Is Hussein a 'psychopath' or a masterful strategist? Behavior patterns offer mixed clues

January 18, 1993|By Ethan Bronner | Ethan Bronner,Boston Globe

AMMAN, Jordan -- Is Saddam Hussein a madman? Do the past 10 days of provocation and brinkmanship show the Iraqi ruler to be a "psychopath," as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has labeled him. Or is he craftily pursuing a strategy that furthers his own interests?

On the second anniversary of the Persian Gulf war, officials, diplomats and analysts throughout the Middle East, along with Iraqis here in Jordan, have been struggling with those questions.

Some looked at patterns of behavior Saddam Hussein has demonstrated over his 56 years -- during his hardscrabble, fatherless childhood and his participation as gunman and torturer in two brutal coups in the 1960s. They described a life of

bloody confrontation continuing on the same path.

He is, they said, like a violent, caged animal whose actions are growing increasingly less stable. They contend that lately his eyes are unfocused, his cheeks puffy, his speech unsteady -- signs of growing irrationality.

Coincidentally, some of these same symptoms were noticed in the days leading up to the beginning of Operation Desert Storm.

"Saddam used to say on television, 'We Iraqis -- if we don't have anyone to fight with, then we tear our clothes,' " remarked an Iraqi businessman visiting Amman. "I don't think that applies to all Iraqis, but it certainly applies to Saddam. He's not happy unless he is fighting."

Others look at a country growing destitute under the weight of war and international sanctions and describe a master tactician dealing with restive army officers and an impatient public.

To those analysts, the Iraqi president provoked what he hoped would be a low-cost confrontation to refocus domestic attention on Iraqis' collective sense of victimization at the hands of the West. The first allied attack cost him little -- a few destroyed missile sites, a couple dozen casualties -- but it rechanneled the energies of his generals away from politics and back toward defense.

He might have anticipated an escalation to yesterday's attack against the nuclear processing plant on the outskirts of Baghdad.

"He encouraged this to happen, and he knew what kind of punishment he'd receive," said an ambassador at the United Nations who sits on the Security Council. "The response doesn't affect the Iraqi population, the targets were away from civilian centers. But at the same time, he can call for unity of the country against the aggressor and build greater strength. . . . Domestically, this gives him more air."

Perhaps the simplest and most elegant explanation was offered by Saad Eddin Ibrahim, an Egyptian sociologist, who said from Cairo: "Remember that when you're on a tightrope you can do anything but stand still."

One school of thought argues that by testing in a variety of directions, Saddam Hussein figured he might be stopped on one or two of his efforts but be allowed success on the third. He would thus alter the status quo ante in the hope that President-elect Bill Clinton who, talking moderation, would not intervene immediately after moving into the White House.

"Saddam's strategy is to try and create new ground rules between him and the U.N., which Clinton will inherit from Bush," suggested Amatzia Bar-Am, a specialist on Iraq at Israel's Haifa University.

Most analysts consider Saddam Hussein to be, if not mentally unbalanced, at least out of touch with the world and Western decision-making, a dictator surrounded by frightened yes-men who contradict his illusions at their peril.

"He doesn't speak any foreign languages, doesn't travel, doesn't read, doesn't know the first thing about the American system. He thinks of the U.S. like old Western movies," said Moustafa Hamarneh, a historian at Jordan University.

Officials, diplomats and the few journalists who used to visit the Iraqi president before the 1991 Persian Gulf war tell of labyrinthine paths to his bunker, strip searches and blue chemical solutions in which they were required to plunge their hands -- lest poisonous chemicals be transmitted by a handshake.

He has two separate layers of personal bodyguards and is reported to have a chair carried to all engagements so that no harm might come to him from unknown furniture.

Saddam Hussein never knew his real father and his stepfather abused him terribly, according to a wide variety of biographies. He grew up in grinding poverty and neglect.

"You have to understand what it means to not know your father in the tribal context," said an Iraqi woman living in Amman. "It is entirely unacceptable and makes your mother into a prostitute. It is something that has haunted him all his life."

Once he took complete power in 1979, Saddam Hussein had an official biography of himself constructed that suggests how sensitive he must be about his origins. In the official version of his family tree, his clan descends directly from the prophet Mohammed.

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