Playing a final political card for survival, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein on Wednesday tried to recast his unpopular, losing battle for Kuwait as a nationalist struggle for Iraq itself against an invading force determined to destroy it.
For the first time since allied divisions crossed into Iraq at the outset of the land war three days before, Hussein’s mouthpiece, Baghdad Radio, finally informed the Iraqi people at noon Wednesday that the allies actually had taken up positions on Iraqi soil.
“Their aim has clearly become to invade Iraq,” Hussein’s spokesman declared in the broadcast disclosing that a force of U.S. paratroopers landed in the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah. However, it made no mention of the massive air and tank war on Iraq’s Republican Guard near Basra and elsewhere on the southern front.
Restating the Iraqi president’s latest campaign in a commentary broadcast just one hour after Baghdad tried to swap two U.N. resolutions for a cease-fire, the spokesman added, “Now that Iraq has agreed to withdraw . . . the allies have exposed the hatred they have for the Iraqi troops.”
Most military and political analysts said Hussein deliberately delayed informing his nation of the allied presence in Iraq until after he issued official pronouncements that all Iraqi forces had been withdrawn from Kuwait, which came earlier Wednesday. The aim, they added, is now to transform Iraq the invader, into Iraq the victim of invasion. And they stressed that the new strategy is clearly Hussein’s last hope of recapturing and winning support at home and abroad.
One Arab analyst who knows the Iraqi president personally indicated that the strategy primarily is meant for critical audiences in the Iraqi army and his ruling party.
“His own people internally are going to cling to him as much as possible in this time,” said Dr. Abdullah Toukan, an adviser to Jordan’s King Hussein. “The Iraqis already are absolutely convinced the West is out to destroy Iraq.”
Other analysts added that Hussein’s very survival now depends upon his ability to appeal to that nationalist pride, which he has manipulated deftly during the 12 years he has been in power.
Those analysts added, however, that Hussein’s internal popularity had hit an all-time low several weeks into the air war, when most Iraqis felt that keeping Kuwait was not worth sacrificing Iraq. And they stressed that his strategy suddenly to wrap what most Iraqis sense was a bitter defeat in Kuwait into the flag of a patriotic war for the Motherland may well be his only protection from assassination or overthrow in the short term, as it will continue to fuel his support as long as the allies remain in Iraq.
Such a strategy, though, also seeks to win Iraq new-found support in Moscow and other capitals where there is a natural suspicion of the West’s motives. Prominent Middle East analysts see in that a danger for the allies--and for Iraq itself--in the event of a prolonged military presence on Iraqi soil.
Jordan’s Crown Prince Hassan, an acquaintance and keen analyst of the Iraqi leader and his people, indicated that each day the allied troops remain in Iraq, they expose themselves not only to international condemnation but also to an increasing likelihood of triggering an all-out guerrilla war, particularly from Iraq’s heavily armed civilian militia.
Further, according to military analysts who witnessed Iraq’s eight-year war with Iran, if the allied forces continue to push into Iraq, they may meet with increasing resistance from Iraq’s regular army, including the use of chemical weapons.
Noting that the Iraqi forces were “not fighting on their home turf” in defending Kuwait, Prince Hassan said the Iraqi army will fight much harder to hold its own ground.
Asked whether the Iraqis are more likely to use chemical weapons now that allied troops are pushing into Iraq, Toukan, a nuclear physicist who advises King Hussein on scientific and environmental issues, replied: “Of course. They will use every single weapon they have to defend Iraq.”
During the Iran-Iraq War, observed Toukan and other analysts who witnessed it, Iraq’s forces fought the hardest when they were either defending their own territory or reclaiming land lost to Iran.
It was clearly to play to that home audience sentiment within the army itself that Hussein sharply altered his propaganda tactics, as thousands of his soldiers continued to fall through surrender, death or capture throughout Kuwait and southern Iraq on Wednesday.
Realizing that not only the outside world but many of his own people had begun to view his invasion and occupation of Kuwait as illegal expansionism, Hussein sought to use the same argument now to condemn Kuwait’s liberators.
Ever since Hussein came to power more than a decade ago, he has manipulated the Iraqis’ deep desire for symbols of national pride. Each major military advance that Iraq achieved filled the Iraqis with as much pride as it fueled the fears of Iraq’s enemies and the West.
Throughout the allied air war that destroyed most of those symbols of military strength and progress, as well as Iraq’s modern bridges and highways, Hussein’s propaganda machine continually reminded his people that the attacks were aimed at reducing their nation to the poverty and powerlessness that prevailed before Hussein’s Arab Baath Socialist Party came to power two decades ago.
But Wednesday’s pronouncements took that campaign much further. Coming just 24 hours after Hussein announced he was relinquishing his hold on Kuwait, the strategy, analysts say, is a desperate attempt to deflect popular criticism of the failed war effort and a possible challenge from within his own party.
“Saddam has survived because he has convinced his people that they needed him to survive,” said one diplomat based in Baghdad until just before the war began.
“He may be a dictator, but he’s their dictator. When he holds the world to ransom, the Iraqi people hold the world to ransom. But if his weaknesses ever become their weaknesses, and his own people think he’s leading them to the gallows, I’m not sure they’ll all decide to hang together.”