Obsessive and distrustful: a glimpse inside the secret world of Saddam

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The Independent Online

A single interrogator has been in charge of questioning Saddam Hussein in the 10 months since he was captured by the US Army.

A single interrogator has been in charge of questioning Saddam Hussein in the 10 months since he was captured by the US Army.

He has discovered that the former Iraqi leader has a taste for reading Ernest Hemingway, his mournful novel The Old Man and the Sea being a particular favourite. Possibly the allegory of the old fisherman who hooks an enormous fish that drags him out to sea reminds Saddam Hussein of his own relationship with the US.

The US has almost all of the Iraqi leadership under lock and key but the report of the Iraq Survey Group (ISG) indicates they have learnt little that was not known before about Saddam and his chief lieutenants.

The ISG confirms stories of Saddam Hussein's personality: his obsession with his personal security, his distrust of his own lieutenants and the secrecy that shrouded his movements. He has only used a telephone twice since 1990 because of fears that it would help the US locate him and possibly kill him. A special laboratory tested his food and his closest aides never knew where he was (those security measures seemed less absurd when the US officials who succeeded the Baath leaders in Baghdad were even more paranoid about their own safety).

Charles Duelfer notes that Saddam Hussein saw himself as being in a long line of leaders born in what became Iraq from Hammurabi to Saladin. He reconstructed part of Babylon and stamped his name on the bricks. There is no doubt that the Iraqi leader's belief in his own personality cult as a heroic leader led him to repeatedly exaggerate his country's strength. It lured him into two disastrous wars against Iran and Kuwait.

But very little of what the Iraq Survey Group has discovered about the Iraqi leader is new. Any visitor to Iraq over the past quarter century could hardly have failed to notice Saddam Hussein's inflated view of his role in Iraq history, since portraits of the leader were visible in every street.

The hawks in the US who intended to invade Iraq took Saddam Hussein at his own estimation because they wanted to demonise him as a sinister threat to the region. The Iraqi army was portrayed as a potent force when its elderly tanks had received no spare parts for more than a decade. Conscripts barely got enough to eat. Saddam Hussein was compared to Stalin but the Soviet dictator won real victories and the Iraqi leader did not.

In reality, there was always an element of Inspector Clouseau about Saddam Hussein and he did not learn from his mistakes. He helped bring the Baath party to power in 1968 through hijacking a coup within the army. He was first vice-chairman of the Revolution Command Council but he achieved full power and became President only in 1979 after a bloody purge. He represented not only the clans and tribes to whom he was linked around Tikrit but the Sunni Arabs from rural Iraq. The Sunni Muslims of the cities had largely supported the monarchy.

But from the moment Saddam Hussein gained full control of Iraq, he showed extraordinarily poor judgement. He invaded Iran in 1980 under the impression the revolution had destroyed the Iranian army. Within two years, he was fighting for his life and only survived thanks to the support of the other Arab oil producers, the US, Soviet Union and Western Europe.

When Iran sued for peace in 1988, Iraq briefly became the most powerful country in the Gulf. It was a very partial victory but Saddam Hussein celebrated it as if his armies had entered Tehran.

A ludicrous victory monument was erected in central Baghdad in which his vastly enlarged metal forearms spring from the ground clutching two crossed sabres.

Saddam Hussein is now interested in establishing his own legacy, according to the ISG. He refuses to acknowledge that the Gulf war in 1991 was a defeat. Perhaps even he does not believe this but prefers to continue his old propaganda line that it was at most a setback.

Saddam confirmed that he had not used chemical weapons in the 1991 Gulf war because that would have been a provocation to the US authorities.

It is now recognised that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction at the time of the war last year. But a second justification for the war was that Saddam Hussein was not only uniquely evil but a threat to his neighbours and to the rest of the world. But the report has failed to find any evidence that he wanted to confront anybody in the 1990s. On the contrary, he made repeated but unavailing attempts to conciliate the US.

The US was almost the last believer in Saddam Hussein's leadership qualities in Iraq. When he was pulled from a hole in the ground last December the US officials in Baghdad were triumphant. They believed that the guerrilla war would subside. Instead, month by month, it has got worse. The detention of Saddam and most of the Iraqi leadership has had no effect. The ISG report shows that, like the WMD which did not exist, the Iraqi leader was not much of a threat.