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Saddam used fear, reputation for ruthlessness to rule Iraq

WASHINGTON—Sunday's video of Saddam Hussein meekly submitting to a U.S. military health inspection served as a startling juxtaposition to a singular image—fear—that had stoked the strongman's 24 years of iron-fisted rule and lingered even after U.S. troops had liberated his capital.

In his country, that fear meant Iraqis didn't dare criticize him. Many believed he had not only a bloodthirsty penchant for torture, but supernatural powers as well.

Abroad, Saddam was seen as a ruthless dictator with his finger on the button of weapons of mass destruction—weapons that have yet to turn up.

Saddam, 66, so cultivated that mystique that, months into Baghdad's liberation, Iraqis flexing their newfound freedoms by smearing their fallen president in graffiti did so anonymously, fearing that, as long as he eluded capture, Saddam and his Baath Party regime might someday regain power.

A Baghdad dental student, interviewed weeks after U.S. troops tried to symbolize Saddam's impotence by toppling a statue outside the Palestine Hotel, still mechanically referred to him with the honorific "rais"—president.

An Iraqi who encountered Saddam in one of his last public appearances in the capital, before he went underground, put it this way: "Actually, people hate Saddam Hussein. But when you see him before your very eyes, he is astonishing! You want to shake his hand. So he must be a sorcerer."

Until the U.S. liberation eight months ago, Iraq was a country where whole generations grew up knowing that slurring the leader—or simply being suspected of doing so—was a capital crime that invited unspeakable torture.

For years, real and imagined critics of the president simply disappeared, in a regime that imposed an uncompromising system of law and order that exploded into chaos when the U.S. forces arrived.

Saddam's hold was so great, moreover, that many Iraqis suspected their fallen president's unseen hand behind the car bombs that blew up across the country, targeting everyone from U.S. forces to United Nations workers and Iraqis who cooperated with the American occupation.

Saturday's capture suggested just the opposite.

Although some Iraqis imagined Saddam directing resistance activities from a sophisticated, clandestine command compound, the U.S. military showed his hiding place as a crude cement cellar—and said he had only a couple of guns and no telephone.

Within hours of the Pentagon's announcement of his capture, news reports from Baghdad said Saddam was cooperating with his captors, suggesting he might spill any secrets of Iraq's elusive weapons of mass destruction, another key ingredient in stoking his cult of fear.


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

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): krtcapture

GRAPHICS (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): krtcapture