The Jackal in Winter: Saddam Will Seek Martyrdom

What is going through the mind of Saddam Hussein as he waits for the American avalanche to bury him? Not exile. In this end game, Saddam is trying to come up with a way to enshrine himself as an Arab hero.

Like any doomed man, Hussein is probably wondering where it all went wrong. He may even be entertaining fantasies of a miraculous, last-minute reprieve. But no one who has spent 35 years at the center of power in a country where the losers usually die can have many illusions. Saddam knows that he and his sons will almost certainly be dead by April.

Being an Arab hero was always important to the boy who grew up on tales of Saladin defeating the Crusaders, and who dreamed of emulating the great pan-Arab leader of the 1950s and '60s, Egypt's Gamal Abdul Nasser. Iraq was definitely the wrong place to be born if Arab unity was your dream, for three-quarters of its people are Kurds or Shia Arabs, who don't give a damn for pan-Arab nationalism. But among Saddam's own Sunni Arab people, it is the dream.

That is why Saddam has always been Israel's most vocal enemy among Arab leaders: hostility to Israel is the one thing that might unite Arabs under his leadership. His nuclear weapons program, when he still had one, was always about breaking Israel's nuclear monopoly. A few nuclear weapons would not give him the ability to attack Israel, which has hundreds of the things, but it would constitute an Arab deterrent to Israeli first use of nuclear weapons -- and catapult him into a position of pan-Arab leadership.

But those dreams are gone now.

So is his dream of a rich, powerful Iraq whose people are healthy and well educated. Remnants of it remain, like a 97 percent literacy rate and a higher status for women than in almost any other Arab country, but the generous welfare state that Saddam built with the help of abundant oil revenues between 1968 and 1979 has long since been swept away by his post-1980 blunders. Iraq today is just another impoverished Arab police state like Egypt or Syria or Algeria, except even more brutal.

Does Saddam understand that his own savage methods made this outcome inevitable? Probably not, for his real role model, Stalin, got away with it. (Visitors report that his personal quarters are furnished with numerous Arabic-language translations of biographies of Stalin.) Like Stalin, he has killed anyone who challenged his power, sweeping away most of his genuine enemies along with all the harmless victims.

The real difference between the two men is that Stalin knew the international rules: You can do what you like to your own people, but never attack your neighbors without some legal cover, and never attack anyone stronger than you. Saddam, a poorly educated man with little knowledge of the world beyond Iraq, broke the rules twice by attacking Iran and Kuwait.

His attack on Iran in 1980, though not unprovoked (Ayatollah Khomeini tore up the 1975 treaty defining the border and urged Iraq's Shias to revolt), was an act of folly that he only narrowly survived -- thanks to lavish U.S. aid. His 1990 invasion of Kuwait, which he mistakenly believed had been cleared by his American ally, turned Washington into his enemy, destroyed his army, and led to the U.N.-imposed sanctions that have kept him on the ropes for the past 11 years.

Everything he built is wrecked, Iraq's power has never been less -- and now the U.S. government is going to kill him.

Saddam must hate the irony that Washington has decided to destroy him because it can't decisively get at al Qaeda, who would just as soon have Saddam dead, too. He must know that those same radical Islamists will probably be the main beneficiaries of the chaos that follows. But as a man who is about to die, his main concern will be with his own legacy. How will Arabs see him a generation from now?

The Arabs are one of the last romantic cultures, where people really still believe in heroes and martyrs for the cause. Saddam Hussein is quintessentially Arab in this respect, and he will try to contrive a heroic death amid the ruins that will put his reputation as an Arab nationalist hero on a firm foundation. That means he will strive very hard to get Israel involved in the war, for his death at Israel's hands would give the issue moral clarity in Arab eyes; and he will aim for a last stand in Baghdad that will serve as the centerpiece of the legend.

PNS contributor Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist.

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