia in ancient times has assets that no amount of allied bombing can erase: The world’s second-largest oil reserves after Saudi Arabia, the water of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers and a well-educated urban citizenry, part of a total population of more than 18 million in an area slightly larger than California.

Despite Iraq’s resources, development has been ragged over a half-century of political struggles and revolutions, the last of which brought Hussein to power in 1979.

Like Baghdad leaders before him, Hussein had his eyes on an asset denied Iraq by the post-World War I European colonial powers in the Middle East: easy access to the Persian Gulf and the open seas beyond.

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An eight-year war with neighboring Iran over control of the Shatt al Arab waterway between the two countries failed to solve the problem. Although possession of Kuwait and its modern deep-water harbor in Kuwait city would have been even better, that option has also been denied by the multinational forces now counterattacking Iraqi troops.

Any new rulers in Baghdad would face the challenge not only of rebuilding from the rubble of war but probably would have to do so without the help extended to Hussein by Arab and Western states during his war with Iran in the 1980s.

Vahe Petrossian, an analyst for London’s Middle East Economic Digest, said: “They’re heavily dependent on the West and the Soviets for technology. To get back up to prewar levels depends on the goodwill of these countries. It’s not too promising.”

During the Iran-Iraq War, Tehran was forced to fight under a trade embargo imposed by most of the outside world and, as a result, turned to home-grown technological resourcefulness. Iraq, either openly or secretly supported by Western nations, bought its technology off the shelf.

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“In terms of technological know-how, the Iraqi learning process was more marginal,” Petrossian said, explaining the problems that will confront a defeated Baghdad regime. “They (the Iraqis) have not shown much resourcefulness so far, except for digging holes in the sand.”

The immediate answer to its technical manpower needs could be imported labor. But will the Egyptians and others who provided expertise during the 1980s--only to find themselves fleeing as persecuted refugees during the last six months--actually return to a war-ravaged Iraq?

Revenue from oil production is the foundation of the economy, and it should not take long for a postwar Iraq to begin pumping crude into the world market. But domestic petroleum needs will be a longer-term problem. Allied bombers knocked out the refineries around Basra, Baghdad and the Kirkuk oil fields in northern Iraq.

Even before the war, the Iraqi economy was staggering under foreign debts to Western providers and the Persian Gulf states that bankrolled its war efforts against Iran.

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Last August, when Hussein’s regime sent its army into Kuwait, Baghdad’s treasury was nearly empty of foreign exchange and the country was bartering future deliveries of crude oil for imports from the West--except for the United States, to which it paid cash for grain.

It was in large part for just that reason that Hussein had been beseeching Kuwait’s ruling sheiks to support an increase in world oil prices. Each dollar increase in a barrel of oil, Hussein often said just before his conquest of Kuwait, would bring $1 billion a year into the Iraqi economy.

Fear and a devastated economy have also debased the Iraqi dinar, and inflation or a runaway currency black market seems a certainty in the postwar era.

However, despite the immediate economic problems and its likely inability to project power westward toward Israel, postwar Iraq will remain one of the pivotal states of the Persian Gulf, along with Iran and its more than 50 million people and Saudi Arabia and its limitless oil reserves.

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After all, long before Saddam Hussein, Iraq was widely perceived as the cradle of civilization, home of the biblical Garden of Eden.

Times staff writer Doyle McManus in Washington contributed to this story.


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