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Saddam has always been obsessed with building. The Pharaonic size of his enterprises--vast palaces, gigantic mosques, even the idea of an atom bomb--reflect his self-image as history's hero. He never forgets he was born in Tikrit, home nine centuries ago to the great Saladin, the Islamic victor in the Crusades. Saddam's latest Baghdad palace features columns topped with huge replicas of his own head bearing Saladin's helmet. He shaped the minarets on the grand new Mother of All Battles mosque to resemble the Scud missiles he fired at Israel during the Gulf War. These things give concrete expression--literally--to his central ambition: to be remembered and revered as the leader who restored Iraq and the Arab world generally to their rightful glory. He considers himself, says Charles Duelfer, the former deputy executive chairman of the U.N. weapons-inspection team in Iraq, "the incarnation of the destiny of the Arab people."
Like his hero Stalin, Saddam sees weapons of mass destruction as the great equalizers that give him the global position he craves. A nuke plus a long-range missile make you a world power. Deadly spores and poisonous gases make you a feared one. These are the crown jewels of his regime. He sacrificed the well-being of the Iraqi people and billions of dollars in oil revenues to keep the unconventional weapons he had before the Gulf War and to engage in an open-ended process of acquiring new ones. During the cat-and-mouse game of U.N. inspections that ended in 1998, he seemed determined to hold on to some of everything, as if to keep all options open. The weapons clearly are critical to his ambitions. But no one, perhaps not even Saddam, seems to know what he will do with them.
He appears to have not so much a strategy as a concept of grandeur. He is never satisfied with what he has. He operates by opportunity more than by plan and takes devastating risks if the gambles might expand his power. He believes in the ruthless use of force. When he thought Iran was weak, he invaded. When he thought he could get away with taking Kuwait, he invaded. Such conventional warfare is probably not available to him anymore. But intimidation is just as good, maybe better. Weapons of mass destruction could help him coerce the oil-rich Gulf and other Arab states to act in his favor.
Of course, blatantly using such weapons against his greatest enemies, the U.S. and Israel, would expose him to a nuclear reprisal that would almost surely end his rule. But if he could punish either country and survive, he might do it. He has not contracted out his aggressions up to now. But he might risk supplying terrorists with his deadliest weapons if he saw a way it might redound to his power.
Meanwhile, Saddam is working hard to undercut international support for a U.S. attack on him by deploying his diplomatic weapons. He has found a rich issue to exploit in the Palestinian crisis and has made it a constant theme. His offer of $25,000 to the family of every suicide bomber and every Palestinian family made homeless by the Israeli assault last month on a refugee camp in the West Bank city of Jenin has won wide admiration at home and in the larger Arab world. He is showing muscle in the oil market with his 30-day moratorium on Iraqi oil sales to protest Israel's aggression. He has burnished his reputation as the one Arab leader who says no to Washington and stands up against Israel.