Hussein seen on TV, exhorting his troops

Iraqi leader appears often, seemingly aims to reassure edgy nation

March 07, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

BAGHDAD, Iraq - President Saddam Hussein, cigar in hand, is addressing a small auditorium filled with commanders from the Republican Guards, belittling the deployment of American aircraft carriers to the Persian Gulf.

He reels off statistics about how each is nine stories high and serves 20,000 meals a day. "But in the end, does this aircraft carrier have wheels that enable it to come to Baghdad?" he says to the commanders, led by his son Qusay, a younger, stockier version of himself, seated in the front row.

"The decisive factor in battle will be a soldier marching on his feet and tanks and mobile or fixed artillery," says Hussein, speaking from behind a long dais with an Iraqi flag to his right. "All this talk about what America has is nonsense."

Such scenes have been unrolling almost nightly for the past week at 9 o'clock on Iraqi television. At least the first hour of the news is taken up by coverage of the president's latest meeting with successive groups of military commanders.

The broadcasts serve several purposes. They are partly to reassure an increasingly edgy nation of 22 million that they will not be overrun in what would be their third major conflict under Hussein's rule.

The speeches are also meant to mobilize and rally the military, the president's most common theme being that the bristling array of high-tech American weaponry can be overcome by the determination of Iraqi soldiers defending their homes.

Perhaps most important, they show a calm, assured leader exhibiting a certain easy camaraderie with his military commanders, the very men the Bush administration has been trying to encourage to stage a coup d'etat. The president has not been seen in person by the Iraqi public since a January 2001 military parade, and until these talks started intermittently in January, he had not appeared much on Iraq's state-controlled television.

Hussein, usually dressed in a three-piece suit, plays a variety of roles during his pep talks. He is part defiant commander-in-chief, part common soldier, part uncle, part folksy farm boy and part preacher. His themes vary widely.

They include the mundane, such as telling the officers to make sure the soldiers bathe often, are well tucked in at night and read books. They include myriad historical and religious references. Advice on military tactics is rife. "We should plan on the basis that the battlefields should be everywhere, the battlefields should be wherever there are people," he advised one group.

The meetings have a certain ritualistic quality. Hussein enters the room to a standing, cheering ovation by the officers, who occasionally erupt into poems or songs of praise.

He then calls on them one by one to brief him on the state of readiness of their troops. Almost all of the commanders exhibit a stiff, not to say nervous, reverence, saluting when they reach the podium and then rattling off what they have done.

Most of the time Hussein discharges them with a gruff "Afiyah," meaning "Well done." Envoys here remain generally dismissive of the idea that he might voluntarily accept exile, spending his waning years riding in a Mercedes convertible like a deposed African potentate.

They say that the only place Hussein feels safe is Baghdad, where his security apparatus has ensured that the coups and the countercoups of the 1960s will not be repeated.

During the gulf war, Hussein was reported using a simple car with either himself or one officer as the driver, shifting safe houses daily. Diplomats here expect a repeat performance. Given that Baghdad is a city of some 4.5 million people, larger than all U.S. cities except New York, that gives him plenty of places to hide.

No one can predict accurately to what extent Iraqis might take up arms against the invaders, although most pledge to do so.

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