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  •   Doctrine, Dreams Drive Saddam Hussein

    By Nora Boustany
    Washington Post Foreign Service
    Sunday, August 12, 1990; Page A01

    AMMAN, Aug. 11 -- Saddam Hussein, the 53-year-old Iraqi leader who has provoked one of the gravest international crises in many years, has built his career on a Baath Party revolutionary's dream of uniting the Arab world at the point of a gun.

    Last week, the Arabs finally began to turn their guns on Saddam.

    The decision by the Arab League on Friday to defy Saddam's threats to wage "holy war" and instead send an Arab force to join American troops in defending Saudi Arabia from Iraq showed that Saddam was isolated politically -- perhaps for the first time since assuming power.

    Yet, isolated or not, Saddam controls a powerful military machine with an army of nearly a million men, chemical weapons, battlefield missiles and a history of breaking the accepted rules of modern warfare. He also now controls about 20 percent of the world's known oil reserves and is, unless checked, in a position to intimidate the owners of much of the oil that is left.

    Saddam's drive for supremacy in the Arab world threatens to dramatically alter borders in the region and bring changes potentially more momentous than the revolutions that have transformed Eastern Europe this past year, according to analysts in Jordan, Iraq's neighbor.

    In invading Kuwait and confronting the world, Saddam appears driven largely by the revolutionary ideology of his pan-Arabist Baath Party, and by what appears to be a voracious appetite for power and his own glorification.

    But there is a practical motivation, too: the massive debt -- at least $70 billion, by estimates -- that grew largely out of his prolonged war with Iran.

    This month, the old drives of ideology, combined with the new desperation of debt, led Saddam to invade and grab the tempting prize of Kuwait, analysts have said.

    For a generation, the Baath message has been that only a revolution that sweeps aside the corrupt, pro-Western regimes of the Arab world can liberate the Arabs to fulfill their historic destiny. In an emotional declaration Friday, Saddam issued that summons directly, denouncing the Arab states of the Persian Gulf with a stinging tirade.

    While his call sparked modest demonstrations of support in Yemen, Libya and Jordan, it had few listeners among the Arab leaders gathered in Cairo, many of whom had backed Saddam unswervingly during his eight-year war with Iran. The condemnation of Saddam by 12 of 15 Arab governments at the Cairo meeting will complicate his relations even further with the rest of the Arab world.

    Seeking Nasser's Mantle

    Still, Saddam has an Arab audience. One analyst in the region who knows the Iraqi leader personally said Saddam has mastered the Arab and Bedouin idioms so well that his words may sink through to vast and easily roused segments of the Arab population.

    Saddam's appeal is attractive to Jordanians and Palestinians in particular because of their disillusionment at the world's apparent lack of interest in their decades-old conflict with Israel.

    "In the eyes and psyche of the people, Saddam has replaced {Gamal Abdel} Nasser," the Egyptian president who was the hero of Arab nationalism in the 1960s, said a prominent Jordanian scholar.

    "He is assertive, aggressive, ready to use military force and means what he says. He acts like a true Iraqi. The more he is projected as aggressive, the more he likes it," said the scholar, who asked not to be named.

    "Saddam is driven by three things. He wants to reach out over a wider scope of water that will help him export his oil more easily. And in integrating Kuwait, he wants Kuwaiti finances to build Iraq into a new Prussia," one historian here said.

    Thirdly, he said, "What {Saddam} is doing is in keeping with his own ideology of Arab unity that he knows he cannot achieve through {existing} Arab regimes, so he wants to create new facts. He does not want to go down as a footnote in Arab history."

    Saddam, analysts here said, was shrewd in moving to fill the vacuum left by the 1979 overthrow of the shah of Iran and has worked diligently in the last 11 years to exploit Arab fears of Iranian revolutionary fervor.

    The anxiety of the Arab gulf nations and the United States at Iran's revolution assured that Saddam could make that move without their objections. In his call for jihad, or Moslem holy war, and in religious symbols he uses in his speeches, Saddam is using the same appeal to religious extremism that he once claimed he was opposing when it was used by Iran.

    Ideology and Ambition

    Saddam's call for a jihad against the Arab monarchies of the gulf and their Western allies contradicts the relentlessly secular ideology of his Baathist Party, which is hated by many devout Moslems.

    The Baath (Renaissance) Party was founded in Damascus in the 1940s by a small group of French-educated Syrian intellectuals. As with many of the Arab world's most radical movements, it was led initially by a Christian, Michel Aflaq, rather than a Moslem. Aflaq hoped that the party's pan-Arabism could provide a secular alternative to Islam for uniting the Arabs.

    Although committed to the Baathist dream of Arab unity, Saddam has never been able to bring himself to forge an alliance with Syria's Baathist president, Hafez Assad, in large measure because such an alliance would inhibit Saddam's own aspirations.

    Ironically, Syria's stand in the present crisis could be a determining factor in his fate should Syria decide to help Western powers tighten the blockade or use it as a back door to strike at Iraq.

    Despite a visceral animosity between the two rival Baath rulers, Baathists in Jordan have urged Assad to reconcile with Saddam "to serve the interests of the Arab nation." But given Saddam's effort to humiliate Syria in Lebanon last year by arming its main foe there, Lebanese Christian Gen. Michel Aoun -- and given Assad's and Saddam's stormy history of attacks and distrust -- few analysts believe Damascus will rescue Saddam despite the popularity of his Arab nationalist stance.

    Since even before he was sworn in as president after a power struggle in 1979, the Iraqi leader sought to become the champion of the Arabs. When he invaded Iran in September 1980, his propagandists described him as an Arab knight, and likened his assault to the battle of Qadissiyah, a heroic victory in 637 A.D. by the early Moslems over the Persians. In his speech Friday, Saddam again painted his campaign as a glorious equivalent of past Moslem crusades.

    In invading Kuwait, Saddam was acting out an old threat. His Baathist rhetoric historically has called for the elimination of existing Arab borders, which were drawn by British and French colonial powers. A specifically Iraqi claim long has been that Kuwait, which once was ruled together with southern Iraq under the Ottoman Turks, should have reverted to Iraq when the British left in . One of Saddam's greatest arguments against the man he helped topple from power in Iraq in 1963, Abdul Karim Kassem, was that Kassem had not taken Kuwait by force when the British left.

    >Desperation in Baghdad

    Besides ideology and a dream of personal glory, Saddam was pushed to his invasion of Kuwait by hard realities of politics at home. There have been signs of growing domestic opposition to Saddam in the past two years.

    In the 24 months since the devastating war with Iran ground to a stalemated halt, the economy has failed to generate substantially better living conditions for most people, according to Iraqi and foreign observers. The old ideology and personality cult had begun to fail in rallying support, and Saddam groped for new ones, announcing plans for political reforms, they said.

    In a report in February for the human rights group Middle East Watch, a retired U.S. diplomat, David Korn, concluded that Baathist ideology in Iraq was in decline: "The idea that the Arab states could be merged into a single unit is now recognized to be impractical in any foreseeable future. The commitment to socialism is gradually giving way to an embrace of capitalism."

    The government sought to project a new image, according to Iraq scholar Frederick Axelgard, to woo the foreign investment necessary to relaunch the economy.

    This spring, according to an exiled Iraqi businessman who monitors the country's economy, Iraq's financial situation grew desperate. Owing a roughly estimated $40 billion to non-Arab countries and more to his Arab neighbors, "Saddam Hussein {was} aware of the precariousness of his position."

    Throughout the spring, Iraq pressed Kuwait and the other wealthy gulf states to forgive his war debt to them, estimated at $30 billion, and to cut their excessive oil production to allow Iraq more scope to sell oil and make profits.

    In July, Iraq's tone turned belligerent as it accused other Arab gulf states, especially Kuwait, of stealing Iraq's livelihood. According to some reports, Iraqi envoys demanded large amounts of cash.

    According to analysts who have dealt with Saddam, what made him translate his Baathist rhetoric and economic desparation into action was in part his impulsive nature -- the product of a personal history in which Saddam has seen his quick action rewarded time and again.

    "He was always an action man," said one Lebanese intelligence source who has worked closely with Saddam's operatives. "Saddam's argument always was: 'If you're angry about imperialism, do something about it. Don't talk about it.' "

    A Jordanian analyst said the inflation of Saddam's image as "the brute of Baghdad" is giving him added strength, at least psychologically. "He may be cornered, but Arabs love a loser," he said.

    To those who know him personally, Saddam has no sense of humor and no patience for advice on diplomacy or image-building. He alternates his image between that of a father figure and tyrant. With his own army he uses lavish rewards and Draconian punishment. Army deserters -- defined as those absent from their units without leave for five days, are executed. To discourage others, such people are sometimes taken to their home villages to be shot and later their relatives are charged 11 dinars for the cost of the ammunition used, it is said.

    Saddam travels in secrecy and during the gulf war, he hardly ventured out of Iraq. He has had only limited travel and exposure to the outside world, and foreigners who have met him say he understands little about how the rest of the world operates.

    Saddam's Forces

    The Iraqi military, with a ground army estimated at between 600,000 and 1 million men, emerged from its 1980-88 war against Iran with a capable, combat-seasoned army and with something of a new image.

    During the latter stages of the war, in particular, the Iraqi army became much better at maneuvering and at offensive operations. It showed itself to be especially innovative in transforming local geography for defensive purposes by digging massive canals and creating other massive land and water barriers against Iranian forces.

    Although the army's image as a powerhouse may be overrated, most analysts believe Baghdad's forces would present a formidable foe.

    Iraq traditionally dispatched its youngest, most poorly trained soldiers to the Iranian front, but it now has assembled its best-trained and most capable forces, the Republican Guard, in Kuwait and just inside its southern borders, according to U.S. intelligence reports. The forces are capable of moving quickly on short notice and are stocked with full reserves of equipment, spare parts, food and other supplies, analysts say.

    "They aren't going to run out of equipment because of the {U.N.} embargo," said a U.S. official. "The military stocks are the last thing that would feel the effects of an embargo." U.S. intelligence reports also indicate that supplies and food for Iraq's civilian population would feel the first pinches of the embargo.

    But U.S. officials also noted that Turkey has said it will allow food and medicine to be transported into Iraq across its borders, and U.S. officials are skeptical that neighboring Jordan will try to hamper the transport of any food or other supplies.

    Still, as one U.S. analyst said, "They never fought a sustained battle for more than about 12 days" during the war with Iran, which consisted of about two or three battles each year.

    "If we engaged in a shooting war and made a concentrated attack, we can fight 24 hours a day," said a U.S. official. "The pressure on them would be overwhelming. They don't have the sustainability. They would collapse in a few weeks."

    Iraq's air force and navy are regarded as "third-rate" and present only marginal threats, according to U.S. analysts. "We would own the air," said one official.

    Iraq's air defenses atrophied during the war because they were barely needed against Iran, which had no significant air power, officials said.

    While the Iraqis have 17 fighter squadrons and two bomber squadrons, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, most of their pilots have been poorly trained and the government has devoted few resources to maintaining the forces.

    The best Iraqi pilots are said to be a group of about 50 who were trained by the French to fly Mirage fighters. It was the French-trained pilots rather than the Soviet-trained MiG fighter pilots who took air initiatives during the Iran-Iraq war, officials said.

    U.S. officials say Iraqi air defenses also are largely untested. Although the Iraqi military has moved surface-to-air missile batteries into Kuwait, American authorities say the Iraqis traditionally have not assigned their best officers and troops to those units.

    The Iraqi military also in the past has relied on chemical weapons -- nerve and mustard gases -- to achieve political and military goals, a potentially grave threat to U.S. and other forces. "Chemicals are inherent to their military operations," said one U.S. official.

    In Washington, staff writers David Ignatius, James Rupert, Molly Moore and Patrick Tyler contributed to this article.

    © Copyright 1998 The Associated Press

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