Iraq Crisis: Portrait of Saddam - The man setting the world agenda

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Patrick Cockburn charts the life of the Machiavellian figure who relies on tribal loyalties

HE IS a figure from Shakespearean drama: intelligent, but blood thirsty and amoral; a gambler for high stakes always at risk of overplaying his hand. Like Richard III or Macbeth he is driven by ambition to cut a figure in the world.

But Richard reigned for only two years before Bosworth, while Saddam Hussein has ruled Iraq for 30 years.

It is the brutality of his character which has shaped his image in the world and with some reason. But his savagery does not quite explain President Saddam's success in putting his mark on his times.

Although he rules a nation of only 20 million people, the Iraqi leader has succeeded, at immense cost to his own people, in making the behaviour of Iraq one of the pivots on which international politics turn.

The latest crisis provoked by President Saddam puts in doubt the post- Gulf War settlement in the Middle East, United States predominance in the region and America's relationship with its allies in Moscow, Paris, London and beyond. For all his self-aggrandising personality cult Saddam Hussein has succeeded in making himself a leader whose every manoeuvre is watched with intense interest.

He has done it primarily through war. Before Iraq attacked Iran in 1980, Saddam Hussein ruled a country known as a middle- ranking oil power with savagely divisive internal politics. It was scarcely a main player even in the Middle East.

By starting the eight-year long Iraq-Iran war - having appointed himself the Arab world's bastion against the Iranian revolution and with covert support from the West - he made Iraq a key power in the Middle East.

Saddam Hussein won the war against Iran. Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of the Iranian revolution, was forced to say he would "drain the bitter cup" and sue for peace in 1988.

Iraq had suffered a quarter of a million casualties. In the conflict the Iraqi leader showed two contradictory traits in his character. An exaggerated sense of his own strength when he attacked Iran, but great tactical agility in recovering from this early miscalculation.

Victory in the Gulf War made Iraq the most powerful state in the Gulf. Once again President Saddam overplayed his hand. He invaded Kuwait, under- estimating the reaction of the Arab world and the international community as a whole. He has always been astute in domestic Iraqi politics (he once spent a few years' exile in Egypt but has otherwise not travelled) than in foreign affairs.

In 1991, his army routed, he was able to rally the Sunni Muslim core of his regime in Baghdad and central Iraq. In clinging to power Saddam Hussein showed extreme and well publicised ferocity towards rebels. His multi-layered security system did not fail him.

Less well-known is his Machiavellian flexibility; he withdrew his army from his Kurdish provinces in the belief that the Kurds would turn on each other. He was right. Within three years they were locked in civil war.

Saddam relied on more than the security apparatus and the power of the party in an authoritarian state. He looked to ties of blood, to his extended family, clan and tribe, as the strongest glue to hold in place his authority.

The analogy between Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the rulers of medieval England as portrayed by Shakespeare goes deeper than a similarity in personal characteristics.

In Richard III there are the king, the Royal Family and the nobility. In Iraq there is Saddam Hussein, his Beijat clan from the town of Tikrit on the Tigris north of Baghdad which provide the high nobility of the regime. The "notables" who man the security services and elite military units come from the allied clans of the Sunni Muslim heartlands of Iraq: the Duri Juburi Dulaim and half a dozen others.

In the eyes of the outside world it is the divisiveness of family and tribal politics which stand out. In 1995, general Hussein Kamel and Saddam Kamel, his sons-in-law and senior figures in the regime, fled to Jordan after Uday, the eldest son of the Iraqi leader, shot Watban his uncle, through the leg at a party. The regime seemed to dissolving at the centre.

Six months later Hussein Kamel and his brother returned to Baghdad to be killed by a squad led by their uncle, Ali Hassan al-Majid, on the grounds that they were a treacherous branch of the tribe. "We have the right to sever it," said clan leaders in a statement.

Saddam Hussein has always been skilled in manipulating this complex tribal and clan chessboard. He can also strengthen his hold on power by putting his weight at different times behind tribal, state or party leaders.

His opponents have only once managed to turn tribal leaders against him, in Kurdistan in 1991 when 200,000 Kurdish tribesmen fighting with the Iraqi army simply changed sides.

The solidarity at the heart of the regime comes from blood ties, but this is reinforced by the certainty of immediate retribution against dissenters and their families. Occasionally this works to destabilise the government. In 1996, Uday, Saddam's eldest son, was badly wounded by assassins, tipped off by a distant relative seeking revenge for the killing of his father by Saddam Hussein.

For all its obsessive secrecy and apparent complexity Saddam Hussein's system of rule is simpler than it looks.

In more peaceful times one Tikriti notable, having listened to an analysis of how Saddam Hussein held on to power said: "This is too complicated. We exercise power in Iraq today in just the same way as we did in the town of Tikrit 50 years ago."

Saddam Hussein, born in Tikrit in 1937, was involved in politics from his earliest days, a cadre of the Baath party and a member of a clan with growing power in the army. He was a gunman involved in an assassination attempt against General Abdul Karim Kassem who had overthrown the monarchy in 1958. He spent a brief period in Egypt during which his party took party took part in a military coup in Baghdad.

He returned to Iraq in time to be jailed when the party was overthrown in 1964. In one of his few recorded instances of humour Saddam Hussein would later say that his wife, Sajida, would bring him messages in prison concealed in the nappies of his infant son Uday. Saddam recalled: "He was an early activist."

In 1968, a more tightly disciplined party returned to power. Though only just turned 30, Saddam Hussein was one of its leaders. He was violent and cruel, but astute. The Kurds were outmanoeuvred when he signed the Algiers Agreement with the Shah of Iran in 1975. Other leading Tikritis were eliminated.

By 1979 he felt strong enough to elbow aside President Ahmed Hassan al- Bakr and take the post himself. Baghdad military museum used to have a small dusty room in which the bronze heads of all previous Iraqi leaders, including President Bakr, were jumbled together.

In the same year as he became president Saddam Hussein purged his government. He called a cabinet meeting at which he denounced traitors who opposed his elevation to the presidency by name. They were led away to be tortured and shot. Other members of the government were forced to join the firing squads. His sons Uday and Qusai were brought along to watch their father's vengeance.

Ever since he became president his authority has been absolute. Some parts of his inner family have been promoted and others removed. His half- brother Barzan, once head of the Mukhabarat internal security police, was dispatched to be ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva.

Saddam Hussein encouraged a marriage policy to strengthen family ties. His son Uday has been engaged at various times to the daughters of his uncle Barzan and his cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid.

Saddam consciously promotes people for efficiency and loyalty. The latter usually belong to his tribe or clan. The proportions of different tribes in military formations are carefully worked out.

His own family is above the law. When Uday beat to death Saddam's bodyguard at a party in 1988, Saddam first arrested him then exiled him to Switzerland, but took him back when the Swiss police deported him for carrying a pistol.

A curious feature of the home life of Saddam Hussein is his liking for gypsy music and dancing. This is common to Tikritis in general. President Bakr used to insist that Iraqi television continually showed gypsy dancers even if it was necessary to cancel the showing of popular football matches. Saddam has similar tastes but has acquired a video machine.

The personality of Saddam remains a mystery; intense pride and belief in his historic role, combined with a pitiless absorption in holding power in Iraq. The attempted coups and insurrections of the last seven years have shown that as one Iraqi put it, it is "no longer the 1960s, when you could plot a coup from outside the country".

The overlapping links of state, party and tribe armour Saddam Hussein against the overthrow of his regime. Having lived through the Gulf War and in a seven-year long political and economic siege, Saddam Hussein, now aged 60, may believe he has survived the worst the world can throw at him.