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Can Saddam Survive?

President Bush’s likening of Saddam to Hitler, however popular with the press and public, seems off the mark; Stalin would be more like it. Saddam has made no secret of his admiration for the Soviet dictator, and he is said to keep books on Stalin in his office. One day over lunch, a Soviet diplomat marveled at the remarkable similarities between the two men—their indifference toward ideology, their cultivation of a climate of paranoia, their singleminded pursuit of personal power. In some respects, the diplomat said, Saddam was even worse than Stalin. “In Stalin’s time, we at least had war heroes,” he observed. “Here, there are no war heroes. Saddam fears they will offer competition.”

In the 1970s, the Baath party, in an effort to absorb the Soviet experience firsthand, sent a high-level delegation to Moscow. “They thoroughly studied all spheres of the Communist party’s activities,” another Soviet diplomat told me. “They then tried to apply it in Iraq, taking into account their own ideology.” Having seized power in a 1968 coup, the Baathists remained a Bolshevik-l they saw a party that had expanded mightily in the course of swallowing civil society. Intent on following suit, the Baathists began a major recruitment drive, and by the end of the Iran-Iraq War their party had between 1.5 million and 2 million members and supporters—about one in every ten Iraqis.

More recently, however, the Iraqis have been less eager to follow the Soviet lead. “In 1987, a delegation from our country visited Iraq,” one of the Soviets told me. “Saddam was very enthusiastic about our reforms. He said, ‘We’re doing the same process here. In fact, we’re ahead of you.’ At that time, they were in favor of Mikhail Gorbachev. Now they’re very critical. They look at the Soviet Union and see anarchy, a country on the brink of economic collapse, with its allies gone over to the other camp.”

The regime’s disdain for perestroika is apparent in its actions since the end of the Gulf War. On the one hand, the government has loudly declared its commitment to political reform. It has promised to complete the drafting of a new constitution (a project underway for severalears) and to hold elections by the end of the year. In early July, Iraq’s National Assembly adopted a new law authorizing the formation of opposition political parties (as long as they adhere to the principles of the 1968 “revolution”). And a new press law will soon permit the publication of independent newspapers.

In practice, though, little seems to have changed. Consider the press. Iraq has three main daily newspapers, published by the party, the army, and the Ministry of Information. (A fourth, called Babil, or Babylon, was recently established under the editorship of Saddam’s son Udai; its main purpose seems to be to give him a job.) Except for the activities of the president, whose every move is chronicled in tedious detail, the papers offer little in the way of news. Thus, the negotiations with the Kurds over an autonomous zone—surely the most important domestic story in Iraq—have received almost no attention beyond an occasional item predicting that a pact will be signed. Every now and then, the papers direct mild criticisms at government ministries for failing to restore water or electricity in a particular district, but even then the real blame is reserved for the Western “aggressor” nations and their Zionist minions.

As for the government itself, Saddam, far from reaching out for new supporters, has turned further inward, filling most top posts with relatives and friends, many of them from his home town of Tikrit. As interior minister, for instance, Saddam appointed a cousin, Ali Hassan al-Majid, who is known primarily for having ordered the use of chemical weapons against the Kurds in 1988. Saddam’s half brother now controls the intelligence services and his son-in-law heads the defense ministry. The army and party, meanwhile, have been subject to ongoing purges. According to news reports summarized in the Los Angeles Times of July 14, as many as eighteen senior army officers were recently hanged for attempting a coup. In the south, Baath officials who were spared execution by Shiite rebels have been ordered to explain how this happened. Those judged to have been too lenient toward the local population have reportedly been executed.

Arriving in Iraq, I hoped to find out about the mood within the Baath party. The decision to invade Kuwait rates as one of the great political blunders of the century. What were people in the party saying about it? Nothing, I discovered. There are no debates going on inside the party. In fact, the party itself barely exists. “The party is dead,” I was told by one Iraqi well versed in Baath affairs. “People are too deathly afraid of Saddam Hussein to engage in any discussion.”

Essentially, the party has become even more subordinate to the whims and ambitions of one man. The war did little to erode Saddam’s cult of personality; today, in fact, more of his pictures are on display than ever before. Soon, I was told, the cult will enter a new phase as the paintings of Saddam, which wilt quickly in the heat, are replaced with mosaics. The overall theme will be Saddam and the reconstruction of Iraq. Dr. Mahoud Ahmed, a member of the Presidential Murals Committee, which oversees public portraits of the president, told me that “the mosaics will be more beautiful and last longer.” They will also be more expensive. Unemployment in Iraq is approaching 70 percent, yet somehow the government has found the resources needed to plaster Iraq’s walls with tiny tiles.

The most important factor in Saddam’s ability to retain power has been the revitalization of his internal security apparatus. After the war and the March uprisings, the secret police, like other organs of the government, were evidently in disarray. Journalists and diplomats in Baghdad at the time recall an atmosphere of exhilarating freedom, with Iraqis suddenly giving vent to the bitterness that had accumulated over the years of repression. Once it became clear that Saddam was going to survive, though, the mukhabarat and its affiliated agencies were quickly able to regroup.

That they could was owing, in part, to the variable effects of the air war. Allied bombers inflicted immense damage on Iraq’s military infrastructure. The huge army installation on the main road leading west out of Baghdad now is largely vacant. Hundreds of soaring antennae, clustered in a huge command-and-control field, remain standing but they are mute, their transmitting equipment destroyed in the air assault. The hated Popular Army, in which all Iraqi males had had to spend five, or eight, or even more years, has been dissolved.

Internally, though, the regime’s capacity for repression seems undiminished. Few of the prisons and detention centers used by the secret police were damaged by the air war. A highly visible row of expensive townhouses along the Tigris River, known to house topranking members of the mukhabarat, came through the war without a scratch. Today, the long reach of the security agencies is apparent in the shady-looking men who gather in front of hotels, in the guards who camp outside embassies, in the many checkpoints along the nation’s highways.

Returning to my hotel one night, I received an urgent message from a European relief worker asking that I come to her hotel at once. Distraught, she told me how a cab driver who had picked her up had begun pouring out his hatred and contempt for the regime. He wanted to tell his story to a journalist, he said, and as they pulled up in front of the al-Rasheed Hotel, where she had an appointment, the woman scribbled her name on a piece of paper and told him to get in touch with her when he felt ready to talk. Just then, a burly man stationed at the hotel gate hurried over. The driver began shaking uncontrollably, and the relief worker—realizing that her presence had gotten the man in trouble—quickly walked away. She worried about what had become of him.

The fear is back in Baghdad. And yet, something has changed. I met more than a few people who, for the first time, are refusing to be afraid. Just below the surface of Iraqi politics, I came to believe, something very important is beginning to take shape.

3.

One morning I set out for Baghdad University, a cluster of modern buildings that, like so many other public spaces in Baghdad, seemed grimly impersonal. I was hoping to find a professor of economics, who, I’d been told, could speak knowledgeably about the economic challenges facing the government. Since most of the telephones in the capital were still not working as a result of the allied bombing, I’d had to show up without an appointment. At the main administration building, mention of the professor’s name drew a blank stare. I persisted, however, and the receptionist seemed finally to grasp whom I was looking for. I was led outside, down a walkway, and into another building, where I was shown into a room filled with laboratory equipment. In it was a balding middle-aged man. I told him of my interest in learning about the Iraqi economy. “But I know nothing about economics,” said the man, pointing to the technical equipment around him. “I’m a scientist.”

Clearly, I had the wrong man. Nonetheless, he invited me to stay for coffee. Filling a beaker with water and placing it over a Bunsen burner to boil, he closed the door and we began to talk. Like most Baghdadis these days, the scientist was obsessed with prices. He had to support a family of five on a monthly salary of 150 dinars. In the past, that had been more than sufficient, but with a kilo of beef selling for thirteen dinars, he could barely get by. Referring to sanctions, the scientist said, “Why is President Bush hurting us, the people? We have no problem with the United States.”

He continued: “Why did the US begin something here, then leave it halfway?” To judge from events since the war, he said, the US “did not really seem to support freedom in Iraq.” At this point, he said, he saw only one solution to the crisis: emigration. He had begun to investigate the possibility last year, but the invasion of Kuwait had put an end to his efforts.

We spoke for about an hour. As I prepared to go, I asked whether our meeting would cause him any trouble. “I don’t know,” he replied evenly. “You’re the first journalist I’ve ever spoken with. Maybe I’ll be visited by someone after you leave.” The risks were clearly great, but he had been willing to take them—even with a total stranger.

In an effort to limit Westerners’ contact with local residents, the government had declared all mosques offlimits to non-Muslims. One night, while I was standing outside the Imam al-Adham mosque, a lovely shrine with handsome pillars and a goldleafed dome, a slightly built man leaving the mosque greeted me in English. Without prompting he informed me that he had spent twenty-five years working as an engineer in Kuwait before the invasion had forced him to leave. “I lost everything I had,” he said bitterly, adding, “America must help us put an end to all this.” Glancing around, he remarked, “I realize I can get in trouble for talking to you—there are detectives everywhere—but I don’t care. I have to say that we’ve had enough of this bullshit.” The “man cannot last,” he said, but before I could press the point, he said goodbye and hurried off.

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