The strongman of Iraq, President Saddam Hussein, is noted for his impeccably tailored French suits, silk shirts and an after-shave lotion that, according to one diplomat in Baghdad, “you can smell for miles.” When politicking among his nomadic constituents in Iraq’s mountainous north, he dons the traditional Arab kaffiyeh. He also has several well-cut military uniforms, as commander of Iraq’s armed forces. Lately these have been his favorites.
Saddam Hussein, 43, is flexible, in his fashion. Among his first official acts on assuming the presidency last year were to herd hundreds of political opponents into prison and to preside over the execution of 21 officials of his predecessor’s regime. He then began a campaign for the hearts and minds of his people. He had an airplane drop candy on Baghdad. He distributed hundreds of free TVs. He established a phone number for citizens to call with problems. His overtures have had a certain insistence about them. Citizens who fail to attend literacy classes, for example, are given heavy fines or sent to jail. In Hussein’s Iraq, says one exile, “Obedience is the highest priority.”
The Ayatollah Khomeini, with whom Hussein has been at war since September 17, could not have a more dedicated or ruthless adversary. The conflict between Iran and Iraq is a no-win situation for the Western world, to which it promises only further instability in oil supplies. But to Saddam Hussein it is more than an opportunity to wrest control of the Shatt al Arab estuary from Iran. (The eastern half of the estuary, Iraq’s only access route to the Persian Gulf, had been ceded to the Shah in 1975 in return for Pahlavi’s promise to stop supporting Iraq’s Kurdish rebels.) Hussein is attempting to fill the Mideast power vacuum created by the fall of the Shah and the isolation of Egypt after Camp David. The execution of his former colleagues, the candy over Baghdad—it was all part of this larger plan, insists Dr. Amos Perlmutter, an Israeli who is a Middle East expert at American University in Washington: “Hussein is a very cunning plotter. He wanted to consolidate his power at home first, then get Arab allies and go to war. He did it all in a year. A very bright man, very quick.”
The son of a poor peasant, Hussein has been politically active since childhood. He grew up in Tikrit, a provincial town which has produced many leaders of the Socialist Baath party, whose aim is a Pan-Arab state. Hussein first attracted attention in 1959 when he tried to shoot then president Abdul Karim Kassem. He missed and was wounded in the leg by soldiers. He fled, cutting out the bullet himself. Later he was arrested but managed to escape and, so the story goes, rode a donkey across the desert into Syria. He returned to Iraq after Kassem’s ouster by the Baathists in 1963, only to be jailed following an army coup later that year. After two years in prison Hussein broke out once again, disappearing into the underground. He remained there until 1968, when the Baathists seized power in a bloodless coup.
An aging party leader, Ahmed Hassan al Bakr, was named president, but Saddam Hussein, as second-in-command, was the real power. He nationalized Iraq’s oil fields (whose reserves are thought to be second only to Saudi Arabia’s), multiplied its oil revenues (from $6 billion in 1975 to some $23 billion last year) and diverted the money to needed public works and social programs. Things are better in Iraq these days: Food, housing and transportation are subsidized by the government, and education through college and medical care are free. But such internal improvements, observers say, are a means to an end—world power for Iraq and its president. Saddam Hussein is inflexibly committed. As Professor Perlmutter puts it: “He won’t die in bed.”