Five years ago Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and lived to tell the tale. But how? Robert Fisk tells a survival story

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The Independent Online
We need him. Five years after his invasion of Kuwait, we love him - in the sense that we feel affection for familiar ogres, like Dracula or James Cagney. Saddam Hussein even looks like the man who tied ladies to railway lines in silent movies.

And because of his longevity, because we have also learnt to hate him but to go on living with him, we would miss him if he went. For without Saddam, who would persuade the Saudis and Kuwaitis and the other Gulf Arabs to go on spending their billions on our weaponry? Without him, how would America's strategy of "containment" work in the Arab world? And without him, who would "contain" Iran?

When I first saw him, on a sweltering hot summer's day in Baghdad back in 1978, he was boasting of his nuclear ambitions. He looked rather box- like, a small man, much smaller than he appears on television - in a brown jacket several sizes too large for him, a rather square figure on a dais in his palace as we asked questions about Iraq's latest ambition. Now it was nuclear and he kept trying to explain to us what nuclear power was. He kept using the word "binary" over and over again, as if Iraq had just split the atom. Iraq was always having ambitions; to dominate Iran, to dominate the Gulf, to destroy Israel, to be the first Arab nuclear power. And the odd, troubling thing about Saddam is that, in his blundering way, he tried to fulfil every one.

When he started building a nuclear power station on the banks of the Tigris river, the Israelis bombed it. When he invaded Iran, we tut-tutted and sold him more planes and guns. When he invaded Kuwait, we sent the planes and the guns to bomb him. Even when the Iranian war was over and Iraq's half-million dead were in their graves, there he was again in front of the world's press, primping himself up as Nebuchadnezzar, tracing his ancestry back to the Prophet Mohammed, daring the world to confront him.

"He who launched an aggression against Iraq, all the Arab nation will now find someone to repel him," he warned in 1990. "If we can strike him with a stone, we will. If we can strike him with a missile, we will. And with all the missiles, bombs and other means at our disposal."

In a sense, his policy has always been consistent, a sequence of threat and forgiveness. He will destroy his enemies and then express his love for his neighbours. From 1978, he was determined to destroy the traitors in Iraq's midst, but then - as he announced this week - he will allow them all to return home, amnestied through his great love and compassion. In 1980, Iran's hateful Islamic regime had to be annihilated; but now it can be treated with dignity since an honourable war led to an honourable peace. In 1991, his Kurdish enemies were to be liquidated, but now they may be pardoned and encouraged to treat with Saddam (once more to the growing anxiety of the United States).

Nowhere did Saddam's menace-and-tenderness character find greater expression than in his last fateful conversation with the US ambassador April Glaspie eight days before his 1990 invasion of Kuwait. Kuwait's alleged pumping of Iraqi oil from the Rumailah field, its demand for the repayment of war debts and a sudden lowering in Gulf oil prices had infuriated the Iraqi leader: "We want the others to know that our patience is running out regarding their action, which is harming even the milk of our children. ... He [President Mubarak of Egypt] told me they [the Kuwaitis] were scared ... I said to him ... give them our word that we are not going to do anything until we meet with them. When we meet and when we see that there is hope, then nothing will happen ... there you have good news."

And then he invaded Kuwait. Of course, it was folly. But it was entirely in keeping with his character. He announced the "return" of Iraq's 19th province, the eternal annexation of the Emirate. He took hundreds of Western hostages. He promised the mother of all battles when he discovered the Americans would fight to liberate Kuwait. Then he released all the hostages and retreated out of Kuwait, the mother of all battles turning out to be as impressive as the Allied "destruction" of the Iraqi army, which within months was able to massacre thousands of rebellious Kurds and Shias.

So how does he survive? Were we not told after Kuwait's liberation that Saddam's rule was finished? Did not armies of American journalists tell us he had been "defanged"? Were we not informed that Iraqi exiles were gathering their forces to strike a final blow? Did not the New York Times inform us last April that the CIA was setting aside a budget of $15m to destabilise Iraq? What about all those coup attempts? The reported attempt to assassinate his son Oudai? The Sunni generals who tried to crush Saddam's praetorian guard?

In the West, we conclude that Saddam's soldiers must be more loyal or foolish than we believed, that his people must be too crushed to resist, that bad luck rather than military strength has foiled his overthrow.

The Arabs - whose belief that the US can accomplish anything it wants anywhere in the world approaches religious conviction - have concluded that Saddam is safe because the Americans want him to survive, that Washington has decided he has future uses, not only as a spur to further arms purchases by the Gulf Arabs but as a future "container" of Iran, perhaps even capable of a second invasion of the Islamic republic.

In truth, Saddam endures because his own naivety - born of isolation - is balanced by the adolescence of US policy towards the Middle East. For just as Saddam cannot cope with the complexities of the Western world, so the US finds itself unable to deal with the Orient other than in terms of enemies and friends, "hardliners" and "moderate", "terrorists" and "men of peace". Ever more influenced by its tiny ally Israel, an American president could now even announce the economic blockade of Iran while wearing a yarmulka at a Jewish meeting in New York - in much the same way that Saddam wears Kurdish national costume when he publicly attacks Israel or Turkey.

Over the years, Washington has presented us with a long list of hate figures, all of them Muslim, whom we have been encouraged to fear, to loathe and, if necessary, to fight: Colonel Gadaffi, Ayatollah Khomeini, Yasser Arafat, Abu Nidal, Hassan Turabi of Sudan, even the pathetic Mohamed Farah Aideed of Somalia have at various times supposedly threatened the national interests of the US. Some, like Khomeini and Abu Nidal, have died; others, like Arafat and possibly Aideed, have been forgiven. But in the pantheon of bogeymen, Saddam has acquired a place of honour, the doyen of beasts, the cruel dictator who makes all our nightmares understandable and thus excusable.

And there are nightmares in Baghdad, for the Iraqi people. Torture is a way of life for the security services; hangmen work round the clock at the Abu Ghoraib prison. Women are hanged on Wednesdays and Saturdays, are allowed a party with their fellow prisoners on the night before they are dispatched - but can wait for a year on death row if the executioners fall behind in their butchery of female inmates.

In her Baghdad prison after the hanging of her friend, the Observer journalist Farzad Bazoft, Daphne Parish was invited to join a pre-execution party with the other women. "One of the women from next-door is for hanging tomorrow," she was told. "So they are giving her a good send-off. It's a tradition." Those of us who saw the raping rooms in the police stations of northern Iraq have no doubts about the reality of Saddam's regime.

But we should not confuse his awful regime with the bestialisation to which we subject its equally dreadful ruler. In one sense this was inevitable. Arab dictators who do what we want - maintain the flow of oil, make peace with Israel, buy Western arms - are our allies. Arab dictators who do not play by these rules, or who think that our acquiescence in their abuse of human rights gives them permission to attack the West's interests, are punished. Thus we invaded Egypt when Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal, bombed Gadaffi when he set off explosions in Germany and smashed Iraq when Saddam invaded Kuwait. Nasser was compared by Eden to Mussolini, just as Saddam was later compared to Hitler. But our rules seem to call for the survival of those whom we regard as most evil. Thus thousands of Egyptians were killed in the 1956 Anglo-French-Israeli offensive, dozens of Libyans in the 1986 bombing, tens of thousands of Iraqis in the 1991 assault on Iraq. But Nasser, Gaddafi and Saddam were spared.

In the meantime, the Middle East's researchers and analysts - the latter usually retired diplomats or anonymous Israeli intelligence officers - try to explain Saddam's survival through all manner of profiles. His family, his divorce from his first wife, his son's killing of his own bodyguard, all are examined for clues - as if the system of competing intelligence services, the paranoid fear of assassination, the shrewd and ruthless annihilation of even the most innocent of suspected opponents do not account for his survival. Asked by a visiting Arab friend some years ago why a former Iraqi minister was no longer contactable, Saddam stared at the visitor and coldly replied: "We scissored his neck."

But cruel men, even artless men, can understand political opportunity. If Iraq's nuclear and chemical weapons capacity has been emasculated by the UN, if both the north and south of his country remain outside his control, Saddam Hussein's world view - however distorted by satraps and palace walls - is not, for him, an entirely pessimistic one. He can see all too well that the "peace process" upon which Washington has set such store - a process kick-started by the liberation of the country Saddam invaded five years ago today - is slowly collapsing. Arabs are coming to realise that the Israelis will not remove Jewish settlements from the West Bank; will not end their construction of settlements around Arab east Jerusalem; and will not withdraw - only "redeploy" - their troops in occupied land. Watching the humiliation of Yasser Arafat and the embarrassment of King Hussein of Jordan, President Assad of Syria, ultimately Saddam's most implacable Arab enemy, views the whole peace "bulldozer" with increasing distrust. If Assad does not sign up for peace soon, many Arabs are saying, the Israelis will try some military "persuasion" on him, probably in Lebanon.

And all the while, in Algeria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the smaller Gulf states - especially Bahrain - the attraction of militant Islam grows greater. Saddam was quicker than most to cash in on this phenomenon, slapping a prohibition on public consumption of alcohol, announcing the construction of the greatest mosque in the world and scribbling Allah akbar- "God is great" - on the Iraqi national flag. For if Saddam is a man of brute character whose threats are often made capriciously, he is also a very patient man.

When his Iranian invasion slowed down, he went on fighting for eight years. When his occupation of Kuwait failed to achieve international acceptance, he hung on until the 1991 land war began. When the allies declared Iraqi Kurdistan a safe haven, he waited until Allied "protection" failed to protect the Kurds from the Turkish army and then offered them peace. When UN sanctions impoverished Iraq, he allowed his people to suffer, correctly suspecting that the French and Russians would eventually turn against Iraq's isolation. And if the Middle East peace fails in the next few years, Saddam will be waiting in Baghdad, proclaiming Iraq the vanguard of the Palestinian nation, the bulwark of Arab defiance against imperialist aggression, the last barrier against Iranian fanaticism.

But he will be needed again.