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  •   Tea Leaves No Easy Read in Iraq

    An Iraqi searches the remains of his house for belongings Monday. (AFP Photo)
    By Howard Schneider
    Washington Post Foreign Service
    Tuesday, December 21, 1998; Page A25

    BAGHDAD, Iraq, Dec. 21 – In post-bombardment Baghdad, at least among the small coterie of diplomats and analysts paid to speculate on such things, the tea-leaf reading has begun on the future of Iraq under President Saddam Hussein.

    It is an undertaking complicated by the lack of an independent press or political opposition, a quest in which a newspaper photo, or the tone of an official announcement, is picked apart for any clues as to what is happening at the top of the government.

    Some diplomats, for example, took note of statements by top members of the country's Revolutionary Command Council in the government press expressing support for Saddam Hussein. In normal times, such support is taken for granted. That anyone felt the need to spell it out is taken by some here as a sign of eroding confidence on the part of the regime after four nights of U.S. and British air raids that ended Saturday night.

    Also of interest was a photo of Saddam Hussein in today's papers. In contrast to the usual images of the Iraqi leader, who is typically pictured as confident and cheerful, this one showed him uniformed, sitting behind a desk, wearing a dour expression and looking away from the camera. The photo strayed enough from the hagiographic norm that one diplomat called it a "grave mistake."

    Similarly, although Saddam Hussein's taped television appearances have in recent days been filled with claims of victory, his delivery has been uncharacteristically subdued.

    Official media aside, the tea-leaf readers also have taken note of troop movements in the capital that seemingly are designed to protect the regime from internal threats. "They were afraid of the situation," one analyst said. "If you are assured nothing would happen, there would be no need to mobilize."

    That the country's military response was limited to ineffective antiaircraft fire – one newspaper editorial acknowledged a "technology gap" between Iraq and its enemies – also may have cost Saddam Hussein support within the upper ranks of the army, diplomats speculated.

    Although casualties among the country's elite Republican Guard units and other military forces were apparently minimal – Iraqi officials have set the military casualty totals at 62 dead and 80 wounded – many of the surviving troops may be returning to destroyed barracks and other damaged facilities, an indignity they will have to endure with no means to fight back.

    And after taking the country from one crisis to another over weapons inspections this year, always with the promise of progress toward a lifting of trade sanctions, Saddam Hussein has now invited a substantial series of airstrikes with nothing tangible to show for his efforts.

    Now, any speculation about the future of the Iraqi regime is just that. This is a country that allows for little more than armchair analysis because power is so tightly held and information so sparse. Saddam Hussein himself is rarely seen in public and, with the exception of the occasional taped address for television, he typically delegates one of a handful of top officials to speak for the government.

    In a news conference tonight, Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz said all of the chatter about the Iraqi government is meaningless. The strikes, he said, have done nothing to shake the regime. He urged the international community to punish the United States and Britain for resorting to "the law of the jungle" against Iraq.

    "Four days of intense bombing with all the sophisticated missiles . . . and high-tech weapons, and these are the results," said Aziz, as he released the military casualty figures. He said the civilian casualty totals are higher, but they have not yet been made available.

    "They thought foolishly that when they send 400 missiles, the people would uprise," he said.

    "These are Rambo-like fantasies. This leadership has been leading for 30 years. It is part and parcel of the people of Iraq."

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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