By Bill Hewitt
October 28, 2002 12:00 PM

Recently French filmmaker Joel Soler was in Baghdad making a documentary about Saddam Hussein. When he asked about the Iraqi dictator’s hobbies, he says, a government insider told him Saddam loved to fish. The source quickly explained, however, that Saddam has little patience for the subtleties of angling; he prefers explosives. “He’d throw a grenade into a lake.” Soler says the insider told him. “Then he’d have a diver go pick up the dead fish.”

That may sound astounding, but it is more than likely true (there is film footage of one of Saddam’s cousins doing the same thing). And there’s no doubt that during more than two decades in power Saddam, 65, when dealing with his neighbors or his Iraqi subjects, has never shied away from brutality. “He wants to be the Alexander the Great of the Arab world,” says Amatzia Baram, an expert on Iraq at Israel’s University of Haifa. “There is no end to his wish for power.” Now that power is at risk as a possible war with the United States looms. President Bush has vowed a “regime change” in Baghdad—though whether that will happen—or at what cost—is impossible to predict.

Resiliency and an uncanny ability to survive have long been hallmarks of Saddam’s career. He was born into a family of Sunni Muslims, the country’s ruling minority group, in rural Tikrit, 100 miles north of Baghdad. His peasant father, Hussein al-Majid, died sometime around the time of Saddam’s birth. His mother, Subha, evidently got remarried to a farmer named Ibrahim Hassan, who reportedly beat the young Saddam savagely. By his own account, Saddam ran away for a time at the age of 8. Two years ago a writer for The New Yorker visited the Tikrit Secondary School for Boys, which Saddam attended as a teenager. A report card purported to be Saddam’s from the 1953-54 school year showed him to be a mediocre student. In spite of his modest background and limited academic gifts, however, Saddam even then had big dreams. “Most of us said we wanted to become teachers,” a childhood friend, Sabir Jassim, told the magazine writer. “Saddam talked about ending Iraq’s poverty and backwardness.”

While still in his teens Saddam joined the Ba’ath Socialist Party. In 1959 Saddam, then 22, who had earlier come to Baghdad to attend school, joined a plot with other party members to assassinate then-Prime Minister Abdul Karim Qassem. During the botched ambush Saddam was shot in the left leg and fled to Cairo. He returned to Iraq in 1963, when Qassem was murdered; then a year later, when the Ba’athists were themselves ousted, he spent two years behind bars for subversion.

After escaping from prison he continued his political agitation. By the time the Ba’ath Party returned to power in 1968, Saddam emerged as the country’s strongman. He formally became president in 1979. He quickly scotched any hopes for democratic reforms but made good on pledges to modernize Iraq, building roads, bridges, hospitals and schools. “It created an aura of legitimacy and some support,” says Khidhir Hamza, an Iraqi nuclear scientist who defected in 1994. “People started coming back to Iraq.”

Saddam also had more sinister policies. He has long pursued a program for acquiring weapons of mass destruction—biological, chemical and nuclear. Additionally, he built up the apparatus of a terrifying police state. Government thugs have systematically murdered and tortured hundreds of thousands of opponents. During a purge of potential rivals in 1979, a video was made of Saddam lecturing a room full of tense-looking officials. Then the grainy black-and-white footage showed officials being led out by guards, as Saddam seemed to be laughing at some private joke. The video ended with scenes of the men being executed in the courtyard. His regime has been so ruthless that even loyalists are routinely liquidated on the off chance that they might someday pose a threat. “He identified people who could be dangerous to him in the future,” says the University of Haifa’s Baram, “long before they realized they could be dangerous.” In the late 1980s his army slaughtered some 100,000 of the country’s Kurdish minority, who had pressed for a separate state, in many instances leveling whole villages and using poison gas.

Even with family he evidently has no hesitation about sanctioning murder. In 1995 his sons-in-law Saddam and Hussein Kamel fled with their wives, Raghad and Rana, to Jordan and began divulging weapons secrets of the Iraqi government. The following year Saddam’s first wife, Sajida, passed along word from the dictator that the two couples could safely return to Baghdad. The defectors took the bait. Three days after landing, the Kamel brothers were killed in a gun battle. But Saddam wasn’t done. When the defectors’ mother, Sana, complained that she was being prevented from seeing her grandchildren, Saddam had her stabbed to death. “All this because she was nagging Saddam,” says Sweden’s Rolf Ekeus, the former head of U.N. weapons inspectors in Iraq. “It wasn’t a crime of passion. It was a crime of irritation.”

Over the years Saddam has established a cult of personality almost unrivaled anywhere in the world for its pervasiveness. His image is found everywhere in Iraq, with television routinely broadcasting hours of his speeches and poetry about him. In the name of vanity he dyes his hair jet black and rarely lets the public see the limp he suffers from a chronic back problem.

He also takes extraordinary measures to thwart would be assassins and has survived several attempts on his life. In addition to his 40 bodyguards, he has at least three doubles who serve as decoys, and he constantly moves among his two dozen lavishly appointed palaces, as well as the homes of other Iraqis. He employs food tasters to ensure he’s not poisoned. To unwind, Saddam reportedly likes Cuban cigars and Johnny Walker Blue Label on the rocks.

He evidently feels some stress from the ever-present threats. He is phobic about germs (journalists have been required to douse their hands with disinfectant before meeting him), and it has been reported that he sleeps only fitfully, rising at 3 a.m., often to swim. Prof. Efraim Karsh of the University of London, who has coauthored a biography of Saddam, says he interviewed a doctor who had treated the dictator, who complained of experiencing severe headaches from all the pressure. “He lives in a world of fear,” says Karsh. “He thinks everyone wants to kill him.”

How much comfort he gets from his family is hard to determine. It is believed that he has four wives. In addition to Sajida, there is Samira, a former Iraqi Airlines flight attendant; Nedhal al-Hamdani, a dancer; and Iman Huweish, 27, whom he is reported to have married recently. Two of his closest confidants appear to be his sons Uday, 38, and Qusay, 36, his heir apparent. Earlier this year a Greek-born woman named Parisoula Lampsos told ABC News that she had been Saddam’s mistress for 30 years. Her account of his life and habits was certainly lively—that he likes to dance to Frank Sinatra’s “Strangers in the Night,” wears a cowboy hat while watching videos of political opponents being tortured, is a big fan of the Godfather movies and uses Viagra. But some CIA officials have privately questioned whether Lampsos was ever that intimate with Saddam, whose tastes have always run to Arab women.

What is clear is that Saddam’s only real passion has been for clinging to power. In the strict sense he has so far succeeded. Despite launching two disastrous conflicts—the war with Iran that lasted from 1980 to 1988 and left 400,000 Iraqis dead and the invasion of Kuwait in 1990 that brought humiliating defeat in the Gulf War—he appears as firmly in control of his country as ever. But with the crisis growing greater by the week, Saddam has, if nothing else, been driven deeper into his bunkers. “He spends most of his days hiding,” says exile dissident leader Entifadh Qanbar. “He is living in his own prison.”

Bill Hewitt

Macon Morehouse in Washington, D.C., Pete Norman in Baghdad and Nina Biddle in London