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Saddam Hussein breathes fear, lives in fear, deals in fear

He patted the head of a trembling little boy and grinned. Through a thick peasant accent, he said in Arabic, "Did Stuart have his milk today?"

With that one searing moment in 1990, many American TV viewers got their first good look at Saddam Hussein. The longtime Iraqi president was visiting hostages he had threatened to use as human shields against U.S. air attacks.

And the West wondered, then as now, how the "Butcher of Baghdad" slept at night.

By many accounts, Saddam today sleeps very little. He beds down in a different place each night to keep his countless enemies—inside and outside Iraq—guessing. Short naps in the afternoon are said to keep him alert.

His back hurts. He limps. In 1959, as a hit man for the socialist Baath Party, Saddam took a bullet in the leg in a failed plot to assassinate the then-ruler of his country.

So now, surgically enhanced doubles who purportedly pose as the dictator at public events limp just a little.

Saddam breathes fear in and out, living in it, dealing in it.

For decades he has ordered the murders of people who pose a threat to his rule. His victims have included longtime friends, a health minister whom Saddam personally shot dead at a meeting, and, in 1996, his own son-in-law.

Horror stories detailing the extent of his villainy abound; most are impossible to verify. By one published account, he tossed a Shiite dissident into a tub of acid and watched him dissolve.

He admires Joseph Stalin. And Winston Churchill. Steely men of real power. This may also explain his reported fondness for "The Godfather" films.

There's something else about Saddam that Khidhir Hamza, who wrote a book on being "Saddam's Bombmaker" in the 1970s and 1980s, thinks Americans should know.

"The man is not crazy," says Hamza, now living in Virginia. "But if he is cornered, he'll do anything."

What, then, will Saddam do if U.S. and British troops, preparing to disarm him, invade a country that has been in his grip for 30 years, where statues, murals and portraits of him adorn every street?

Experts look for clues from his past.

Consider the head-patting scene with the boy hostage in 1990, following Iraq's summer invasion of Kuwait.

The scene was classic Saddam: diabolical, desperate and a whopping miscalculation.

On that day Saddam commanded the cameras to focus, as always, on himself. The captive to his left was a 5-year-old Briton named Stuart Lockwood, his body rigid with fear.

Saddam—long known for his clumsy social skills—tried nudging Stuart to sit on his lap, but the child refused. Instead of displaying his concern for the boy, which was his aim, the Iraqi president's "goodwill visit" triggered universal disgust.

International pressure grew intense. A few days later, Saddam let hundreds of Western women and children go, then offered to release the rest of the people he held if the United States would scrap plans to drive the Iraqis from Kuwait.

The U.S. refused, Saddam abandoned the human-shield ploy and released the hostages that remained. A month later, the air-war portion of Operation Desert Storm began.

"By all accounts he almost came to pieces," as the U.S. picked apart his forces in the 1991 Gulf war, said David Kay, head of the United Nations team that inspected Iraq's weapon supplies following the 1991 liberation of Kuwait.

Saddam "was almost catatonic, thinking he was going down and the country was coming apart."

Saddam still calls his defeat in Kuwait a glorious victory.

After all, he survived, which is the story of his life.

"Survival," concludes author Con Coughlin in his book "Saddam: King of Terror," "would always be Saddam's number one priority."

Saddam jokes about the time he visited his troops during the war with Iran in the 1980s. Suddenly, fighting broke out and the Iraqi president was left all alone, as he tells it, and under fire. But he survived.

He survives despite his country being speckled with the mass graves of Shiites and Kurds who for decades have opposed his regime. By some estimates Saddam's forces massacred 330,000 Iraqis just in the spring of 1991.

Two years later, the United States unleashed 23 Tomahawk missiles at Baghdad after fingering Hussein in a plot to assassinate the first President Bush. Saddam survived.

Saddam was born poor in a one-room house outside rural Tikrit, in north-central Iraq, when the country was governed by a monarchy planted there by the British.

The only known employment of his mother, Subha Tulfah, was as a clairvoyant. Some Iraqi men would later suggest she also was a prostitute.

His peasant father, Hussein al-Majid, disappeared not long after the infant arrived. Uncertainty surrounds even the date of birth, but officially it's April 28, 1937—now a holiday in Iraq marked by several days of celebration.

For a time young Saddam lived with an abusive stepfather known around the village as "Hassan the Liar," according to Coughlin's book. But the boy's mentor and lasting influence would be his mother's brother, Khairallah Tulfah, a feisty Arab nationalist and Nazi sympathizer.

Many believe his uncle instilled in Saddam a deep distrust of foreigners that swells in the tyrant to this day.

Saddam earned a reputation as a street fighter in a region of the world where family honor and tribal loyalty meant everything. A passion for nationalism spurred Saddam to join the insurgent, pan-Arab Baath Party when he was about 20.

Baathists were fervent anti-Communists—secular thinkers mostly from Iraq's professional circles.

The thuggish Saddam wasted little time showing the party he could handle the dirty jobs. Within a year, he allegedly shot and killed a Communist Party member in Tikrit.

Soon, Saddam was tapped to provide armed cover for a group of conspirators who opened fire on the car of Iraqi leader Gen. Abdul Kareem Qassem in 1959 in a failed assassination attempt.

Return fire injured Saddam, but he escaped. For the next four years he lived in exile in Egypt, where he attended secondary school until he was 24—at least six years older than the average graduate, according to "Saddam Hussein: A Political Biography," by Efraim Karsh and Inari Rautsi.

Saddam's brief exile marked one of the few times he has ever traveled outside his native country.

Journalist Mark Bowden recently wrote that Saddam's adventures in the 1960s, which included an escape from prison, "all added to (his) revolutionary luster" among the smarter, more visible Baath Party elite.

"He was an impressive combination: not just a tough capable of commanding respect from the thugs but also well-read, articulate and seemingly open-minded," Bowden wrote in The Atlantic Monthly. "A natural leader who could steer Iraq into a new era."

The Baathists gained control of Iraq in a bloodless 1968 coup. Saddam sat atop the first tank to the presidential palace.

In the early stages of the new regime, Saddam appeared content to play the quiet No. 2 man overseeing security for his cousin, President Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr. A modest office and Volkswagen Beetle would do.

In time, however, Saddam revealed a brutal sense for building his own power through terror, Stalin-style.

From behind the scenes Saddam choreographed sensational trials of Jews accused of being Zionist spies. The show trials played well among Arabs seething over the Six-Day War of 1967, when Israeli troops took Arab lands with ease.

Radio Baghdad urged Iraqis to "come enjoy the feast" at outdoor hangings of the condemned Jews at Liberation Square.

Security forces, which reported to Saddam, then were dragging suspected dissidents into the "Palace of Termination." Once a home for royalty, the nationalists had turned it into a prison and torture chamber.

D.J. Kadhim says he spent nine months there in the early 1970s.

"It's like you're in the middle of a horror movie," says Kadhim, now a leader in the London-based Iraqi National Accord. "You're handcuffed behind your back. Beaten with hoses. Cigarettes put out on your arms. You don't know who you are."

Kadhim says he was a college student who posed little threat to the regime. So his tormentors sought to shape him instead of eliminate him.

"The insults and torture were used as humiliation, not for getting information," he says. "It's, `Bark like a dog until I tell you to stop.' So you crawl around barking, naked.

"They try to smash the human being in you. After enough humiliation, you become part of their system."

Saddam dreamed of turning Iraq into the most developed and, with weaponry, most feared of Arab countries—making him, in turn, the most feared of Arab leaders. A painting in Baghdad depicted Saddam on horseback, with sword held high, liberating Jerusalem.

"He wanted to be ruler of the whole region," says Hamza, the highest-ranking scientist ever to defect from Iraq.

Biographies make clear that neither political ideology nor Islam—he drinks wine in private, defying traditional Muslim law—nor mere people matter much to the dictator.

Not even riches matter much, some say.

"The root of Saddam's bloody, single-minded pursuit of power appears to be simple vanity," Bowden concludes.

He puffed on a Cuban cigar at the 1979 purge.

It happened in a single meeting of Iraq's Revolutionary Command Council, presided over by Saddam just weeks after he assumed the presidency. It resulted in the executions of a third of its members.

Saddam ordered the meeting videotaped, so all Iraqis might see what becomes of alleged plotters and spies. One by one, the names of dozens of party leaders were read aloud by a supposed conspirator fresh out of Saddam's torture chambers.

A spotlight followed each man as guards escorted him away. When one shouted his innocence, the 42-year-old president said, "Itla, itla!" Get out, get out!

By the close of the meeting survivors in his government were chanting "long live Saddam," now more powerful than ever, Coughlin writes.

Former U.S. diplomat Ed Peck, chief of mission to Iraq during the Carter Administration, says Hussein at the time did enjoy a measure of popular support for modernizing his country.

As vice president he had pushed to nationalize Iraq's petroleum industry, wresting control of the world's second-largest oil reserves away from foreign companies. He struck a trade pact with Moscow, and as oil production surged, so did revenues to the Iraqi government.

Petrodollars funded massive public building programs—schools, roads, a 5,000-bed hospital. "Baath Party programs gave Iraq one of the highest standards of living in the entire region," Peck says of the 1970s.

Some Western newspapers even wrote of secular Iraq being the best hope for Mideast security after Islamic fundamentalists overthrew the Shah of neighboring Iran.

Then, in 1980, Saddam ordered Iraqi troops into Iran to resolve a border dispute. He thought his superior military—armed primarily by the Soviet Union and France—would make quick work of the Iranians.

That proved to be a miscalculation for Saddam who, as a youth, failed to gain acceptance into the Iraqi Military Academy and would forever treat trained military strategists with suspicion.

The fighting lasted eight years, one of the longest conventional wars in the 20th century. It decimated Iraq's economy before Saddam limped away the victor in a U.N.-brokered cease-fire.

The war also showed how vicious the dictator could be when desperate: In 1988 he allegedly ordered poison gas dumped on the Kurdish town of Halabja to punish militants there helping Iran. At least 5,000 are said to have perished in the attack.

Iraqis watch music videos praising their dictator every night on TV.

"Has the world ever seen anyone like our father?" goes one uptempo song. "He spread his love equally among all of us. ... With him at home there is no fear."

Yet fear defines living in Iraq—especially for its ruler.

"He's afraid all the time," a former lieutenant colonel in Hussein's security force recently told the Los Angeles Times. "He likes to escape. He likes to hide. He likes to be underground, in bunkers."

As inspectors search for Hussein's secret weapons, some reports from Baghdad portray the 65-year-old leader as increasingly indecisive, giving rambling speeches lacking coherence.

His eccentricities and ego mount. The new Mother of All Battles Mosque, built in honor of his failed incursion of Kuwait, features a glass display of 605 pages of Koran written in a mixture of ink, preservatives and Saddam's own blood.

His inner circle of bodyguards, known as al-Himaya, is now entirely made up of close relatives.

His food is X-rayed and tested before he eats it. Meals reportedly are prepared daily at his palaces around the country so nobody can be sure where he is headed.

"If he can avoid his own demise by giving in, I think he will," says Richard K. Betts, director of the Institute of War and Peace at Columbia University. "But you can't rule out a blaze-of-glory scenario, especially if he feels he's finished.

"The best he might feel he can do (if facing his own death) is to leave a historical legacy for having done something to revere himself to the Arab world," Betts says. "We've given him a lot of time to think about it, and that's what worries me."

Analysts worry about Saddam's two sons being groomed as potential successors. The older, Uday, 38, is known across Iraq for unleashing a temper even more ferocious than his father's, delivering vengeance by revolver or cattle prod.

"In Iraq the stories of Uday are worse than those of Saddam," says Entifadh Qanbar of the anti-Hussein Iraqi National Congress in Washington.

"Killer, thief, rapist," he continues. "I have a relative there, a beautiful girl attending school. When her father heard rumors that Uday liked her, was watching her, he stopped her from going to school."

Uday's brother, Qusay, is the more sober devotee to Saddam. Qusay is in charge of security and intelligence operations. He is 36.

Saddam has been married 40 years to a woman named Sajida, who at one time traveled frequently to western Europe to indulge in shopping sprees.

He reportedly has mistresses, too, but who dares to make it an issue?

Such are the ways of a dictator—one with a peasant's blood and a survivor's soul. And his next step in life could be his most memorable.

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(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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