Powerful Paranoid: How Saddam Hussein Holds On to Power : Book Mark : BOOK REVIEW: “Saddam Hussein: A Political Biography,” by Efraim Karsh and Inari Rautsi, is reviewed on Page 1 of today’s Book Review section.

<i> Efraim Karsh is lecturer in the department of war studies at King's College, London. Inari Rautsi is a research fellow in international relations at the University of Helsinki</i>

Saddam Hussein has consistently survived challenges to his leadership because of his control techniques. An excerpt.

Saddam Hussein knew all too well that fear was not enough to secure absolute power; that if he were to stay at the helm for an indefinite period of time--and he had never had any other intention--then the Iraqi people had to be made to love and adore him, to identify themselves with his person. He was to become Iraq.

The nurturance of Hussein’s personality cult involved widespread material inducements and demonstrative shows of goodwill aimed at portraying him as the nation’s generous benefactor. Pay increases were announced for a wide range of wage earners, with an especially substantial pay raise given to all members of the armed forces. A solemn presidential pledge was made to speed up the country’s economic development projects. A general amnesty was declared, with the exception of prisoners convicted of plots against the regime, espionage, economic sabotage and drug smuggling.

The Iraqi people were increasingly exposed to the personality of their omnipotent, omnipresent, fatherly leader, who was portrayed as strict, but righteous. His image sprang up everywhere. Numerous sites were named after him. His life story was featured in an edition of the Baghdad newspaper al-Jumhuriyya, a film and an exhibition mounted in Baghdad.


Many Iraqis were taken by surprise when their president popped in on them in factories, hospitals, mosques and farms. Hussein used these unannounced visits to make himself appear close at hand and potentially at any place at any time. Occasionally he would try to disguise his identity by wearing a big hat or an Arabic kefiya (cotton headdress), so as to ostensibly receive candid replies from his unsuspecting audience. In a television program featuring such meetings, Hussein was often shown sitting at an ordinary Iraqi home, exploring his hosts’ views about himself and his policies. The hosts, pretending not to recognize their president, whose picture adorned every street corner, did not spare their praise for his great achievements. Whenever Hussein felt the subject had been exhausted, he unveiled his real identity, to his hosts’ staged surprise and delight.

The glorious Mesopotamian past seemed to offer an ideal route to bypass Iraq’s present problems. By making all Iraqis--whether Arabs, Kurds, Sunnis, or Shiites--perceive themselves as heirs to the great Mesopotamian civilizations, Hussein hoped to create a unifying concept that would transcend their divisions. Once such collective identity had been established, it would be linked to the glorious past through the personality of Hussein, the natural heir to the great Mesopotamian kings.

Hence, from his early years in power Hussein embarked on a sustained attempt to create a new and specifically Iraqi identity out of the disparate elements of the country’s population. Without divorcing Iraq from the Arab world, he emphasized its Mesopotamian heritage in an attempt to create a new “Iraqi man.”

Having established himself at the Presidential Palace, Hussein ran the country through a combination of deep fear and awesome grandeur. Although his appetite for pomp was not to assume preposterous proportions until the end of the Iran-Iraq War, it was visible in the first days of his presidency. Hussein’s wardrobe expanded to no fewer than 200 expensive suits, uniforms and tribal costumes. A yacht was ordered from a Danish shipyard.


A personal guest of Hussein at the time, a Western surgeon flown to Baghdad to operate on him--Iraqi surgeons were presumably reluctant to undertake this hazardous task--was struck by the more fearful side in Hussein’s personality: his excessively suspicious mentality and the fear he evoked among his coterie. In the long conversation between the two after the operation, Hussein paid close attention to the explanations given to him, and his manner was that of a person recognizing a higher professional authority.

And yet, despite this reception, the surgeon felt chilled. He did not know Hussein’s political history; however, he was disturbed by the oblique look in Hussein’s eyes, and the deep tension and anxiety among those present in the room.

At a certain point during the conversation, Hussein complained of his many headaches and asked whether there was a way of reducing them. The surgeon answered that it was possible in principle, depending on the causes of the headaches. He then asked Hussein if he were aware of any circumstances that might put him under stress. The expression on the face of Hussein’s personal physician, who acted as a translator during the meeting, revealed that the question had better remain unasked.

Sweating heavily, he translated the question to his master, waiting nervously for the answer. Hussein, nevertheless, did not show the slightest sign of irritation. “Of course I have weighty reasons for distress,” he answered, embarking on a long exposition of the tangled web of conspiracies surrounding him. This is doubtless a clear case of paranoia, the surgeon thought to himself.

1991, by Efraim Karsh and Inari Rautsi. Reprinted with permission from The Free Press.