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 insane.
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 years later.
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 leadership. 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 Baghdad.
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."