December 31, 1990 12:00 PM

Before Aug. 2 he was just another international thug with grandiose ambitions. But since the day Iraqi President Saddam Hussein sent his legions into the oil-rich emirate of Kuwait, he has become a symbol of savagery—and the greatest threat to world peace in the post-Cold War era.

To longtime Saddam watchers, his conquest of Kuwait came as no surprise. Following his rise to power in 1979, he earned an unsurpassed reputation for ruthlessness, waging a bloody eight-year war with Iran and even using poison gas against Kurdish rebels in his own country. Establishing one of the world’s most repressive regimes, he vigorously pursued the development of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.

To rally international opposition to Saddam, President Bush has compared him with Hitler. Yet despite his sociopathic tendencies—Saddam is reported to have killed a brother-in-law who supported a rival political faction—the Iraqi leader is no madman. Cautious and cunning—his favorite movie is The Godfather—Saddam is so security conscious that he has bodyguards carry a chair around for him so that he needn’t risk sitting on one that might contain a poison tack. He has also shown signs of diplomatic shrewdness. His pre-Christmas release of foreign hostages was clearly meant to forestall the possibility of a U.S.-led offensive, and according to intelligence reports, he now spends much of his time in a Baghdad bunker watching CNN to keep tabs on how the crisis is playing in the West. Those who believe that Saddam must be removed in the interests of international security fear he may further try to weaken the alliance against him by staging a partial pullback from Kuwait. In the end this dictator with the Joe Isuzu smile may well be the world’s most dangerous man.

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