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As Bush repeatedly telegraphs his intention to finish Saddam, the Iraqi leader is not exactly sitting on his hands. "He's not so naive as to ignore the seriousness of this threat," says Wamidh Nadhmi, a Baghdad political scientist in contact with the regime. "He knows it would be very difficult for Bush to retreat from his declared intent." There are signs Saddam is bracing for attack: beefing up his personal security, bucking up the ruling Baath Party and repositioning his military while playing at diplomatic delay with the U.N. He knows the issue for him is existential.
Both Washington and Baghdad foresee confrontation ahead. Here's what it looks like from inside Iraq.
The West has been trying to understand Saddam's psyche for years. A few intimate details have long been observed. Saddam never sleeps in his grand palaces but moves each night to a secret house or tent. He smokes Cohiba cigars supplied by Fidel Castro. He dyes his graying hair black. He walks with a slight limp, allegedly from back trouble, but he looks remarkably fit when seen, usually sitting or standing, on TV. Invariably he now appears wearing immaculately tailored suits in place of the green army fatigues he once favored. Iraqis say he has not worn his uniform publicly since 1998, when, according to local legend, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan told him his image would vastly improve if he donned a statesman's suit instead.
Saddam has limited knowledge of the West and surrounds himself with yes-men who tell him only what he wants to hear. But he shows an eager appetite for certain kinds of information. He constantly monitors CNN and BBC news programs, likes American thriller movies and admires Stalin and Machiavelli. He writes romance novels, supposedly without assistance: just last week a play based on a novel widely believed to have been written by Saddam, Zabibah and the King, opened at Baghdad's elegant new theater. It tells of a lonely monarch in love with a virtuous commoner who is raped on Jan. 17--the day in 1991 that the U.S. attacked Iraq to expel it from Kuwait, which Saddam had invaded the previous August--and killed by a jealous husband egged on by foreign infidels. The king decides he must follow the martyred Zabibah's advice: only strict measures keep the people in line.
In all things about Saddam, contradictions abound. He is known to surround himself with paranoiac security. Yet when Saddam invited Mohammed Sobhi, an Egyptian actor performing in Baghdad last year, to one of his palaces, security seemed almost nonchalant. Sobhi and his troupe were ushered inside with nary a frisk. Saddam chatted easily, about Iraqi poetry, about the Palestinian problem. He allowed each guest to pose for a picture with him. The notorious dictator struck his Egyptian visitors as steady, smiling, relaxed, cheerful, sensitive, amiable, hospitable. He sounded confident that he had weathered a storm. "Saddam said every Iraqi feels inside him that he is a winner, with his pride intact," recalls Sobhi. "Saddam said, 'We did not lose anything. We refuse to be humiliated in front of the Americans.'"