Saddam Hussein: The Fears and
By James Rupert
Fervor of a Revolutionary
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, January 15, 1991; Page A16
In standing alone against a threatening world this week, Saddam
Hussein finds himself on familiar ground.
While the outside world must wait and guess at the Iraqi president's
thoughts and intentions, his personal history and those of the ruling
Baath Socialist Party and of Iraq itself give some clear indications of
how Saddam is likely to view his situation.
Saddam is a 53-year-old ex-intelligence officer, a man whose life
since childhood has meant struggle for survival and primacy. Saddam's
life's battles -- as a teenage Baghdad gang leader, a coup plotter, a
Baath Party secret operative and an autocratic leader -- have been
fought against conspirators, with weapons of deceit and betrayal as well
as guns and bullets.
Political and psychological specialists who have studied Saddam say
that his cultural and personal roots developed in him a vein of
paranoia and insecurity that helped lead him into the Persian Gulf
crisis, although these analysts dismiss any suggestion that he is
While the Western world, acting through the United Nations, views
Saddam's invasion of Kuwait as a clear-cut violation of law and human
rights, the Iraqi leader's life and worldview require him to see the
crisis in completely different terms, according to Iraqi and Western
specialists on Iraq and Saddam.
Saddam describes the impending battle in the Persian Gulf as an
Armageddon, in which conspiratorial forces are aiming to destroy him,
his nation and the Arab people. Such charges may seem fantastic to
people in the West, who do not share his worldview and who may overlook
ways in which the West contributes to such a perspective.
A Vast Conspiracy
But Saddam and his countrymen point to history to argue their case.
They contend that the West has for decades sought to manipulate the
Arabs as part of a vast conspiracy by governments and corporations to
control the Arab world. European nations took control of most of the
Arab region after World War I and ordained establishment of nearly all
of its 21 states, including tiny gulf sheikdoms. Many Arabs see these
sheikdoms as artificial, but they have helped guarantee easy Western
access to Arab oil. Western nations also backed the creation of Israel,
a decision many Arabs see as part of a conspiracy to weaken them.
Saddam, for his part, "is not able to assess the outside world," said
a U.S. government specialist on Iraq, who asked not to be named. "He has
only traveled out of the Arab world a couple of times. He doesn't even
read about it."
With a limited education, peasant background and traditional Arab
concern for personal honor, Saddam puts enormous importance on being
treated with the respect he feels he is due. "His grandiose facade masks
underlying insecurity," according to a study of his personality by
Jerrold Post, a George Washington University professor.
Saddam (his first name can be translated as "he who confronts") was
born in April 1937 to an impoverished village family in the Tikrit
region, north of Baghdad. He has spoken bitterly of being mistreated by
a stepfather, who kept him from school, forced him to herd the family
sheep and insulted him as the son of a dog.
He left his home at age 10 to live with Khairullah Tulfah, an uncle
who was the main adult influence of Saddam's childhood. Tulfah hated
Britain for its rule of Iraq from 1917 to 1932, and he evinced broader
xenophobia, as in his authorship of pamphlet entitled, "Three Whom God
Should Not Have Created: Persians, Jews and Flies."
"Inspired by his uncle's tales of heroism in the service of the Arab
nation, Saddam has been consumed by dreams of glory since his earliest
days," Post wrote. Another inspiration to Saddam was Egypt's Gamal Abdel
Nasser, who toppled his country's British-installed monarchy in 1952,
when Saddam was 15, and who seized the Suez Canal from Britain four
At age 20, Saddam, who had struggled through junior high school and
reportedly led a street gang of Tikritis, began his career in gun-barrel
politics. He joined the Iraqi branch of the Baath (Renaissance) Party,
an authoritarian group of an estimated 300 members who chafed at what
they saw as the Arabs' downfall under European colonialism and sought to
regain their lost glory by building a single Arab socialist state.
Within months, Saddam took a role as an assassin for the Baath,
according to accounts by Western and Iraqi scholars, killing a communist
activist who also happened to be his brother-in-law. Then, after
military officers toppled Iraq's British-installed monarchy, Saddam was
one of several gunmen who ambushed the military ruler's car in a
Baathist coup attempt.
Saddam was wounded but escaped, an event that has been glorified in
Baathist propaganda with details of Saddam's carving a bullet out of his
leg without anesthetic. After more than three years in exile in Egypt,
Saddam returned to Baghdad in 1963 to run the torture center of a
short-lived Baathist regime.
After the Baath government collapsed amid infighting, Saddam has
written, he determined to prevent any more such failures. He built a
secret police force that used arbitrary arrests, torture and killings to
ensure loyalty and unity. It was then that he rose to the party's
The Politics of Terror
After the Baath took power for the long term in 1968, Saddam led
purges of its non-Baath allies. In 1979, he took the presidency by
forcing out Gen. Ahmed Hassan Bakr, a distant relative who had for years
contributed to Saddam's rise within the party. Saddam had Bakr placed
under house arrest.
The new Iraqi president had hundreds of high-ranking Baathists
summarily executed and forced top officials to share complicity by
joining him in firing squads. He has since purged his uncle and mentor,
Tulfah, who had been accused of massive corruption as governor of
Outside the party, Saddam has enforced obedience by terrorizing his
nation. Those suspected of disloyalty -- for acts as minor as spilling
coffee on a newspaper photo of the Iraqi leader -- are subject to
arrest, torture or execution by any of several secret police agencies,
noted a 1990 Human Rights Watch report. Limitations on repression seem
solely logistical. Entire towns have had their populations killed and
their buildings bulldozed.
As president, Saddam has spoken for years of plots by the West to
destroy him -- initially through the West's close ties with his rival,
the shah of Iran. After he invaded Iran in 1980, starting an eight-year
war that devastated his country's economy, Saddam said he felt that he
had done the rest of the world a favor by defending it from Iran's
revolution, but that the world had been ungrateful.
In the last year, Saddam expressed increasing fears of a plot after
wealthy Arab states refused to lend him billions of dollars he needed to
repay war debts. His fears appeared to rise again after an outcry in the
West over his planned "supergun" artillery project and his chemical and
nuclear arms programs.
"One of the most important and dangerous events . . . is the
large-scale, premeditated campaign by the official and unofficial
imperialist and Zionist circles against Iraq in particular and the Arab
nation in general," Saddam declared last July.
Despite Saddam's frequent conviction that such conspiracies exist, he
is capable of unexpectedly showing flexibility toward his foes when such
a move provides an escape from a difficult situation. In 1975, he
settled a border dispute with Iran in an effort to halt Iranian and U.S.
support for a Kurdish rebellion that had grown to dangerous proportions.
Last summer, as the U.S.-led coalition built pressure on his southern
border, he suddenly settled his disputes with Iran on concessionary
terms to free his military from the Iranian frontier.
Saddam, said Post, has a "paranoid orientation. . . . He is ready for
retaliation and, not without reason, sees himself as surrounded by
enemies. But he ignores his own role in creating those enemies."
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