Iraq: With US bent on uprooting him, Saddam Hussein prepares to ‘fight from every house’
War paint Adulatory posters may not be true indicators of Saddam Hussein’s popularityShe looked 20 and it was her fourth cigarette in the past 30 minutes; but you could be sure those weren’t the figures the nine men at her table-at least the ones who were still sober given the,War paint Adulatory posters may not be true indicators of Saddam Hussein’s popularityShe looked 20 and it was her fourth cigarette in the past 30 minutes; but you could be sure those weren’t the figures the nine men at her table-at least the ones who were still sober given the Blue Label that was flowing-were interested in. It turned out Huda Rubaiya, wavy hair, beautiful smile and mischievous, almost naughty eyes, was 23.She was at the restaurant in Arasat al Hindia-literally, Plot of India, Baghdad’s most trendy address is named for the Indian lady who once owned the entire area-with, among others, her boyfriend. Delsoz H. Sherwani is deputy managing director of the Galala Group. He’s a successful exporter and contractor and has been seeing Rubaiya for a year. He’s also 45 and grins as he mocks your surprise, “So you think I’m too old for her, eh?”The autumn-spring relationship isn’t unique. In Baghdad, capital of Iraq, younger women tend to prefer older, much older men, says a friend. A decade and more of embargo has throttled the economy. Men of 25, the type Rubaiya, an aspiring fashion model, may have preferred in normal times, are strugglers. No wonder she prefers a man who, like the wine she likes, has aged well.Battle plansClick here to EnlargeMeanwhile, the restaurant begins to crowd. The performer at the electronic keyboard begins to play Yesterday … all my troubles seemed so far away and, shortly afterwards, sings Frank Sinatra’s My Way.The second song could be President Saddam Hussein’s signature tune; the first may well be the anthem for his citizens. Welcome to Baghdad, a city that is at once Paris before the Nazis came in – absolute in its revelry-and Enver Hoxha’s Albania, all absolutist isolationism.advertisementThere’s a parable in the restaurant; there’s one on the streets too. Baghdad’s cars tell Iraq’s story. They zip around on amazingly smooth roads-embargo or no embargo, Saddam’s regime has ensured that the highway from the airport is first class, the streets are well paved and flyovers are impressive. The city traffic also tells you why, in today’s Iraq, there is very little room for middle ground. Life is given to extremes.Most of the cars in Baghdad are old and tired. When they were bought two or three decades ago, these Toyotas and Mazdas and Mercs must have been the spanking best the world’s automobile industry had produced. Today, they would make an ancient Ambassador taxi in Kolkata look plush. Yet for every 10-15 old cars you see, there’s one alluring and shining set of wheels. Usually a power-packed BMW or Hyundai’s upper-end models.In step hostile Kurdish forces may align with America in toppling Saddam in case of a warSo who buys the fancy cars? Those who thrive on Iraq’s e-commerce, where ‘e’ stands for embargo and all the opportunities it throws up. Traditional business is dead, reduced to a trickle by the United Nations sanctions that allow Iraq to barter its oil for specific and strictly monitored purchases.What has filled the vacuum is a contraband industry worth billions that runs extensive trade networks with Syria, Jordan and Turkey. The smugglers, almost all fronting for some important personage in Saddam’s Baath Party or Government, are the only ones who have made money.If Iraqi society lives in the grey zone between unreal and surreal, the polity does no better. Nothing represented its alternative universe more than the referendum on October 15, 2002. The Baath (Renaissance) Party rules through a nine-member Revolutionary Command Council (RCC), of which Saddam is the chairman. Every seven years, beginning 1995, as per a law drafted by Saddam, the RCC nominates its chairman for the presidency. On the morning of October 16, just over 12 hours after voting concluded at 8 p.m. the previous evening, RCC Vice-Chairman Izzat Ibrahim announced the results. Almost 11.5 million-11,445,638 to be precise-of Iraq’s 25 million people had been eligible to vote. All of them had voted and all the votes had gone to Saddam. Ibrahim congratulated the people for having “chosen the wise man of the Arabs” and the “spirit of history”.Saddam used the referendum to mobilise his forces and his people. Television channels had a black-suited choir singing patriotic, pro-Saddam numbers in Arabic to, admittedly, pulsating music.Foot fall Saddam Hussein may not be able to walk over George Bush in a war the way Iraqis do over his image in a Baghdad hotel lobbyKeeping them company on the screen- and on the streets of Baghdad-were portraits and images of Saddam: Saddam in an army beret, Saddam with a hat and gun, Saddam sporting a kaffiyeh, the traditional Arab headgear, Saddam on a horse, Saddam waving a clenched fist, Saddam waving an open hand, Saddam with a scimitar, Saddam in a field marshal’s uniform, Saddam kissing a child, Saddam conferring with a wiz ened old Arab, Saddam being kissed by an old woman.This was not Charlie Chaplin burlesque. It was a mad, mad world, one where people have not seen their leader in person for years but have to simply make do with the visual substitutes and, if western intelligence agencies are to be believed, physical substitutes too.advertisement There are supposed to be at least three Saddam clones, their faces surgically altered so that even senior government colleagues won’t know who they are meeting. The entire process of Saddam’s elec- tion reveals how out of touch the top leadership is with both its people and global currents.Lobbying people and governments in the name of “Third World unity,” “anti-imperialism” and “revolutionary democracy” were once the bread and butter of non-elected heads of state. Today, as concepts, they are as stale as old bread. Somebody forgot to tell Saddam. India’s concernsTERRORISM: Jehadis in Kashmir will get a boost if the US stalls its war against terrorism.OIL PRICES: Crude oil prices may rise if Iraqis target shipping lanes in the Gulf.ECONOMIC: India has lost $30 billion in oil imports, trade, exports after the 1991 sanctions.DIASPORA: 3.1 million emigrants in the Middle East who send $6 billion home may be insecure.Actually, maybe there is a method to the madness. Saddam is desperate to prevent a war that even he realises will be his last. To put pressure on enough Arab and European governments so that they in turn put enough pressure on Uncle Sam, he is playing every card he can lay his hands on-he’s Islamist, Arabist, non-aligned, socialist.Eleven years ago, despite the humiliating defeat in the Gulf War, Saddam survived because his countrymen decided they hated America more than they hated him. They rallied around a leader who had been targeted by the Satan in Wash- ington. Will the same impulses prevail? In the northern town of Mosul, Yosin Ibrahim, a government official, puts forth the more heard argument, “Bush and America have crippled us with the embargo. We want to live with dignity. Dignity is important. Saddam gives us dignity.” Like a decade ago, there are those who take a perverse pride in the fact that the world’s most powerful country feels threatened by, of all the billions in the world, only their leader. Yet collected crowds and aggressive agitprop may not reveal the full tale. In Baghdad’s Antar Square, Hussain Bahet, professor of economics at Baghdad University, watches a post-referendum celebration. Is he happy with the result? He nods. Is he worried about the economy? He nods twice. Is he worried about the war? He nods vigorously.Bahet points to the telecom office building that was bombed by the Americans in 1991, “If we have war, everything will be destroyed.” Then he smiles, “Of course, I’m wor ried about my family. But where do we go ? Maybe after the war there will be an Opposition. For the moment Saddam means stability.”advertisementIt is middle-class folk like Bahet who have borne the brunt of the Saddam-Sam mutual hate club. Some live on pensions of a dollar a month, which, even by Iraq’s subsidised food and housing parameters, is a pittance. Lecturers now seek jobs as domestic help, locals tell you.It is this “silent majority” that America is betting on. In the words of a diplomat: “Till 1991, Saddam was the popular patriarch. Not since. They may not like the Americans but may just stay neutral in case of a conflict.” Should that happen, Saddam will have to pack his bags.For both Saddam and America, the stakes are enormous. For the US, Saddam’s removal is integral to President George W. Bush’s war against terror. The Iraqi leader has been charged with helping Osama bin Laden-an accusation that disappeared when hard evidence was not forthcoming-and, more important, pursuing a chemical and biological weapons programme that could some day threaten America.America looks to a friendly regime in Iraq that will allow it military bases. From here, it will keep watch on the trouble spots of the Middle East, particularly Saudi Arabia. The royal family in Riyadh is seen as an unreliable ally and is in any case unpopular. If Saudi Arabia implodes, the world oil economy will go to pieces.With 265 billion barrels of oil reserves, Saudi Arabia controls a quarter of the planet’s most vital energy resource. Iraq is a distant second at about 11 per cent or 100 billion barrels of proven reserves. Under the US tutelage, it may limit the Saudi hold on the oil market and provide the world’s biggest petroleum consuming country the energy security it seeks.Saddam will do his best to avoid a war. The differential between the American and Iraqi armouries is simply too vast-whatever rebuilding Saddam may have done in the past decade-to allow for an even contest. Should war break out, Saddam will take recourse to battling the invading allies with civilian logistical backing or “a fight from every house” as he terms it. If he has truly lost almost all popular support-as foreign intelligence agencies believe-then even that may prove a non-starter. Officially Iraq expects America to attack after the holy month of Ramzan, which ends on December 4. If a UN resolution delays things, the attack could come in January. The plan is to resort to “coercive inspections”. UN weapons inspectors will arrive in Iraq with mini armies at their command. They will want to check everything, right down to Saddam’s palaces and personal rooms.At some stage they will provoke the man into refusal. That will be the casus belli and America will attack. Saddam’s best bet is to be patient and give the inspectors no cause for complaint. If he staves off the US Central Command troops till March-April, he’s home and dry. The Americans, Baghdad reckons, wouldn’t want to fight in the searing heat of May.The other American calculation is that Saddam may be done in by a palace coup, that somebody in his immediate power circle may decide dumping him is wiser. The course seems logical but identifying the possible rebel is not easy. Saddam shares authority with few outside his family or clan. His chief lieutenants are his sons.Udai Hussein is brash and violent, head of the state-run media and of the National Olympic Committee, giving him control of the young and the restless. Kusai, Udai’s younger brother, has recently emerged as the more favoured son. He controls the Revolutionary Guards militia and the security agencies.Iraq is also a religio-ethnic minefield. It is embattled by the longstanding Kurdish insurgency in the northern areas. In the south, Shia discontent is strong. Saddam is trying to invoke Iraqi nationalism by suggesting the Americans will break up Iraq and create two or three nations-Kurdistan, a Shia homeland and the Sunni-held rump.But analysts say the last thing the West wants is more instability in the region. It would prefer a federalised polity controlled by Baghdad. Some role for the Hashemite family that once ruled Iraq-cousins of the royals of Jordan-is not ruled out. As winter beckons, Iraq is quite simply the world’s speculation capital.In a country where a litre of petrol costs four cents but a similar quantity of packaged water could set you back by a dollar or more, don’t look for straight and rational answers. Like Rubaiya and Sherwani, enjoy it while it lasts-and make sure you know the route to the nearest bomb shelter.