A survivor of two major wars and numerous assassination attempts, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is following a well-thought-out strategy for extracting a political and propaganda victory from almost certain military defeat, according to U.S. and Iraqi analysts.
Despite five days of massive American air attacks, and a ground invasion that has brought U.S.-led forces within 100 miles of Baghdad, Hussein has chalked up some significant successes. His government did not instantly collapse, and, contrary to some expectations, no major Iraqi cities have fallen to the invader.
Hussein loyalists are using guerrilla tactics to harass the enemy at every opportunity. And despite being targeted by dozens of U.S. cruise missiles on the opening night of the war, Hussein has appeared on television, broadcasting defiant speeches to the Iraqi people.
Over the long run, there seems little doubt that Hussein is doomed, along with the vast security establishment that has kept him in power the last three decades. The key questions are how long he can resist the American juggernaut, and the costs he can impose on the United States for daring to invade Iraq.
"He must realize he is going to lose militarily," said Joseph Wilson, a former U.S. charge d'affaires in Baghdad and the last U.S. official to meet with Hussein, after his invasion of Kuwait in August 1990. "But every day he succeeds in juxtaposing images of American cruise missiles blowing up Baghdad with pictures of Iraqi farmers shooting down Apache helicopters, he wins the battle for the hearts and minds of 250 million Arabs."
The first five days of the war, analysts said, suggest that Hussein has learned important lessons from the bloody trench war that Iraq fought with neighboring Iran between 1980 and 1988, and its humiliating rout from Kuwait during the first Persian Gulf War in 1991. Instead of engaging the enemy in open country, he has settled on a strategy of pulling his forces back to major population centers, and preparing his supporters for bitter urban warfare.
On the propaganda front, the Iraqi leader has scored a victory of sorts by the very act of surviving, and appearing in control of his government. The Bush administration has suggested that his television broadcasts may have been recorded in advance, or a double was used in Hussein's place. For the time being, however, most Iraqis -- even Iraqi exiles who desperately hope for Hussein's removal from power -- are operating on the assumption that the dictator is still alive.
"Saddam is winning the psychological war against the U.S.," said Kato Saadlla, Washington spokesman for the Iraqi National Front, one of the leading exile groups. "People are still in fear of him. They saw what happened in 1991," when Hussein's security forces put down an uprising in southern Iraq with great brutality. "They fear that the same thing could happen this time."
The big surprise for some military analysts during the early phase of the war has been Hussein's use of a 60,000-strong militia known as Saddam's Fedayeen, which was founded in the wake of the first Persian Gulf War by his son Uday. The Fedayeen are poorly armed, poorly trained and poorly educated, but they have served as a stay-behind force in many southern Shiite cities, harassing U.S. and British troops, and spreading terror among the local populace.
"They are Saddam's bully boys," said Kenneth M. Pollack, a former CIA expert on Iraq and author of "The Threatening Storm," which made the case for a U.S.-led invasion. "Their continued presence in many cities is preventing Iraqis from expressing gratitude that Saddam Hussein has gone."
According to Pollack, Hussein's preparations for the defense of Baghdad appear modeled on the defense of the southern city of Basra during the Iran-Iraq war. On that occasion, he used the elite Republican Guard to repel Iranian "human wave" attacks.
"Hussein believes that we will not be willing to pay the price in casualties that the Iranians were willing to pay in assaulting Basra," said Pollack, now with the Brookings Institution in Washington. "He believes that our tolerance for casualties is so low that he does not need to inflict that many" in order to force a U.S. retreat.
In his public diatribes against the United States, from the time of the first Persian Gulf War, Hussein has frequently spoken contemptuously about America's low tolerance for casualties in the wake of the Vietnam War. He has spoken approvingly of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon as a means of teaching Americans a lesson by making them "feel the pain they have inflicted on other peoples of the world."
Several analysts said that the Iraqi decision to air gruesome television footage of captured and killed U.S. soldiers after an ambush in the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah appeared designed to influence American public opinion. Pollack argues that the American media have been playing into Hussein's hands by paying too much attention to the issue of U.S. casualties, which are still relatively minor, compared with other major conflicts.
Until now, Hussein has not used any of the weapons of mass destruction -- including chemical and biological weapons, and Soviet-designed Scud missiles -- that were the original justification for the U.S.-led war on Iraq. One explanation is that his stockpile of such weapons is much smaller than suspected by Washington. Another explanation is political: If he used such weapons early in the conflict, he would lose whatever international support he has.
Analysts who have studied Hussein's personality and political career believe that he is unlikely to flee Iraq, even if military defeat is staring him in the face. Instead, they say, he is banking on historical vindication with the Arab masses as a leader who struggled against the American superpower to the very end.
According to Jerrold M. Post, author of a recently published psychological profile of Hussein, the Iraqi leader is the "quintessential survivor" who will become more dangerous the more he is cornered.
"I don't believe he will kill himself in his bunker, as Hitler did. He would consider that a dishonor," said Post, a professor of psychiatry and political psychology at George Washington University. "Nor do I believe that he will cut and run. I can imagine him trying to lead an underground struggle against American occupation."
"He wants to portray himself in Arab folklore as a Robin Hood, as the little guy who confronted the big imperial crusader," said Wilson, the former diplomat. "Remember, in the Arab world, you don't have to win in order to be a hero. You just have to confront."