Saddam's redux

October 14, 1994|By Georgie Anne Geyer

Washington -- DURING THE first interview that Saddam Hussein had ever given to a Western journalist, in April of 1973, he kept encouraging me to "Ask anything you want." Streetwise girls from the South Side of Chicago should not be so tempted -- and so, I did.

I mentioned to him (and not in passing) that "a lot of people in the world say that you like to kill your enemies -- with your own hands." Then I asked: "Why do you do that?"

At that moment, we were sitting with only his translator present, in a beautiful, ornately gilded room in Baghdad's old palace of the Iraqi kings. (I did not mention that the last king had been dragged through the streets until dead, an old Iraqi custom.) Saddam Hussein, looking much like a South Side Mafia enforcer trying to appear respectable in a French silk suit, leaned forward, his hooded eyes ever more unfathomable.

"Sometimes when you are in a revolutionary movement," he said, "you have to do things you do not want to do."

Saddam Hussein came out of the shadowy Iraqi underground with this interview and began to show publicly his brutal control of Iraq. The reason for this new transparency, I soon learned, was simple: The regime had just nationalized Kirkuk, the formerly British-owned oil field, as well as others, and wanted Iraq to be recognized as a major player on the world stage. Despite Saddam Hussein's brutality, Iraq seemed immensely rich and even promising in those years.

Yet today, that Iraq poised to dominate the entire Middle East is threatening Kuwait -- again. In doing so, Saddam Hussein has tried to relieve the misery of the Iraqi people by external diversions and excitement -- again. And American troops are back in Kuwait -- again.

What is one to make of all this?

Let's keep it simple. What Saddam Hussein has done in the past week is exactly what he did in 1990. Then, as an outcome of his vicious and utterly destructive 10-year war with Iran, with more than a million dead on both sides, Iraq found an equivocal victory: It could not pay its debts and was reeling from internal problems. Saddam Hussein did the only thing he knows how to do: He tried to take a small neighbor, Kuwait, to pay his bills.

The situation inside Iraq this summer, exactly four years later, was uncannily similar. The sanctions imposed by the world after the gulf war were gradually destroying Iraq. Food rations were cut in half since May. Desertions from the army, reported by some at 40 percent, were punished by having the renegade soldier's ears cut off or an "X" branded on his forehead. There are increasingly well-placed rumors of coup attempts, and he has purged at least one prominent formerly supportive clan family, the Duri.

By the winter of 1990, Saddam Hussein had given a number of speeches and signals as to what he was going to do. So it was this year. On Sept. 27, he told journalists that he would open "all the granaries of the world" for the Iraqi people -- another clear signal that he was going to strike out.

A respected scholar on Iraq, Anoush Ehteshami of Durham University in England, says that the entire fabric of Iraqi life is "unraveling," as Saddam Hussein "is seeing the whole state crumble away at the edges." Quoted in London's Financial Times, the senior lecturer on the Middle East sees the military "beginning to link up, through shared poverty, with civil society, with increasingly the view that nothing will change while Saddam Hussein is in power."

As always, Saddam Hussein's savage personality, with his total obsession on brute force, has contorted his world view. There had been, in recent months, real possibilities of defections from the once solid front of nations backing the U.N. sanctions. Primary among these were France, Russia and Turkey, all of whom had oil and power interests involved. But with his heavy-handed threat of moving troops to the Kuwaiti border, Saddam Hussein has almost surely quashed any possibilities that those countries would now offer him relief.

At the same time, the other Arab states have also rejected a diplomatic initiative by Saddam Hussein to win their support for the lifting of sanctions. Saddam Hussein had sent Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak a letter in September saying he would recognize Kuwait's borders if the sanctions were lifted. Mr. Mubarak initially supported the idea, but caved in when the Saudis in particular rebelled against it.

Moreover, at this point, Iraq has also lost the support of Jordan and the Palestine Liberation Organization -- both supported Iraq in the Persian Gulf War. Indeed, King Hussein said in a moving speech, "We are with the party that has been aggressed. We have had enough losses, enough sins."

So the entire situation in the area and in the world has changed -- but Saddam Hussein has not changed a whit since that strange interview in 1973. He understands force, and his dark mind revels in the most sadistic forms. He will be "deterred," as before, only by Washington's swift application of force.

What is most worrisome is what comes next. If the signs from within Iraq are as bad as they look for him, he is the sort who will go down in fires such as those he set in the oil fields of Kuwait.

=1 Georgie Anne Geyer is a syndicated columnist.

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