the long road to war

transcript - the mind of hussein
In this report, which originally aired on Feb. 26, 1991, near the end of the Gulf War, FRONTLINE investigated the personal and political history of Saddam Hussein. Through interviews with Saddam's former neighbors, members of his government, military leaders, journalists, and Middle East experts, correspondent Hodding Carter revealed the fears, the passions, and the intellect of the man behind the demonic image.

NARRATOR: Allied forces advanced deeper into occupied Kuwait today, pounding Iraqi Republican Guard positions and even entering Kuwait City. Thousands more Iraqi soldiers surrendered to the allies. But Saddam Hussein continues to defend himself, even as his last ditch efforts to withdraw with honor are rebuffed.

President GEORGE BUSH: He is trying to save the remnants of power and control in the Middle East by every means possible. And here too, Saddam Hussein will fail.

ANNOUNCER: Tonight on FRONTLINE: Saddam Hussein's rise to absolute power. Why has he risked his life and regime by confronting the West?

HISHAM MELHEM, Lebanese Journalist: He is wrapping himself in probably the most important thing in Islamic history: to stand up for a cause, to fight knowing in advance that you might lose.

ANNOUNCER: Is he in fact a shrewd tactician, gambling on his own political survival?

Dr. JERROLD M. POST, Political Psychologist, George Washington University: This man is the quintessential survivor. You must remember that.

ANNOUNCER: Tonight on FRONTLINE, correspondent Hodding Carter examines "The Mind of Hussein."

NARRATOR: In Iraq, Saddam Hussein has been held in fear and adulation. In the West, he's become the very embodiment of evil.

President BUSH: Eyewitness accounts of the cruel and senseless suffering endured by the people of Kuwait -- summary executions, routine torture -- Hitler revisited.

NARRATOR: Others see him as a cold and calculating politician.

Dr. CHARLES TRIPP, Middle East Scholar: I think there's much more to be said, if one wants to make comparisons, to compare him to someone like Stalin, who he publicly admires, not for Marxist ideology but really for Stalin's grasp of party organization, for the ruthlessness of the use of force, and for his determination to pursue his goals, come what may.

SAMI RAHMAN, Former Iraqi Minister: Some people who have called him mad don't know anything about him, don't know anything about the situation. He is a very cold calculator, but he believes very much in using force to impose his will.

NARRATOR: And a psychiatrist who has analyzed him for the U.S. government agrees that Saddam is not insane.

Dr. JERROLD M. POST, Political Psychologist, George Washington University: Saddam is not crazy. He has the most dangerous personality configuration, what we call "malignant narcissism," such extreme self-absorption, he has no concern for the pain or suffering of others, a paranoid outlook, no constraint of conscience and will use whatever aggression is necessary in pursuit of his own Messianic drives.

NARRATOR: Good evening. I'm Hodding Carter. Saddam Hussein is, in one respect, no mystery. Thug and patriot, nationalist and self-serving tyrant, his type can be found around the world. But Saddam Hussein is also unique, emerging from a specific time and place. Over the past several weeks, with BBC reporter John Ware, we've talked to people who grew up with Saddam, worked with him, were defeated by him, and who have studied him. With their help, we'll try to determine what drove him into a seemingly suicidal conflict with the world's greatest military power. And as he bargains over withdrawal, what he still hopes to gain from the war. To answer those questions is to tell the story of his life.

April 28th is Saddam Hussein's birthday. In Iraq it is a national holiday. While Saddam is feared and hated by many Iraqis, he has also enjoyed a genuine popularity. He has not only created a personality cult, but his control of the country is total.

Dr. TAHSIN MUALLAH, former Ba'ath Party Leader: There is no government. There is one person. There is no budget at all. There's no budget decided by a government. It is one person who decides to pay there or pay there or pay there. So every bit of Iraqi incomes go to Saddam Hussein and when he do anything, his system say, "This is a gift from the president." So they make any person feel that even his daily living is a gift from his president. Hafizabu Allah, God protects him, because he's giving us food, giving us water, giving us air to breathe, giving us sky to live under. So everything is a gift from that one person.

NARRATOR: Saddam Hussein's life started in a small village much like this. It's a part of his populist appeal. He's at home squatting with peasants. His background is hazy, rewritten by official biographers. It is known that he was born in 1937 and left home at an early age. He came to Baghdad when he was 10 years old to live with his uncle and to seek an education. He apparently lived up to the Arabic translation of his name -- Saddam, "the one who confronts." It's said he arrived in the Iraqi capital with a gun.

FOUAD MATAR, Official Hussein Biographer: [through interpreter] As a child, Saddam Hussein used to see lots of guns hanging on the walls at his home. In those days, an Iraqi would boast of having a gun or dagger. If you wanted to be seen as a strong man, you had to carry a gun. He saw the gun as a way of showing his strength.

NARRATOR: At school the teenage Saddam had his problems with authority.

Dr. ABDUL WAHAD al-HAKIM, Iraqi Exile: My headmaster told me that he liked to expel Saddam from the school. When Saddam hear about this decision, he came to his, you know, his headmaster room and threaten him to death. He said, "I will kill you if you not withdraw your threat against me to expel me from the school."

NARRATOR: Saddam's political education as an Iraqi nationalist began with his Uncle Khayrallah, who had been jailed for anti-British activities. He apparently also taught him about hate. Years later, Saddam would have printed and distributed one of his uncle's pamphlets. It was entitled "Three Things God Should Not Have Created: Persians, Jews and Flies."

HANI al-FEKAIKI, former Ba'ath Party Member: The main influence on Saddam's personality, I believe, the hatred against the West, which was in the '50s and '60s because of the creation of Israel, because of the prevention of the Arab unity, because of the domination of the British on the whole area. This hatred is still there.

NEWSREEL ANNOUNCER: Just across across the map to Iraq, another danger spot that Britain dealt with before it was too late.

NARRATOR: He was born into the cauldron of post-colonial rule in a land still controlled by Britain. After World War I, Britain had redrawn the maps of the Middle East, stitching Iraq together from several separate pieces. The British then granted Iraq independence, but installed a puppet king. In 1941, they put down a revolt against the monarchy. Iraq remained a prisoner of the West's will. In 1958, while Iraq's King Faisal was visiting Britain, another conspiracy to overthrow the monarchy was under way at home. The coup succeeded. Its leader was General Abdul Karim Kassem. One day after the coup, the U.S. sent troops to the Middle East.

ALFRED L. ATHERTON, Jr., former Assistant Secretary of State for the Near East: We saw this as the beginning of a violent revolution that was going to overturn governments all the way across the Arab world and we went in to stabilize it, starting in Beirut.

NARRATOR: President Eisenhower sent the Marines into Lebanon. Though concerned with the civil war there, he was motivated primarily by the Iraqi revolution and the threat of Soviet influence in the Persian Gulf. Meanwhile, back in Baghdad, Kassem's takeover was also being opposed by a small underground group of Arab nationalists called the Ba'ath Party.

Mr. al-FEKAIKI: The Ba'ath Party in the '50s and even early '60s was a small party, but it had a wide, very wide support within the Arab people, who were aiming to liberate the Arab countries, to unite them in one state and to liberate Palestine.

Dr. PHEBE MARR, Senior Fellow, National Defense University: The party started out as a clandestine party and hence is built on a well-known cell system. That we know. People in this cell don't know people in that and so on. But since the party is also hierarchical, you move up the party and you're carefully watched. You're carefully vetted.

NARRATOR: Saddam Hussein was 20 when he joined the party.

MUSTAFA al-KARADAGHI, former Iraqi Diplomat: I met him when he was quite young, with another two Ba'ath fellow. He was very aggressive, you know? He was talking about how to overthrow this regime, the Kassem regime, to shoot everybody and to wipe out and to make the streets of Baghdad a lake of blood. He used that "lake of blood" frequently.

NARRATOR: Inspired by Egyptian president Gamel Nasser's defiance of the British and French at Suez, Saddam had become a dedicated revolutionary. He was now drawn into a conspiracy. The Ba'ath leadership selected him to join a squad to assassinate Kassem.

Mr. al-FEKAIKI: He was young, strong, brave, loyal to the party, ready to obey orders and to kill.

NARRATOR: Saddam's role in the failed assassination attempt has been dramatized in an Iraqi film. Saddam himself is portrayed as the fearless leader of the hit squad. In real life, his role was smaller.

Dr. MUALLAH: He put himself as the leader of the group who tried to kill Kassem. He was the most junior member of the group.

NARRATOR: His doctor remembers Saddam's wound.

Dr. MUALLAH: Oh, it was very superficial wound to the shin. A bullet just penetrated the skin and it stopped there in the shin of his leg. I don't recall whether it was the right or left leg. And during the night he cut it by a razor blade and took the bullet out. So I treated the wound. I cleaned it and dressed it and that's all.

NARRATOR: Because of the failed coup, Saddam fled to Cairo. He became a student of law at the university during a turbulent time. He apparently never finished a course, caught up instead in student politics, the Ba'athist Party in exile and in Egypt's own revolution under the charismatic Gamal Abdel Nasser. Nasser's pan-Arabism appealed to the young Saddam.

Dr. S. SHAIKHLY, former Hussein Economic Adviser: All Arab nationalists, and that would have included people of Saddam Hussein's age group, would have looked at President Nasser both as a savior and as a model for a future Arab leader. I would have thought that not only colored his thinking, but also it must have colored his inspiration for leadership.

NARRATOR: This coffee shop was a meeting place for Cairo's political activists in the early 1960s. As a young political refugee, Saddam amazed the owner by appearing to enjoy near-diplomatic status.

HUSSEIN MAGID, Caf Owner: [through interpreter] He was rowdy with the waiters, rowdy with the customers, and used to sit by the pavement and tease the girls. He behaved badly in many ways. Once he had a fight with some Yemenis. He brought in an axe and they hit each other. He had two Iraqis with him. They switched off the lights. They hit and injured each other so I called the police, but the police sided with him because he was under Nasser's protection.

NARRATOR: Patrons, however, also recall him as a man who had the quality of a born leader. He had, they remember, a natural air of authority.

AHMED ABBAS SALEH, former Press Officer, Iraqi Embassy: We were in the caf and we heard some quarrel outside the caf. When we went, I found a young man, who was Saddam Hussein, give order to this factions which fight together and all of them suddenly stopped the quarrel and it surprised me very much. And when I came back to my seat inside the caf, I asked my friend about this young man. He told me it was a very important man. He is representative of Ba'ath Party in Egypt.

NARRATOR: But in February 1963, events in Baghdad brought Saddam home. Kassem had been assassinated by the Ba'athists. To convince the people on the streets of Kassem's death, the Ba'athists and their military partners displayed Kassem's corpse on television. But nine months later, the Ba'athists themselves were overthrown by the army. They'd fallen prey to doctrinaire splits and divisions between their military and civilian wings. For Saddam, these were important lessons about power and how not to lose it.

Dr. MARR: I think he learned the lesson that it is unwise to share power with other groups. The Ba'ath in '63 had shared power with the military. The military out-maneuvered them and they were forced out of power. The second lesson he learned from that was to put the military in the barracks. Get the military out of political power and put them in the barracks and he's been remarkably successful in doing that for a long period of time. Third, I think he learned from that experience never to allow splits in the leadership. And this, I think, is what we call his "paranoia," that he is unduly suspicious of any thoughts, even, of dissent or opposition, which must be crushed, and he's very good at crushing them.

NARRATOR: Suspecting Saddam of subversion, the military regime jailed him. There he began to plot the future. He would become a brilliant and sometimes subtle tactician, but his basic tactic was the crudest of all: to restore discipline to the Ba'ath Party through selective terror.

Mr. al-FEKAIKI: People who were with him in prison in 1965 told me that he was keen to read books about Hitler, about Stalin, things like that, which help him to know how he could seize power, how could he manage keeping power in his hand, how he could get rid of his opponent, things like that.

NARRATOR: In July 1968, the Ba'athists seized power again, this time under President al-Bakr. The young Saddam had connections. Bakr was Saddam's cousin and he entrusted his 31-year-old relative with the most important job of all: running the state security apparatus to extinguish dissent both inside and outside the party.

HASSAN al-ALAWI, Hussein Publicity Chief, 1975-1980: [through interpreter] The curious thing is that when the Ba'ath Party came to power, its secret organizations remained secret even though they no longer needed to be. One wonders why the party should remain secret when it's in power. Here we should take into account the psychology of the leader, Saddam, a man who's afraid of society, who doesn't trust his neighbors. These features have left their mark on Iraq since the Ba'ath Party came to power. The state doesn't trust its neighbors. The party organization doesn't trust its members. The government doesn't trust its ministers. All this reflects the psychology of fear and terror in which Saddam has always lived.

NARRATOR: In 1968, Sami Ali was a journalist in Baghdad. After publishing secret Ba'ath documents, he found himself being interrogated by Saddam Hussein.

SAMI ALI, Journalist: I felt I am in front of very powerful person. That is the man who will decide my destiny. He was very severe and he said, "We are different from the former regime." He said, "We are going to clean Iraq from all the weak people, all from unwanted people, so we have message, we have a plan to do it and we are going to do it."

NARRATOR: That message was soon delivered to the Iraqi people. The public came in their thousands to Liberation Square to witness the fate of those the Ba'athists claimed had plotted against them.

Mr. al-KARADAGHI: When we went there, there were many speakers there. They were speaking about -- against Zionism, against the traitors, against -- the policy of Ba'ath government, what they are going to achieve, what they are going to wipe out all the traitors inside, like all those people hanged there. All the traitor will be hanged.

IRAQI EXILE: You could see the bodies very closely. These were hung for, by that time, about four hours on the -- you could see, because the neck was broken. It had actually stretched to about one foot long. I myself in particular, I remember I was pushed right against one of the hanged bodies. I remember my head hitting one of the shoes of one of the hanged men. Up to that time, people could be critical. They could criticize the government or statements made by Ba'athist officials, including the president of that time and Saddam Hussein, as well. I realized that this can no longer continue and that we have to be careful about what we say.

NARRATOR: In the early years of the new Ba'athist government, 2,000 political opponents were executed or disappeared at the hands of state security. Even the man Saddam put in charge of the service was executed for plotting against the Ba'athists. Saddam then restructured the security operations.

ELAINE SCIOLINO, The New York Times: Saddam was very instrumental in developing the security apparatus for the regime and used it not only as a way to provide the regime with intelligence and prevent coup plots, but also to purge the regime one by one of its enemies and of his enemies, so that Saddam was able to build a power base for himself. And it took him probably about a year and a half before Saddam really emerged as the number two man behind Bakr, through a series of systematic purges and consolidation of power.

NARRATOR: He created three separate networks: the internal state security service, the "AMN," reorganized with the help of the KGB; military intelligence, called the "Estikhabarat," to gather military information from abroad and carry out assassinations; and watching over both of them, the Ba'ath Party's own internal intelligence service, the "Mukhabarat." This was by far the biggest and most important intelligence service of all. It also kept an eye on the police, the army and other mass organizations. The idea was that the Mukhabarat should literally penetrate every street.

Mr. RAHMAN: Every member of the party would be responsible for a block of streets. He would have to know who are the people that were against the Ba'ath Party, who don't like Ba'ath ruling Iraq. This actually set the infrastructure and I think is the most dangerous way of keeping security, because making neighbors spying on neighbors, relatives spying on relatives.

NARRATOR: Long before Saddam became president, he knew he would have to penetrate the family itself to keep control of the revolution. Children were an early target. Young Pioneers pay homage to the one they call "the magnificent warrior." This hero-worship by children began in the early 1970s when Saddam urged them to call him "Uncle." And in 1977, Uncle Saddam made this appeal to the Iraqi family.

SADDAM HUSSEIN, President of Iraq: [through interpreter] Teach them to criticize their mothers and fathers respectfully if they hear them talking about organizational and party secrets. You must place in every corner a son of the revolution with a trustworthy eye and a firm mind that receives its instructions from the responsible center of the revolution.

NARRATOR: As Saddam's power and influence grew in the '70s, it was clear that he had designs on the presidency itself, but he also knew that his cousin, al-Bakr, had powerful support from the army. So with meticulous cunning, he began to plot against the military establishment. One of Saddam's first targets was Bakr's defense minister, Hardan al-Takriti. A former air force commander, Hardan was one of the president's favorites, but he had lost favor in a policy dispute. Publicly, Saddam supported him. Privately, he had other plans to make sure Hardan would not stand in his way.

Mr. RAHMAN: Hardan was ordered to leave the country. He went to the airport. Saddam gave instructions to the airport to stop the airplane so that he can go and say good-bye to Hardan. He went to the airport. He went up the plane and he kissed him good-bye, so people felt that this man must be innocent. I mean, Saddam has nothing to do with this plot, but only few weeks later he arranged an assassination and he killed him in Kuwait.

NARRATOR: Sixteen generals were imprisoned or executed. Saddam was at al-Bakr's side -- young and clearly ambitious. Why did al-Bakr trust the much younger man?

Dr. MUALLAH: Because Saddam is one of his relatives and Saddam, a young man, so al-Bakr said -- thought that Saddam would have no ambition to take his place, at least for the first 20 years. So he trusted him and he brought him and he pushed him up.

INTERVIEWER: And he was wrong.

Dr. MUALLAH: Yes, he was wrong.

NARRATOR: Systematically, Saddam had removed Bakr's closest colleagues. In July 1979, Bakr resigned for reasons, he said, of ill health. Saddam, the new president, 42 years old, would trust no one but himself.

Mr. RAHMAN: Saddam has said, "I can judge a conspirator against me from his looks and a look is enough for me to know he is a conspirator." And when he believes somebody is a conspirator, I think he deals with him before the would-be conspirator would move against Saddam.

Mr. MATAR: [through interpreter] He is able to read between the lines and also to read people's eyes. Anyone who goes to see him discovers that the first thing the president does is look them in the eyes. He does rely heavily on his sixth sense, on his instinct of just knowing when something is fishy.

NARRATOR: Those around him could never rest easily, not knowing what the president was thinking or what plots he suspected. They would soon find out. His first major purge took place in 1979 at a special meeting of the Ba'ath Party leadership. Saddam insisted it be videotaped. What follows is a numbing spectacle of terror. The business of the meeting is very grave. The delegates await anxiously as Saddam prepares to speak. He claims that this time his famed sixth sense has failed him.

SADDAM HUSSEIN: [through interpreter] We used to be able to sense a conspiracy with our hearts before we even gathered the evidence. Nevertheless, we were patient and some of our comrades blamed us for knowing this but doing nothing about it.

NARRATOR: A senior Ba'ath Party official then rises to confess the existence of a major plot.

LAURIE MYLROIE, Hussein Biographer: Then people start to call for a wider purge. Ali Hasan al-Majid, for example, who's his cousin and who was the governor of Kurdistan responsible for the severe repression of the Kurds and was also initially in charge of the occupation of Kuwait, he says to him, "What you have done in the past was good. What you will do in the future is good. But there's this one small point. You have been too gentle, too merciful." Saddam says, "Yes, that's true. People have criticized" -- it's bizarre -- "people have criticized me for that," he says. "But this time, I'll show no mercy."

NARRATOR: Half an hour into the proceedings, and the first conspirator is plucked from the audience and led away to certain execution. Saddam, meanwhile, is looking relaxed, drawing on a cigar. But when he begins to speak, his tone becomes severe.

SADDAM HUSSEIN: [through interpreter] The witness has just given us information about the group leaders in that organization. Similar confessions were made by the ringleaders. Get out. Get out!

NARRATOR: More conspirators are led away and as the numbers grow, the mood rises to a frenzy of anticipation, for no one can be certain that he might not be next.

Dr. POST: If you can imagine what it was like to be sitting there -- "Am I about to be executed?" And then, as he is doing this, to luxuriantly light up a cigar, the absolute lack of feeling for human suffering and the total sadistic power over their lives -- really quite awe-inspiring.

NARRATOR: In a rising crescendo of desperation to prove their loyalty, the surviving Ba'athists shout "Long live the party! Long live the party! God save Saddam from conspirators!" Saddam, meanwhile, can be seen reaching for a tissue. The tears are contagious. Then, to guarantee the loyalty of his high command, Saddam goes to sit Among them. He then invites them to form the firing squad to execute their former comrades. Saddam has neatly lured his colleagues into sharing guilt.

Dr. POST: When one just expediently deals out death for the sake of control, one doesn't have to be personally involved. In fact, Saddam reminds me of Josef Stalin in some ways, who similarly took an enjoyment in the dealing out, sadistically, life and death to his ministers, almost whimsically.

NARRATOR: A few days later, crowds celebrating the executions chant Saddam's name, an early expression of the personality cult that he would refine over the next decade.

Ms. SCIOLINO: Iraq was a disparate group of peoples, of different religions, of different ethnic backgrounds, and he needed an ideological glue to solidify the country, so this is why he created a mythology around himself. It's why he tried to create a common history that was a history of greatness. It's why he's used terror and repression to homogenize his people. Because the only way that Saddam saw that he could stabilize Iraq and rule Iraq was by pulling the country together.

NARRATOR: He also had the benefit of oil. Iraq has the world's second largest reserves and Saddam was going to use them.

Dr. SHAIKHLY: I think he used the oil revenue in a very intelligent way. During the years 1980 and 1989, '90, the total income of Iraq from oil was on average $12 billion a year. Now, the credit line and various loans that the United States, Britain and others have given him, the total income during these 10 years amounted to about $223 billion. So there was plenty in the kitty, not only to spend on military infrastructure, as we have seen recently, but also to spend on social, educational projects where the greater masses have benefited. This has increased his adulation and it was a two-way kind of -- something given by the leader and something gratefully received by the population at large.

NARRATOR: American scholar Christine Helms met Saddam for the first time in Baghdad in 1979. The president insisted on broadcasting her three-hour-long interview with him on national television.

Dr. CHRISTINE MOSS HELMS, Iraq Scholar: Saddam is a man who, if you look back over the past 20 years, has always been an activist, a doer. He creates things that are happening. He's looking down the road. This is the visionary aspect about him. His main concern has always been survival of the Iraqi state, maintaining the territorial integrity of the Iraqi state, minimizing domestic discontent, whether through the use of force or -- the Iraqis have a phrase cadoine, the carrot and the stick.

NARRATOR: He is also utterly pragmatic, prepared to change course when it seems necessary. For years the Kurds have been fighting for independence from Iraq. Even before he was president, Saddam had courted Kurdish leaders and signed an agreement conceding their major demands.

Mr. RAHMAN: He charmed all the Kurdish leadership. We felt he was knowledgeable. He was young. He was determined. And it seems he was very, very well briefed on our demands, so sometimes he would pronounce some of our demands before we saying them.

NARRATOR: But Saddam's promises meant nothing. The agreement was broken and for over a decade the guerrilla war continued. Saddam would launch ever more savage reprisals, which finally reached their nadir at Halabja in 1988. It was genocide with poison gas. Five thousand people died.

Dr. MARR: He is more willing to push things to extreme. He is more willing to make the means suit the end, to get his way, than other people. When he has an adversary, he will raise the stakes so high that the adversary backs down. He will push things to the bitter end and he certainly is a stubborn, extraordinarily persistent man.

NARRATOR: He is also vainglorious. After the Iran-Iraq war, he built a memorial arch in Baghdad called "the victory swords."

Ms. SCIOLINO: What Saddam did is he had casts done of his arms and hands and he had huge forearms cast in a foundry in Britain, that had to be trucked back to Iraq in pieces. So out of the ground in Baghdad are these two extraordinary forearms holding onto swords, pouring out of nets that are -- sort of attached to these arms are thousands and thousands of Iranian helmets, I mean, actual helmets that were taken from the bodies of dead Iranians, helmets blown up by shrapnel, helmets with bullet holes in them. And to me, this says something about Saddam and something about his regime.

NARRATOR: Saddam Hussein invaded Iran in 1980 with America's implicit approval. The Iran-Iraq war lasted for eight years. Over one million died. Here was proof of his incredible control over his population, his ability to mobilize his resources, human and physical, and even more importantly, his ability to motivate them.

Dr. MARR: He fought that war with a sort of a social contract with his people, that he would try to fight it so as to keep casualties down, but if the chips were down they were expected to go in and fight, and by and large, they did. So I think he learned that he has a lot of control over his people. He can take casualties.

NARRATOR: But the war also showed up some of his shortcomings. Afraid of giving power to the generals, Saddam insisted on directing the war himself, but he was a military disaster. He tried to broker a peace with the Ayatollah Khomeini, but was rejected. He handed the war over to the generals and they won it.

The man laying the wreath is Adnan Tulfah, Saddam's wartime defense minister. They were cousins. They'd grown up together. But by the end of the war, Saddam saw Adnan as a problem.

General ANWAR ZAHRAN, former Hussein Military Adviser: [through interpreter] Adnan was considered by the army as the real hero of that war and Saddam felt that his growing reputation and his ability could make him a rival for the leadership. I think that Saddam saw Adnan's popularity as a threat to him personally.

NARRATOR: There were rumors Adnan would be dismissed. Instead, in April 1989, a convenient helicopter crash solved the problem. At first during the war Saddam, an avowedly secular ruler, had scorned the Iranian Ayatollah's Islamic rhetoric. But as the war dragged on, Saddam grew anxious that Iranian fundamentalism might undermine his own people's loyalty. He suddenly claimed an ancestral link to the Prophet Mohammed and even his military briefings took on a distinctly Islamic tone.

Gen. ZAHRAN: [through interpreter] President Saddam Hussein would chair the military meetings. They were full of quotations from the Koran and poetry, but I realized why he used to give out that kind of briefing. It was not directed primarily at us generals, but at the public, who were very moved by its rhetorical fervor.

NARRATOR: Saddam also used history and myth. This film about the Arab hero Saladin reaches back to the 7th century, before the Islamic divisions, when Arabs united to defeat Persia. Saddam identified with Saladin, who was from his ancestral village, Takrit. Saddam was also promoted as the new Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian conqueror of the Jews. He set out to rebuild ancient Babylon. Bricks are inscribed, "The Babylon of Nebuchadnezzar was reconstructed in the era of Saddam Hussein." But in 1989, he was facing more current reconstruction problems.

Mr. ATHERTON: He was trying to deal with what were serious economic problems, political problems, having been seen to have made a deal and not really won the war with Iran, despite all that he said. But in the end, he was -- at bottom, his problems were: how was he going to rebuild his economy, repay his short-term commercial debts to Europe, keep up his credit worthiness in order to develop his infrastructure, his civilian economy?

NARRATOR: But the civilian economy took second place to the military. Despite an $80 billion debt, Saddam kept adding to the military machine. He was more concerned about the world outside and particularly his long-time sponsor, the Soviet Union.

HISHAM MELHEM, Lebanese Journalist: Given the changes in Eastern Europe, given the changes in the East-West relationship with the Soviet Union, his mounting economic problems, the fear of Israel's preponderance -- and at that time, the Israelis were talking about the need to contain Iraq. So there were many real reasons for concern for him in addition to his sense of being besieged and given his own paranoia to begin with.

NARRATOR: Years of surviving in the paranoid world of his own politics only added to his certainty that others were planning a conspiracy against him.

Dr. MARR: It runs something like this, that Iraq is the only strong Arab country, or the strongest Arab country, and a group of outsiders are trying to weaken it. Israel is always at the head of this, the United States, and assorted local allies. Earlier on it was Iran. Now it's Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. They're trying to weaken Iraq by various means. The United States, for example, is trying to weaken them by economically, not giving them credits, by squeezing them in terms of technology. It may seem bizarre to us but gradually I think this particular theory has gotten quite a grip on Saddam's mind.

Mr. MELHEM: Let's not forget that two years go, three years ago, he was being cheered by people in the West. This is the man who was supported by American credit, intelligence information, "dual use" materiel. He was provided with technical support from the Germans, the French. The French and the Soviets and the Chinese provided him with weapons. And he was given a great deal of money from the Saudis and the Kuwaitis.

NARRATOR: Now he believed they all wanted to bring him down and so, at an Arab League meeting in early 1990, he demanded debt relief, higher oil prices and land concessions from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Iraq's argument with Kuwait over oil and land was an old one. In 1961, President Kassem had threatened to seize Kuwaiti oil fields. The British had sent in the troops. Now, perhaps, Saddam would do what Kassem had failed to do. In 1990, Hussein felt the U.S. had forced Kuwait to overproduce oil in order to lower world prices and thus to strangle Iraq.

Dr. MARR: I think he came to believe -- I know he came to believe, because they've said it in their official documents -- that Kuwait was overproducing oil not in its own interest, but because it was goaded into that by the United States in an effort to weaken Iraq, and that's what he means when he says that was tantamount to war.

NARRATOR: In fact, in April, a group of U.S. Senators visited Hussein in an attempt to convince him the U.S. wanted to strengthen ties with Iraq. Senator Alan Simpson remembers Saddam's state of mind.

Sen. ALAN K. SIMPSON (R-WI): He started right off saying that there was a conspiracy against him created by the United States and England and that they had effectively created an international conspiracy against him and that he was a peace-loving man and used the word "peace" about every 17 seconds for three hours.

Mr. RAHMAN: Before the invasion of Kuwait, he's been confiding to many people and sometimes not in secret that the -- he was saying that the Americans were trying to get rid of him. I don't know how much this true, but he didn't like the wind of change in the area, the wind of -- democratic winds in the Eastern bloc. He was terrified of them. So he -- maybe he wanted real, real assurances, hard assurances from the Americans that he will -- they will do -- they will not do anything to weaken him or destabilize him.

NARRATOR: But Washington was not sending him either strong enough assurances or a clear warning. At a State Department daily briefing in late July, he was told the U.S. would keep its distance.

MARGARET O. TUTWILER, State Department Spokesperson: We do not have any defense treaties with Kuwait and there are no special defense or security commitments to Kuwait.

NARRATOR: But even that message was qualified in the same briefing. In answer to a question minutes later:

Ms. TUTWILER: We also remain strongly committed to supporting the individual and collective self-defense of our friends in the Gulf, with whom we have deep and long-standing ties.

NARRATOR: The next day, Hussein summoned the American Ambassador April Glaspie to explain the statements.

Ms. SCIOLINO: The impression that Ambassador Glaspie got from the meeting is that Saddam was going to try to find a peaceful solution to the crisis.

NARRATOR: Elaine Sciolino of The New York Times is the only journalist to interview Ambassador Glaspie, who apparently tried to convince the annoyed Hussein that Washington felt that Iraq's dispute with Kuwait was an Arab, not an American, affair.

Ms. SCIOLINO: She had instructions to go in and say to Saddam, "We want to improve relations with you. We want to make sure that you understand this." She repeated it. She said, "President Bush is not going to impose sanctions. He wants you to realize this. He wants better relations with Iraq." The fact is that what April Glaspie said is really a case study in appeasement.

NARRATOR: It was also an approach to Hussein that was recommended by others.

Ms. SCIOLINO: The Egyptians and the Saudis told Bush, "Don't antagonize things. Don't aggravate the situation. Lay low. Keep a low profile. Don't say anything that could make things worse, that could threaten things even more."

NARRATOR: Eight days later, just as he'd been threatening for weeks, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. Whatever was in his mind when he made the decision, he still took the world by surprise.

Dr. MARR: l don't think we understand the man. His personality, his brinkmanship is something that we're really not used to dealing with. I think the reverse is true, as well. And I am not yet convinced that, without giving him actually some things that I think the West was unprepared to give him, that he would have backed down.

NARRATOR: Neither the West nor his neighbors would give him what he wanted, so he took it. But it wasn't just his economy at home that sent him into Kuwait. Saddam Hussein wanted more.

Dr. MARR: I'll tell you what I think he really wanted, one way or the other. He wanted recognition of his role as the leading regional power. He wants -- in my view, he wants to survive. That not only means physical -- he's a brave man. I don't cast any aspersions on his courage. When we say "survival," we mean political survival. He wants to survive and his regime -- he wants his regime to survive in Iraq.

NARRATOR: The invasion seemed to have considerable support from Iraqis, but for the West it was his personal ambition that would define the conflict.

President BUSH: We have no argument with the Iraqi people -- none at all. Our problem is with Saddam Hussein alone.

Mr. MELHEM: George Bush and Saddam Hussein hail from two different cultural and social backgrounds, yet, in one respect, both of them dealt with this issue in strikingly similar fashion. Each claimed that he represents righteousness, light, in a mortal struggle with the other who represents darkness and decadence and evil.

President BUSH: Appeasement does not work. As was the case in the 1930s, we see in Saddam Hussein an aggressive dictator threatening his neighbors.

SADDAM HUSSEIN: [through interpreter] In the same way as did Judas betray trust and Christ, so has (Bush) betrayed, through his aggressivism and deep-rooted evil, the teachings of Jesus Christ.

President BUSH: We're dealing with Hitler revisited, a totalitarianism and a brutality that is naked and unprecedented in modern times, and that must not stand!

INTERVIEWER: Was it a smart thing for George Bush to both personalize and mythologize Hussein?

Mr. MELHEM: Absolutely not. Absolutely not. Because it betrayed an incredible lack of knowledge about the region, certainly about the regime in Iraq, about the individual involved, Saddam Hussein, and where he comes from.

INTERVIEWER: Did Hussein misread George Bush?

Mr. ATHERTON: Oh, I think so. He misread George Bush and the American people.

INTERVIEWER: Why did he misread them so much?

Mr. ATHERTON: I think it's his own mindset, a lifetime of misreading the world around him, looking at the world in terms of the Ba'ath Party climb to power and then fight to stay in power in the very complicated, in many ways, heterogeneous Iraqi political climate.

NARRATOR: If there was one thing Saddam Hussein had learned from Ba'ath politics, it was how to go one on one with a rival.

Dr. POST: When he succeeded in involving George Bush in a more personalized combat, not just Iraq versus the United States but Saddam Hussein versus George Bush, this played extremely well in the Arab world, especially to the weak, dispossessed, alienated individuals, especially the Palestinians. Here was this man who had the courage to stand up not only against the most powerful nation on earth, but against the president of the most powerful nation on earth and engage him in one-on-one combat.

NARRATOR: Saddam Hussein probably never expected George Bush to go to war, convinced that he wouldn't risk American lives. But he also had few illusions about the firepower he was facing.

Ms. SCIOLINO: In the days before the invasion, one senior Iraqi official told me that Saddam saw himself very much as the new Nasser and thought that maybe he could lose militarily but still the people of Iraq would come to the streets the way the Egyptian people did with Nasser and raise him up again and that he could re-emerge as the leader of Iraq, even with a military loss.

NARRATOR: While he may never have taken it for granted, Saddam had come to expect the power and prestige he enjoyed at home. Now in much of the Arab world, from Morocco to Jordan, he gained from the war what he could never have engineered alone, the support not just of the masses, but of the elite, like these university professors in Amman.

1st PROFESSOR: He is a patriot. He is shrewd. He is the leader who is going to lead us to victory.

2nd PROFESSOR: This is an Arab problem. It should be left to the Arabs to solve it. The British, the Americans, the rest of the coalition are paid for by the Saudis. They have nothing to do here. This is our land, our country, our problem, our issues, our culture, our civilization!

NARRATOR: For Arabs, to bomb Baghdad is to strike at the heart of Arab culture. It is what bombing Athens, Rome or Paris would mean to Europeans. Iraqi TV showed Saddam Hussein in his bunker with his generals. Was he, as the West hoped, beaten, unable to respond or was he waiting with something else in mind?

Dr. POST: Unlike some other leaders who, once they make a decision, will pursue it to the end, on a number of crucial occasions when Saddam has miscalculated and the decision he has made has proven counterproductive, he has been able to reverse himself. Now, he doesn't view this as an error in decision-making. He views this as adaptively responding to a dynamic situation.

NARRATOR: After months of defiance, he began to maneuver. In the name of the Revolutionary Command Council, spreading the responsibility, he offered to withdraw from Kuwait on condition that the Israelis leave the West Bank. His announcement was greeted with celebration in the streets of Baghdad, but he was playing a more complex geopolitical game. By sending Tariq Aziz to Moscow, he drew the Russians in, promising them a role in a post-war Middle East and forcing President Bush to reject the Russian proposal and set another deadline.

Throughout the long confrontation, Saddam Hussein's decisions have consistently surprised his enemies. Now, instead of fighting "the Mother of Battles," he is relinquishing Kuwait while claiming victory at home.

Dr. MARR: He's already emerging as a hero in the Arab world for having withstood an air campaign, having lobbed missiles in -- he is really deriving a great deal of psychic benefit from this as a hero. So I guess the question we have to ask ourselves, if he has enough psychic -- if he's left with a lot of psychic benefits, even if he hasn't got an army and he hasn't got an economy, if he's stirred this dignity and pride, it's possible that the Iraqis might let him survive and the Arab world might let him survive.

Dr. POST: This man is the quintessential survivor. We must remember that. And I think it is quite possible for him to be highly creative and innovative in his struggle to survive and survive with honor. It isn't just a matter of surviving and breathing. He needs more than vital signs. He needs to survive with his reputation not only intact, but magnified.

NARRATOR: Saddam Hussein surviving the war, coming out alive with honor and control intact, has been described as the "nightmare scenario." Kuwait will be liberated and Iraq devastated, but if Saddam survives he may actually retain the one thing that ever really mattered to him: power for its own sake.


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