Plotters issuing open threats from a neighboring capital, the embattled dictator countering them with bravado and ridicule--Saddam Hussein's postwar Iraq would seem to be a stage set for political farce, if reality were not so tragic.
Approaching the anniversary of the American-led war against his Baghdad regime, the Iraqi leader and his men have been performing almost daily for the press, pointedly mocking President Bush and other enemies. Some of the scripts might come from the pages of "Alice in Wonderland."
At a televised ceremony where he decorated military commanders for their role in Iraq's devastating defeat in the Persian Gulf War, Hussein laughed off Western reports that he may be threatened by a coup. If the West wants a coup, he taunted, he will oblige. "Comrade Izzat here will be the deputy leader of the coup, and I will be the leader," Hussein said, referring to his revolutionary soul mate, Izzat Ibrahim.
"Let's record the names of those who want to take part with us, so some of these Western circles can relax," Hussein told the officers, each a carbon copy of their leader, right down to the broom mustaches. The camera caught the requisite chuckles of military bonhomie.
Thumbing his nose at the grindingly persistent hopes in Washington and elsewhere that someone or something will bring him down, Hussein at the same time seems caught up in the struggle. Most autocrats don't publicly air the word coup, but the Iraqi president, having survived a war designed in part to break him, is still engaged in the postwar psychological conflict. And his enemies are not letting up.
For the past week, Hussein's opposition-in-exile has been gathering in Damascus, capital of his longtime nemesis Syrian President Hafez Assad. Leftists, Islamites, democrats, Kurds, Sunni and Shiite Muslims--they are preparing a war council, a sequel to one they convened in Damascus last March to help foment the failed uprisings against Hussein, who had just enough heavy weapons left from the debacle in Kuwait to put them down.
The council is tentatively scheduled for this weekend, and hostile pronouncements have preceded it. Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani, who pushed last spring's uprising in northern Iraq and then went to Baghdad to talk peace when it failed, is talking war again.
"We are openly cooperating with the Iraqi opposition to overthrow the present government in Iraq. Day by day, Saddam is weakened. He is hated by the army. . . ," Talabani declared at his headquarters in Kurdish-controlled Iraq.
"The economic crisis alone could finish him," he said. With unity and U.S. backing, he boasted, the opposition could bring down Hussein "within a month."
The political thrust and parry comes at a pivotal time for Iraq and Hussein's determined efforts to hang onto power. One key to success for the strongman is money. If he can get his hands on dollars, he can ease the hunger and sickness of his war-weary populace, defusing the possibility of popular protests even in the face of Draconian security.
In Vienna next week, Iraqi negotiators will press U.N. officials for changes in the Security Council resolution that restricts Baghdad's oil sales, deducts war reparations from the proceeds and requires international supervision for distribution of food and medicine purchased abroad. So far, Baghdad has rejected the terms of the resolution, declaring them a violation of its sovereignty, while the United States and other Security Council members have resolutely opposed easing the requirements.
In the political standoff, the Iraqis suffer. Baghdad has sold virtually no oil and raised no funds to aid its populace. The regime says 80,000 Iraqi children have died because of shortages caused by the U.N. embargo.
If the Iraqis could eat rhetoric, the president served up a bountiful meal in a Christmas Day message, declaring: "We shall continue living on the yield of our hands, providing our people with their needs through the creative minds and strong arms of our men."