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Colonel Hamadi (not his real name) was commander of a tank unit in Iraq's Third Army before he was arrested for links--which he denies--to an opposition party. He was held for 10 months. Saddam's military intelligence, he says, tortured him several times a week. "Sometimes they hung me from a ceiling fan to make me confess to something that was not true," says the colonel. When he was released last spring, he fled to northern Iraq, where the country's Kurdish minority functions almost autonomously from Baghdad under the protection of the U.S.-British no-fly patrols. But Hamadi left his family behind. His father was recently arrested. "If you are against them," says the colonel, "every one of your relatives is in danger."
Inside Iraq, Saddam's constituents can express despair about such oppression only quietly. An entire population has developed a sixth sense about keeping genuine feelings buried deep. "I can never say what I think," Layla, 38, a former office worker, says from the privacy of her home. With those they trust, Iraqis do grumble about Saddam and his excesses, about the way his ruling circle assesses 7% "for the family" on every business deal. But 30 years of Saddam have instilled in Iraqis a reflexive habit of survival. They seem too tired, too disillusioned, too frightened of one another to plot serious conspiracies. And they have total disdain for the opposition exiles scheming abroad.
If Saddam's hold on power is as tenuous as some officials in Washington claim, that is not visible in Baghdad. The government has lost control over the Kurdish north but has tightened it somewhat in the Shi'ite-dominated south and still firmly grips the Sunni center. The country has been weakened, the army especially, but Saddam remains the strongest of the weak. His control over the intelligence and security services appears unshakable. Officers' families are hostages, and the regime is very good at creating a community of guilt, in which everyone has committed crimes from corruption to execution and fears judgment by a more democratic successor government.
Especially since the Sept. 11 attacks, for which he feared immediate American retaliation, Saddam has taken measures to tighten his protection. The inner circle of guardians, known as al-Himaya, is made up exclusively of close relatives. Says a senior U.S. official: "They're the ones standing with weapons in the background of photos you see of Saddam." The next circle is the Murafiqoun, also related by blood or from unimpeachable families, who are in charge of broader personal and family security and crowd control for Saddam. The outermost circle is the elite SSO, run by son Qusay.