Saddam Hussein believes that war is coming. He has always had an apocalyptic vision of himself as the Arab hero fighting the foreign enemy to the last bullet. It is one of the few points in which he is in agreement with the Iraqi opposition. They believe he will fight to the end. "Even if the US or their allies ever take Baghdad he will shoot it out from the last bunker," said a veteran opponent of the regime, who has devoted his life to trying to overthrow the Iraqi dictator.
Everywhere in Iraq there are signs of the regime girding itself for war. Saddam has ordered more food to be made available in the shops and told people to store it at home. Petrol dumps are being prepared in case US aircraft destroy the refineries as they did during the Gulf War in 1991. Iraqi television and radio are continually pumping out warnings that the Iraqi people must be prepared for war.
Saddam thinks he has learnt some lessons from his defeat in Kuwait 11 years ago and the subsequent uprisings of Iraqi Shia Muslims in the south and Kurds in the north which almost overthrew him. This time he plans to crush any rebellion before it gets started. Already he has divided the country into three under the command of loyal lieutenants who will respond instantly to any opposition attack. Emergency committees of army, security services and members of the ruling Ba'ath Party have been set up in every village, town and city.
The regular army, though not the elite Republican Guard divisions, is normally kept short of ammunition to prevent it launching a coup. But over the past month observers have noticed that it has received copious supplies of ammunition as it goes on to a war footing. The dreaded security and intelligence agencies, the essential sinews of the regime, have shifted out of the headquarters they occupied at the start of the year to move to new, more secret locations.
Saddam's regime is far stronger than the Taliban was. A civilian by background, he has devoted his life to making sure that no ambitious military commander is able to overthrow him. But he has never been good at assessing how the outside world will respond to his actions, and disastrously miscalculated the risks involved in invading Iran in 1980 and Kuwait 10 years later. In manipulating political forces within Iraq, though, he is a past master.
Now 64, Saddam has spent half his life either as supreme leader of Iraq or among the country's top leaders. A tall, well-built man he now moves stiffly and seldom speaks in public, but nobody in Iraq has any doubt that he is in total control. Iraqi television frequently shows him at the head of a table with his top military leaders, visibly nervous, sitting on either side with their pencils poised over notepads as they wait, like eager students, to take down the words of the leader.
In the 1980s official Iraqi accounts of Saddam's career emphasised that, like the Prophet Mohamed, he was orphaned at an early age and succeeded in the face of adversity. This was never quite true. In reality Saddam, born near the city of Tikrit on the upper Tigris river in 1937, was fortunate in his background. His family were Sunni Muslims from a part of Iraq that produced many of the nationalist army officers who were soon to dominate the country.
Saddam came from a close-knit family – his half-brothers were his first security chiefs. Married early to his cousin Sajidah, he had two sons, Uday and Qusay, who today are his chief lieutenants. In official Iraqi paintings they are usually portrayed as young Arab horsemen loyally riding behind their father, the Sheikh.
Family solidarity has been repeatedly shaken by Uday's murderous rages. In 1988 he killed his father's bodyguard and confidante during a drunken row at a party on an island in the Tigris river. For many years his power base, bizarrely, has been the Iraqi Olympic Committee which has a large, fortified headquarters in Baghdad with its own prison cells.
The disputes within the ruling family culminated in 1995 when Hussein Kamel, Saddam's son-in-law, defected with his wife to Jordan. It seemed that familial solidarity was finally breaking up because of Uday's extreme violence. But Hussein Kamel could not get used to exile. After a year he was lured back to Iraq under the impression that he would be forgiven. Within hours of his arrival he found that he was mistaken. Surrounded in a house in Baghdad he was shot down by other members of his clan as he pleaded for the lives of those who were with him.
Iraqi politics have always been bloody. Shia Muslims make up more than half the population and Kurds a fifth but power has always been in the hands of the Sunni minority. The three groups have generally detested each other. Soon after modern Iraq was created by Britain from three provinces captured from the Ottoman Turks in the First World War a British official noted presciently that the new country, dominated by the Sunni establishment, could only be "the antithesis of democratic government".
He was right. The last king of Iraq was shot dead as he tried to flee his burning palace in 1958. A year later the young Saddam made his first intervention in politics when he was one of a group of gunmen who tried to assassinate the new leader, Abd al-Karim Qassim. They failed. Saddam was shot in the leg but escaped by swimming the Tigris. Many years later, he told King Hussein of Jordan that at the time he believed he was going to be killed and seen every day since the assassination bid as a gift from God.
In 1968, still only 31, Saddam engineered a military coup in which members of his clan from Tikrit played a leading role. At first he was cautious, and became president of Iraq only in 1979 when he executed a third of the leadership who objected to his elevation.
In some respects Saddam's personality and career recall Stalin. Like the Soviet leader, he is pitiless. He is a good organiser. He is the subject of an extraordinary personality cult. He is also capable of bouncing back from defeat as he did during the Iran-Iraq war in 1982 and after the debacle in Kuwait 10 years later. Unlike Stalin he has repeatedly overplayed his hand. His attempt over 20 years to make Iraq a great power in the Middle East has reduced his country to poverty, its economy strangled by UN sanctions.
In private Saddam has sometimes admitted making mistakes. After narrowly escaping overthrow in the wake of the Gulf War he said to a confidante: "In the past our enemies have taken advantage of our mistakes. In future we will sit back and take advantage of the mistakes made by them." It was a strategy which seemed to work after the Gulf War. All the conspiracies against him were crushed. In the past three years he has even found the time to write a romantic novel, a thinly veiled allegory in which the anti-hero represents aggressive America.
It was the devastating attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon on 11 September which, quite unexpectedly, brought Iraq so close to a second war with the US. It is ironic that there is no evidence that Saddam had anything to do with the attacks. But they greatly strengthened those within George Bush's administration who already wanted to topple the Iraqi leader. The last battle may be coming his way, after all.Reuse content