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Saddam Hussein: Portrait of an absolute dictator

Sunday, October 13, 2002

By Sonni Efron and Sebastian Rotella, The Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- 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 as many as 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 Saddam'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 Saddam 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 Saddam for the second time in 12 years, military and political analysts are mining these glimpses of his personality for clues to his likely diplomatic and military moves: Can Saddam 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 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 was unlikely to use his lethal arsenal against the United States unless he comes under military attack.

Despite years of study -- and during his 23 years of rule Saddam, 65, has been studied as much as any leader since Josef Stalin -- he remains an enigma to the West. As tends to be true with dictators, neutral observers can be hard to find.

The Los Angeles 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.

Most analysts regard Saddam 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,the Iraqi capital. Saddam 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.

Saddam studied law at the University of Cairo in Egypt and in Baghdad, but he rarely has 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."

The Iraqi leader's isolation has increased since the Persian Gulf War, as he has suffered betrayals from his most trusted circles: his family, his clan and his army.

Moreover, if it is true that part of Iraq's chemical and biological arsenal is stashed inside Saddam's palaces, his obsession with his personal safety is likely to interfere with inspections.

Senior Iraqi officials have told foreign diplomats that Saddam will never allow unfettered access to his palaces because he believes 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 Saddam will fight to the death; they predict he would relinquish his weapons if he were faced with annihilation.

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