In explaining the reasons for seeking high-level talks now with Iraq, President Bush said Friday that he was afraid Iraqi President Saddam Hussein "is somewhat isolated" by those around him and wasn't "getting the message" about the forces arrayed against his country.
The remarks echoed U.S. intelligence reports about Saddam and his inner circle, the group of men closest to the Iraqi leader. They are people who rarely question Saddam and loyally do his bidding, according to administration officials with access to those reports.
"They're not advisers really, in the sense of people exchanging views. They're political lieutenants," said one member of an administration task force that has been watching developments in Iraq since the Persian Gulf crisis began. "There's a lot of selective filtering of information."
The Iraqi regime has been likened frequently to a Mafia family. But even capos in the best of Mafia families have some autonomy.
Saddam Hussein is said to be more dictatorial. His inner circle has been a shifting cast, but most of its members come from the Sunni Moslem village of Tikrit, north of Baghdad, where Saddam was born in 1937.
"They tend to be thugs or sycophants," said a Mideast expert. They are often described as reluctant to tell Saddam what he doesn't want to hear. "Saddam doesn't have much respect for people who don't see things the way he does," explained one U.S. official.
None of these top aides is well known in the United States.
The most visible Iraqi official on American television, Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz -- whom Bush invited Friday to meet with him in Washington -- may have been in the inner circle 1 1/2 to 2 years ago, according to experts here. But Aziz, a Christian who majored in English studies at Baghdad University, reportedly favored a policy of greater cooperation with the West and is now regarded as a member of "the outer circle" along with economists and government technocrats.
A key member of the inner circle is Hussein Kamal, minister of industry and military industrialization and, since late October, acting oil minister. Saddam's son-in-law and cousin, Kamal is a Majid (Saddam's father's family) and, as one official here said, "probably the second most powerful man in Iraq right now in terms of real power." Kamal is in his mid-40s and married to Saddam's oldest daughter, Raghad. He is apparently highly regarded by Sajida, Saddam's first wife.
Other members of the "inner circle," experts here say, are:
Latif Nassif Jasin, minister of information and culture. He is a Shiite Moslem, but his ties with Saddam go back to the 1950s when Jasin reportedly hid Saddam from royalist troops for a month in Jasin's house. "He is the propagandist, sort of the Goebbels of the government," an analyst said.
Sabawi Ibrahim, head of Muk- habarat, the Iraqi intelligence agency. A native of Tikrit, he has been in Kuwait since early August. A member of Saddam's stepfather's family, he is one of Saddam's three half-brothers.
Barzan Ibrahim, another half-brother who has been serving as Iraq's permanent representative to the United Nations Conference on Human Rights in Geneva. He is a former head of the secret police and a reputed torturer.
Taha Yasin Ramadan, first deputy prime minister and a colleague of Saddam's from the days before the 1968 coup that put the Baath Party in power. He is also a member of the Revolutionary Command Council and regards Congress as an extension of the Israeli parliament. A staunch Baath socialist, he lost clout in the 1980s when his preference for a centralized economy ran up against Saddam's desire to move toward a free market.
Izzat Ibrahim, vice chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council and the No. 2 man in the Baath Party. He is a longtime colleague like Ramadan, but is rarely quoted in the Iraqi press. He is very loyal to Saddam, but some experts think he has slipped to the outer circle since the Aug. 2 invasion.
Ali Hassan Majid, the minister of local government. A Tikriti from Saddam's father's family, he was sent to Kuwait to run the government there after the invasion and has largely crushed the resistance.
"These guys are all tough as nails," said one analyst. "They all watch each other. And Saddam is watching them."
The command structure remains a one-man show. All government decrees are issued in the name of the 10-man Revolutionary Command Council, defined in the Iraqi constitution as "the supreme legislative and executive authority in the state." But its chairman, Saddam, is also president of the state, secretary general of the Baath Party and commander-in-chief of the armed forces.
A revolutionary who trusts no one but himself, Saddam does not hesitate to eliminate rivals.
"Should a member of the inner circle find his loyalty called into question, or should he become too popular, his political career will go into decline, whatever his former standing," Efraim Karsh, who is completing a biography of Saddam, wrote recently for the New York Times.
He recalled a videotaped purge in 1979 in which Saddam, who had just become president, slowly read off the names of key "traitors" at a party gathering, pausing at times to light his cigar. "Everyone in the audience sweats as those on the list are led away, one by one," Karsh said of the videotape.
Said Bush on Friday: "I am told that Saddam Hussein's troops don't bring him the bad news." In fact, U.S. experts have concluded that Saddam still thinks the United States is bluffing and that even if war breaks out, he can win in a prolonged rerun of the ordeal in Vietnam.
"He comes from a very brutal background," said one U.S. official. "What counts in his world are actions, not words. The more we talk and take no action, the more it can be taken by him as bluff."
Over the years, Saddam has referred in speeches to the U.S. experience in Vietnam. To him, the reason the United States lost was a lack of perseverance and loss of will because "a lot of body bags came home."
On that score, Bush seemed to be speaking as much to Saddam as to the American people Friday when he emphasized his determination that "this will not be another Vietnam. This will not be a protracted, drawn-out war." But Saddam may regard that as just more talk.