President Saddam Hussein had been puffing on his cigar, listening to reports from senior military commanders seated around a horseshoe-shaped table, when he betrayed a brief grimace of disapproval and raised his hand to silence the speaker. The commander had been too enthusiastic and it was time to dispense a little advice.
"I know the Iraqi is zealous and his gallantry high, but sometimes he rushes, and his rush might not be at the right moment," the president said as the commanders nodded in agreement and scribbled on their notepads. "When you see the enemy, control your nerves so that you can use your weapon against him at the right moment."
Hussein's message was heard not just by those in the room, but every Iraqi watching the 9 p.m. television news. In what has become an almost nightly ritual here, the main state-run channel has been broadcasting lengthy and largely uncut footage of the president's meetings with successive groups of military commanders.
The sessions, which have dominated the airwaves for the past few weeks, project Hussein as cool, calm and in control, despite the imminent threat of a U.S. military invasion aimed at ending his three decades of rule in Iraq. There is no hint of a man running scared, no weariness or despair, no signs of the jitters. Instead, Hussein appears relaxed and in good humor, joking with the officers, lighting cigars, drinking glasses of sweet tea and listening to some of them recite poetry.
Hussein, 65, has displayed coolness under fire -- sometimes literally -- throughout his long career as a revolutionary, security enforcer and absolute ruler. As Hussein recalled in a recent autobiography, "Men and a City," he held off a security forces detachment during a failed Baath Party coup d'etat in 1959, then escaped to Egypt with a bullet in his leg. After his Baathists took over for good, in 1968, his notorious one-by-one naming of Communist Party adversaries to be executed, captured on videotape, became a legend of studied, chilling ruthlessness.
It is impossible to know how Hussein genuinely views the expected war against him. He has a tight-knit circle of advisers composed largely of relatives from his home town of Tikrit, including his second son, Qusay, who commands the Special Republican Guard. Journalists and diplomats here have little opportunity to communicate with officials who are close to Hussein.
But a foreign visitor who met with Hussein recently described him as unruffled and self-assured, voicing confidence in his army's ability to mount an intense, street-by-street defense of Baghdad that would result in so many American casualties that the U.S. military would retreat. "He was very calm," said the visitor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "It was eerie. It was like he did not grasp the dangers ahead of him."
Hussein's attitude could be a facade, the visitor acknowledged, adding: "He's not an easy man to read."
The televised meetings, however, show a man firmly in command of his top military officers -- the same people who the Bush administration hopes will stage a coup d'etat before or during a U.S. attack.
In a demonstration of the fealty the president demands, the officers, ranging in rank from colonel to general, stand stiffly at attention and salute as Hussein walks in. When he speaks, they take furious notes. When he orders them to drink their tea, the room echoes with the clinking of glasses. When he delivers orders, the men respond in unison, "Yes sir!"
His speeches usually elicit standing ovations. Sometimes, the officers burst into songs of praise.
Before his talks with the commanders began airing in mid-January, such scenes were almost nonexistent on television, which showed either old images of him wading into adoring crowds or brief snippets of him receiving visitors. Hussein has not been seen in public since appearing at a military parade in January 2001; his whereabouts at any given time are a closely guarded secret.
Although the meetings do not provide any hint of what the commanders are thinking -- disagreeing with Hussein can draw severe punishment -- the broadcasts in this country of 23 million people could influence the reaction of soldiers and ordinary Iraqis during an invasion. Seeing an alert president seemingly in control of his senior officers might dissuade mid-level officers and others from participating in any anti-government activity.
"It's an attempt to show there are no cracks in the top leadership," a diplomat here said.
Iraqi officials, presumably acting on Hussein's orders, have dismissed proposals floated by neighboring governments that he resign or go into exile to spare his nation another war with the United States. The Iraqi government today told a delegation of Arab foreign ministers they would not be welcome here after learning they intended to urge Hussein to step down. An Arab diplomat said the Iraqi government wants to receive only those visitors "who would demonstrate solidarity."
Although diplomats and experts outside Iraq who monitor the country's opaque political system believe there is still a small chance Hussein might slip into exile, they said it is more likely that he would seek to make a last stand, perhaps in Baghdad, either from a bunker he deems secure or by hiding in private houses, as he did during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
Another school of thought is that he would attempt to make a U.S. conquest of Baghdad as bloody as possible by placing civilians in harm's way and using the chemical and biological weapons that U.S. officials contend his government possesses. "He will try to be an Arab hero," one diplomat here said. "He will go down fighting -- and try to take everyone with him."
In his televised meetings, which are laced with Muslim prayers, Hussein frequently glorifies the prospect of dying in battle. "The believer in our country sees martyrdom as a promotion and a gain and not a loss," he said during one gathering. At another, he told a group of officers that "seeking martyrdom is an obligation on you because you defend the honor of the position of every believer in the nation."
Despite those comments, the sessions are far from fatalistic. Most of the meetings involve Hussein listening intently to reports from field commanders about war preparations and dispensing advice on how to better the nation's defenses. In addition to demonstrating that he is in control, his comments appear designed to assuage an anxious civilian population and pep up a military that analysts say is ill-equipped and demoralized.
"The most important thing that I must emphasize is that you train on how to protect yourselves even during combat," he said. "What I recommend is that you learn how to decrease casualties in battle."
When one officer vowed to fight with stones if ammunition ran out, Hussein declared: "Arms are plenty." He has told officers to make sure their soldiers bathe regularly, get enough sleep and read books. He has even inquired whether soldiers have enough soap and working water pumps.
While the officers are dressed in their standard-issue green uniforms, Hussein usually wears a three-piece suit. His mien alternates between the avuncular and the authoritarian, cheerleader and country boy.
When a tank commander from the army's 11th Division told him, "Americans intentionally drop leaflets on our division to shake it," Hussein growled: "How dare they!"
"Do they think they can shake the 11th Division with leaflets?" he said. "That division fought all of Iran for five days and nights, yet it was not shaken."
Judging from the broadcasts, preparations for urban warfare appear to be of particular interest to Hussein. After receiving reports that soldiers in Baghdad had received two months' worth of ammunition, conducted urban-combat drills and dug trenches, he suggested that even more training was in order.
Hussein's efforts to demonstrate that he is in touch with rank-and-file soldiers sometimes delve into micromanagement. When an officer boasted that his men marched nearly 47 miles in 17 hours, Hussein interrupted him to figure out how many miles they were traveling per hour. Once Hussein had his answer, he pronounced himself dissatisfied. "We want better than this," he said.
At other moments, he has tried to cast himself as a farm boy, discussing how villagers light their homes and drill wells for water. He has sent regards to tribal chiefs. And he has reminded Iraqis that they are "men with mustaches," using a colloquial term for honor.
He also appears to be a stickler for hospitality. "Can someone bring us some coffee here?" he called out at one meeting. At another, he ordered his officers: "Drink your tea before it gets cold."
Even though many Iraqis have been switching the channel when his meetings are aired, opting for old American sitcoms and movies broadcast on a station run by one of his sons, Hussein said he knows "the Americans are listening."
"That's good," he said. "They need to know that if they invade, we'll break their necks. They'll be met by defeat, defeat, defeat."