PBS gives insight into Hussein's rise to sole power


February 26, 1991|By Michael Hill

ONE OF THE watchwords of the anti-Communist 1950s was "Know your enemy!" You were supposed to learn about communism so you could recognize it and stamp it out.

During our current conflict, however, ignorance seems much more enticing. It is much easier to hate a slogan and an image and believe that the bombers and troops are doing damage only to such abstractions of evil.

There is no doubt that we as a country are relatively ignorant about our current enemy. If you don't think so, then watch "The Mind of Hussein," tonight's edition of PBS' Frontline documentary series. Not that it's going to make you like this guy, indeed if anything the portrayal confirms the caricature that has become the common image; he is ruthless and dangerous with a personality that verges on the paranoid.

But, what relatively few people in this country have bothered to learn is that Hussein did not appear in Baghdad one day, fully grown and totally in control. He has a history and a past, one that ties into the story of the Arab countries over the last generation.

This hour, which will be on Maryland Public Television at 9 o'clock, is a rather dispassionate accounting of Saddam Hussein's rise to absolute power in Iraq.

His biography, obscured by history rewritten as propaganda, is reconstructed in this co-production between Frontline and the BBC that utilizes archival photographs and film footage along with numerous interviews with Iraqis and western scholars and journalists, as well as a psychiatrist who has studied the Iraqi president for the United State military.

Hussein was a peasant by birth who came to political consciousness while his country was still fighting for genuine independence from its former colonial masters, the British. He rose in the opposition political ranks, a party known as the Baaths. They opposed first the king that the British set up to rule Iraq and then the man who overthrew the king and took over in a 1958 revolution that led, in part, to the landing of U.S. Marines in Lebanon.

When the Baaths finally staged their own coup and seized control, Hussein saw their victory destroyed by in-fighting, ultimately leading to an Army takeover. He learned then not to tolerate any dissent in his ranks and to keep the military under rein, two lessons that he utilized on his way to assuming and maintaining absolute authority.

Hussein was jailed by the Army, but when the Baathists seized power again in July, 1968, his cousin ruled the country and Saddam was placed in charge of the internal security apparatus, staging public hangings to effectively quell any dissent.

Though it would be more than a decade before he assumed the presidency, Hussein became known as the man with power in the government, even encouraging the growth of a personality cult around him.

He got rid of his potential rivals to the presidency and, not long after assuming power in 1979, staged a chilling scene at a meeting of the Baath party, denouncing conspirators in their midst as security guards roamed the hall and removed various people, sending them to a certain death.

At the end of his speech, and of allegedly spontaneous praise from many in the crowd who hoped not to be plucked out by the guards, Hussein calmly went into the audience, lit up a cigar, and asked his top aides to form the firing squad for the alleged conspirators.

The entire affair was videotaped at Hussein's order so it could be shown around the country. A few visual aids like this and the point is made. Absolute loyalty becomes the norm, indeed becomes the center of the seductive pull of tribal instincts. You were with Hussein and Iraq or you were against them. There was no in between, no dissent.

The Kurds, longing for their homeland of Kurdistan which had been divided up by the colonial powers, were the holdouts and eventually they paid the price as victims of the latest use of poison gas.

"The Mind of Hussein" points out that like many dictators -- Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini -- Hussein also did many good things for his people, further binding them to him by spending much of the oil revenue and foreign aid on public works to modernize the country as well as his massive military machine that he led, with the approval of the western powers, into a lengthy, bloody, stale-mated war against Iran.

With the troops back from that, with his foreign sponsor, the Soviet Union, abandoning him to take care of its domestic turmoil, with his economy in tatters, Hussein cast an envious eye toward his rich neighbor Kuwait.

The speculation in "The Mind of Hussein" is that a political lifetime of fighting conspiracies against him, real and imagined, caused Hussein to genuinely believe that there was another one afoot, involving Kuwait and the United States and the price of oil. And, throughout that lifetime, he had depended on brute force to oppose such conspiracies, so that's what he used once again.

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