Inside the Mind of a Dictator
Saddam Hussein rules by fear, but he is also ruled by his fears.
The Iraqi president spends ever more time in the many bunkers beneath his ornate palaces. He rarely sleeps more than one night in the same place. He receives visitors only after they have been thoroughly searched and had their hands disinfected in up to three liquids. He uses food tasters, and special teams test everything the president might touch: bed linens, toiletries, clothes, ink.
Each day, meals are prepared for him at palaces around Iraq, so no one can know where he will dine. He gives televised speeches from more than a dozen identical conference rooms, so no one can know where he is. He even employs surgically enhanced presidential doubles, so no one can know who he is.
“He’s afraid all the time,” said Ahmed Samarrai, a former lieutenant colonel in Hussein’s security force. “He likes to escape. He likes to hide. He likes to be underground, in bunkers. He only sleeps two or three hours ... and he is always armed.”
This portrait, painted by Iraqi defectors, weapons inspectors, scholars, current and former U.S. intelligence officials and other experts in the United States, Europe and Israel, makes Hussein sound like a madman. Yet the experts place him in the ranks of sane but ruthless dictators who have ruled by terror, political cunning and personality cults.
As the United States prepares to go to war with Hussein for the second time in nearly 12 years, military and political analysts are mining these glimpses of his personality for clues to his likely diplomatic and military moves: Can Hussein be made to give up his weapons of mass destruction in exchange for his survival? Would he unleash a chemical or biological holocaust on invading U.S. troops? If he knew that he was about to be deposed, would he attempt to annihilate Israel or unleash a terrorist attack on America with weapons of mass destruction?
The problem is that experts disagree on the answers. In fact, Hussein’s mind-set is the subject of a high-stakes debate in the Bush administration, especially after a CIA letter this week asserted that Hussein is unlikely to use his lethal arsenal against the U.S. unless he comes under military attack.
Hussein, 65, is one of the most secretive, heavily guarded leaders in the world. Despite years of study--and during his 23-year rule Hussein has been studied as much as any leader since Josef Stalin--he remains an enigma to the West.
The Times based this story on a spectrum of sources--from former U.S. security officials and Iraqi opposition leaders to Middle Eastern writers and European academics. Some favor toppling Hussein, while others have deep misgivings about past and present U.S. policy toward Iraq. The diverse experts concurred on many facts about the Iraqi ruler; they differed over to what lengths he would go to resist attempts to disarm his regime.
Some defectors and political observers say Hussein is the consummate survivor who would do anything to stay in power, including give up weapons of mass destruction. These people insist that he is not suicidal and will back off, at least temporarily, if he can do so without humiliation or displays of weakness that would leave him prey to internal enemies.
Others take the view that Hussein has a messianic complex fueled by his survival of coups, assassination attempts and the wrath of U.S. presidents, and may choose to go out in a blaze. He is convinced that his divine mission is to restore the oppressed Arab world to its former glory, some observers say, and may sacrifice his life to secure his legacy.
Most analysts regard Hussein as essentially a thug who sees the world in the stark terms of the professional gunman he once was. They predict that he will resort to massive violence to defeat the Bush administration’s efforts to bring about a “regime change” in Baghdad. Hussein is most dangerous when he is cornered, they say. If “regime change” means a bullet to the brain, the Iraqi president is not likely to go quietly.
“He would like to try to survive, but I believe he knows that if we come back this time, we’re not going to let him off the way we did” in previous confrontations, said former CIA Director R. James Woolsey, a hard-liner on Iraq. “I think he would like to be remembered as someone who has wreaked maximum destruction on what [Osama] bin Laden calls the Crusaders and the Jews. He will definitely try to wreak maximum destruction.”
Those who have made a career of watching Hussein say he is a study in contradictions, at once clever and prone to miscalculation. He claims that he can look into people’s eyes and know whether they will betray him before they know it themselves. He plants provocateurs to ensnare potential traitors. And he has a talent for dividing his enemies, as shown by the current dispute in the United Nations over how to deal with him.
“He is not impulsive, only acts after judicious consideration and can be extremely patient,” said Jerrold Post, a former CIA psychiatrist and now director of the political psychology program at George Washington University who has studied Hussein for years. “Indeed, he uses time as a weapon.”
Yet, Hussein is dangerously isolated and apt to make catastrophic mistakes in foreign affairs. His invasion of Kuwait in 1990 resulted from a fundamental misreading of signals from the United States and the West, experts say. In the subsequent battle with an overwhelming international force, he let domestic political considerations trump the seemingly rational course of withdrawing from Kuwait because he judged that he could not afford the loss of face at home.
Hussein studied law at the University of Cairo and in Baghdad, but he has rarely traveled outside the Middle East. Although he watches Al Jazeera, the Arab satellite news station, and even CNN, analysts say he often gets limited and distorted information.
“No one in his inner circle really understands the workings of the outside world,” said Remy Leveau, a former French envoy in the Middle East and professor at the Institute for Political Studies in Paris. “The few who might understand the world are afraid to tell him the truth. He is the classic primitive dictator.”
Iron Rule Resembles That of Stalin
The Iraqi leader sees himself on par with Stalin--whom he admires--as well as China’s Mao Tse-tung and former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. According to the biography “Saddam Hussein: The Politics of Revenge,” by Said Aburish, a Kurdish leader visited Hussein in his palace soon after the Iraqi seized power in 1979. The new president had just awakened and wore a bathrobe when he welcomed the visitor, Mahmoud Othman.
There was a military cot in the office, indicating that Hussein had slept there after putting in a typical 17-hour day. Next to the bed, Othman saw 12 pairs of expensive shoes--the indulgence of a man who had gone barefoot as a peasant boy.
“And the rest of the office was nothing but a small library full of books about one man, Stalin,” Othman said. “One could say he went to bed with the Russian dictator.”
Like Stalin, Hussein has used violence to maintain his grip on power. He has executed underlings who dared to disagree with him, sometimes shooting the offender on the spot, according to U.S. officials and defectors. He has also allegedly given pistols to aides and ordered them to shoot, thus making them his accomplices.
But death is not necessarily the punishment that those who serve Hussein fear most. The Iraqi regime is notorious for forcing suspected turncoats to watch videotapes of their wives being raped and their children tortured, according to numerous defector accounts.
“Nobody can look in his eyes,” said Samarrai, who defected in 1998. “You feel he could shatter you.... One year he killed three guards ... because they tried to steal some of his shoes.”
There are, nonetheless, a few stories of Hussein showing kindness to people who had treated him well. In one, he saved a Jewish Iraqi from the torture chamber, according to biographer Aburish, because the man had tipped him generously when Hussein had sold him cigarettes on the streets as a child.
By most accounts, Hussein keeps his own counsel and has not consulted aides about some of his most vital foreign policy moves. The solitary decisions were his worst, made “when the leader felt omnipotent and invincible, while at the same time his pride was hurt, and he believed that he and Iraq were being wronged,” wrote Amatzia Baram of the University of Haifa, one of Israel’s leading Hussein watchers.
“When his advisors feel that the leader’s mind is made up, they agree with him,” Baram wrote. “They prefer to go down with the ship eventually rather than be tossed overboard immediately.”
Among a handful of close advisors, Deputy Prime Minister Tarik Aziz can speak with relative frankness, said Iyad Allawi, leader of the Iraqi National Accord, or INA, a London-based opposition group. But even Aziz avoids upsetting his president, Allawi said.
Hussein’s isolation has increased since the 1991 Persian Gulf War, as he has suffered betrayals from his most trusted circles: his family, his clan and his army.
In 1995, after a shootout with Hussein’s eldest son, Uday, two of Hussein’s sons-in-law defected to Jordan and spilled secrets about Iraqi weapons programs. They were persuaded to return--and immediately were killed.
Altogether, Hussein has had 53 of his relatives killed, according to Mustafa Alani, an Iraq expert at the Royal United Services Institute for Defense, a think tank in London.
Hussein’s army reportedly has been demoralized by the country’s failure to win the Iran-Iraq war and by the crushing defeat in the Gulf War. There have been at least four coup attempts since 1990, according to Baram. Some of those executed belonged to the Republican Guard and the Special Republican Guard, the units that are supposed to be the best trained and most loyal.
This time, the Iraqi regime has threatened its own military commanders with chemical attacks if they attempt an uprising, according to Allawi, whose organization has frequent secret contact with Iraqi officials.
More paranoid than ever, Hussein moves every night with a security force of about 3,600 guards, including antitank and antiaircraft personnel and a field hospital, according to Iraqi defectors. He even has three identical trucks equipped with bedrooms, former United Nations weapons inspector Scott Ritter said.
“For the secular-minded Saddam, security consciousness is the equivalent of religious fervor,” wrote the CIA’s Regis W. Matlak in an unclassified article.
Hussein’s recent public statements indicate an awareness that his power could be weakening, according to Abbas Al-Jabani, who was once an architect of the regime’s propaganda programs. He said Hussein has taken to the airwaves proclaiming the Iraqi people to be partners in his struggle to keep the Zionists and the Americans from destroying Iraq.
The Iraqi leader is convinced of the moral weakness of the West, its inability to accept mass casualties and its fundamental inferiority to Arab civilization, experts say. Hussein seized Western hostages as “human shields” in 1990 because he calculated that the U.S. would be too squeamish to blow up targets to which its citizens were strapped.
Now some think that he is betting on the West’s fear of mass casualties from biological or chemical strikes.
High-ranking defectors insist that Hussein believes his deadly arsenal kept him from losing the Iran-Iraq war and enabled him to survive the Gulf War.
“He’s not grateful to us for backing off in ’91,” said Woolsey, the former CIA director. “He believes it was his resolution and his possession of chemical and bacteriological weapons that did it. And he sees these as his only real trump cards.”
That outlook makes Hussein inherently hostile to disarmament, the stated aim of the international community in this confrontation.
“He cannot comply fully with the kind of demilitarization that the U.S. is looking for because his weapons of mass destruction are the be-all and end-all of this regime--what he is all about,” said Kanan Makiya, an Iraqi defector affiliated with Harvard University who wrote a book about Iraqi politics titled “Republic of Fear.”
Moreover, if it is true that part of Iraq’s chemical and biological arsenal is stashed inside Hussein’s palaces, his obsession with his personal safety is likely to interfere with inspections.
Senior Iraqi officials have told foreign diplomats that Hussein will never allow unfettered access to his palaces because he believes that the weapons inspectors will send his coordinates to U.S. missile launchers or even plant special devices to kill him slowly with radioactive rays.
But not everyone who knows Iraq well thinks that Hussein will fight to the death; they predict that he would relinquish his weapons if he were faced with annihilation.
“He’d quite cheerfully give up whatever weapons he has to avoid being killed,” said Nathaniel Kern, an Arabist and president of Foreign Reports Inc., a Washington-based consulting firm. In the end, Kern predicted, “he will let in the weapons inspectors unless he thinks he will be killed anyway.”
Hussein’s manipulation of the U.N. inspection programs shows a talent for diplomatic bait-and-switch. He is patient, shameless about reversing course if expedient, and uninhibited about lying, experts say. In the last two weeks, he has helped to divide the United States and Britain from the rest of the U.N. Security Council.
“The man will do everything diplomatically to avoid war,” said Alani, the London academic. “He has reached the conclusion that war is coming. He’s resigned to it. But he’s hoping something will happen to divert the attention of the Americans. Possibly another 9/11, a major terrorist attack. Or a scandal that will shake the credibility of the Bush administration. That’s why he’s playing for time.”
During the Gulf War, Hussein was shocked that neighboring Arab countries sided with the West and provided the bases from which to attack him. He has since moved to improve his regional position. Kuwait, Jordan and Saudi Arabia remain hostile, but tensions with Iran and Turkey are somewhat reduced.
Hussein has cleverly co-opted Syria since the death of his old Baathist rival, Hafez Assad. Assad’s son and successor, Bashar, now benefits from a deal by which Syria buys about 150,000 barrels of Iraqi oil a day at half the world market price, Kern said. The deal skirts U.N. sanctions by allowing the Syrians to export more of their own oil, while Iraq gets revenues it can spend without the fetters of the U.N. “oil-for-food” program. U.S. and Israeli officials worry that the money has gone straight to Hussein’s weapons program.
In another gambit aimed at Muslims at home and abroad, Hussein has burnished his Islamic credentials. Although his Baathist ideology is socialist and secular, Hussein has built gargantuan mosques and has put up billboards around Baghdad showing himself kneeling on a prayer mat.
Not only has he wrapped himself in the Islamic flag, but he also had the words “Allahu akbar” (God is great) emblazoned across the flag of Iraq in his own handwriting, Woolsey said.
One of Hussein’s mosques is said to house a museum that displays a copy of the Koran--605 pages--purportedly written with 36 liters of Hussein’s blood. Whether or not the ink flowed from his own veins, the holy book is testament to Hussein’s determination to portray himself as devout.
Still Confident of Global Support
The West has interpreted Hussein’s moves to mean that if the U.N. does not lift its economic embargo against Iraq, he might push the secular nation into the Muslim fundamentalist camp.
According to defectors, Hussein believes that the Arab street will rise up in solidarity with him against the West. Years of playing cat and mouse with weapons inspectors and fending off the effects of sanctions and punitive bombing raids have won Hussein some Arab admirers, but perhaps not as many as he believes.
“He thinks the world will be on his side,” said French analyst Leveau. “He misreads the extent of his support.”
If words give way to war and Hussein sees that he cannot win, many predict that he will repeat a long-standing pattern of lashing out at other targets.
In early 1991, as his armies were forced to retreat from Kuwait and bombs rained down on Baghdad, Hussein ordered the Kuwaiti oil fields set ablaze and sent oil pouring into the Persian Gulf. Some analysts worry that this time, a cornered or defeated Hussein could torch his own oil fields, the world’s second-largest, in order to keep them out of the hands of American occupiers.
Hussein ordered the failed assassination attempt on former President George Bush in 1993 and arranged the killings of his own sons-in-law in 1996 to punish them for their defection. If thwarted this time, the most likely targets of his wrath are believed to be some of those who have suffered before: Iraqis and Israel.
After the Gulf War, U.S. forces found documents showing that missiles tipped with chemical or biological warheads had been deployed to Iraqi field commanders with authorization to fire if Baghdad was out of contact or destroyed, according to Judith Yaphe, a former intelligence analyst now at National Defense University in Washington.
Debate continues about why the missiles were never fired. It is generally thought that Hussein was deterred by a U.S. warning to Iraq’s foreign minister that any use of nonconventional weapons would seal Iraq’s destruction. But a former weapons inspector who asked not to be named said it would be a mistake to assume that deterrence worked in 1991.
“We have no idea” why the weapons were never fired, the official said. The U.S. does not know whether an order was issued and never got through, whether the missiles failed to fire, or whether field commanders, who had been told they would be treated as war criminals if they used chemical weapons, might have balked.
When he fired nearly 40 Scud missiles at Israel during the 1991 war, Hussein’s goal was to draw the Israelis into the conflict and break Arab backing of the international coalition against Iraq. Israel refrained from responding at the urging of the United States.
This time, however, Hussein knows that the Bush administration’s policy is “regime change.” This greatly increases the risk that he would unleash biological and chemical weapons on his own people, U.S. troops, Israel or even a Western city, some experts say. They fear the doomsday scenario: an all-out attack on the Iraqi leader provoking exactly the nightmare that it was intended to avert.
“Why expect Saddam to go gently when he has nothing left to lose?” said Richard K. Betts, director of the Institute of War and Peace at Columbia University. “We have given Saddam all the warning time he needs to concoct retaliation, since the Bush administration has made a coming war the most telegraphed punch in military history.”
In the CIA letter this week, the director of the agency disclosed its assessment that if the U.S. attacked the Iraqi leader, “Saddam might decide that the extreme step of assisting Islamist terrorists in conducting a [weapons of mass destruction] attack against the United States would be his last chance to exact vengeance by taking a large number of victims with him.”
Hussein’s means of delivering weapons of mass destruction are limited, according to a recent British intelligence report that estimated his arsenal has been reduced to no more than 20 long-range missiles. But he could instead use a small plane or send commandos or terrorists to disperse a lethal biological agent in a city.
Retired Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark said military planners could not neutralize the threat of a nonconventional attack on U.S. troops, but there are ways to minimize the effects.
“There are no guarantees on biological weapons. One of my worst fears is that Saddam Hussein will use biological weapons against his own [Shiite] population in the south in order to create a humanitarian disaster that would impede our efforts,” Clark said.
Former CIA director Woolsey’s worst fear: a biological attack on the U.S. or Israel that could be difficult to thwart or even detect quickly. In addition to anthrax and VX, Iraq has weaponized aflatoxin, whose main effect is to cause liver cancer in children, he noted.
“Infected individuals in the case of communicable diseases, or model airplanes that can fly long distances, or Piper Cubs that can spray like crop dusting, there are all sorts of unconventional ways to deliver” a bacteriological weapon, Woolsey said.
Clark said the security precautions already being taken, combined with an alert citizenry, offer the best defense.
In recent years, the United States had grown “somewhat complacent” about Hussein’s propensity for a terrorist attack, said Ellen Laipson, a Middle East scholar and former CIA analyst. “What is a great unknown, however, is whether Saddam has already planted any sleepers in the United States.”
Whatever Hussein’s intent, skeptics doubt that he could pull off such an ambitious and horrific plan. Alani, the London-based Iraq scholar, called the idea of a suitcase attack with a biological weapon on New York or Tel Aviv “fantasy.” He and others argue that Hussein’s power is brittle and that his authority would fade quickly in an all-out invasion.
“He will do his best to inflict damage before he goes down, but I don’t think his orders will be carried out,” Alani said. “Apart from the people who are going to die with him. That is a small group. For a major operation like a biological attack you have to have people on the ground. One thing is to issue an order. The crucial thing is whether your order will be obeyed.”
But analysts say that the international community will have to demonstrate sufficient resolve to topple Hussein if doubters among his subordinates are going to disobey orders to use weapons of mass destruction. The U.S. government says it will warn field commanders against any use of chemical and biological weapons, and Iraqi opposition leaders say they are reaching out to Iraqi commanders and diplomats with the same message.
“He may be ready to go down to the last bullet,” Laipson said, “‘but you have to hope the team around him will make a different calculation.”
Efron reported from Washington and Rotella from London and Paris. Times staff writers Bob Drogin and Robin Wright in Washington contributed to this report.