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COLUMN ONE : What Sort of Man Is Hussein? : Ruthless, enigmatic and unpredictable, the Iraqi leader has relentlessly pursued power and a place in history.

February 10, 1991|STEPHEN BRAUN and TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Saddam Hussein is everywhere and nowhere, as familiar as a face on a television screen, as elusive as rumor.

Staring impassively, blank as the head on a coin, he speaks to the world one moment from an anonymous house in the Baghdad suburbs and the next, in heated communiques from a front-line bunker. He dons public masks with an actor's flourish, each with its own wardrobe--the statesman's European-tailored business suits, the desert leader's flowing tribal jellabas , the commander's drab fatigues and black beret.

Unpredictability is his weapon--as integral to his survival as his penchant for secrecy and his reliance on violence as a tool of everyday business. Throughout his ascent to power--as a young Baath party conspirator, as a political prisoner, as a wily bureaucrat in the presidential palace and, now, as a leader at war--Saddam Hussein rarely has been pinned down.

To Americans, Hussein is both the personification of evil and an enigma. The rush of events has obscured his motivations; wartime blindness to his complexities has simplified and demonized his life.

"The West thinks he is an aberration," said Hani Fukaiki, an Iraqi political exile in London and former top official of Hussein's nationalist Arab Baath Socialist Party. "That is not true. For every Saddam Hussein who succeeds, there are 1,000 more who want to take his place."

From childhood, swaggering to school with a gun under his belt, to his present role as chosen enemy of the Western World, the common denominators in Hussein's life have been his pursuit of revolution, personal and political power and a place in history. Now 53 years old, he steeped himself in the tactics of insurrection, refining them over two decades of political carnage that shaped modern Iraq.

"The difference between us," he once lectured a visiting delegation of U.S. congressmen, "is that you came up through the over-ground. I came up through the underground."

If there is some childhood secret or shattering event in Hussein's past that goads him on in grim motivation, the scars are long buried under toughened skin. Like Stalin, his totalitarian model, Hussein has either eliminated or co-opted most of those who might shed light on his early life. He has replaced his obliterated past with one of his own making, reinventing himself as the one who can realize Iraqi dreams of leading the Muslim world and Arab yearnings for a seamless Mideast state.

What emerges in interviews with nearly 40 people--Iraqi exiles, scholars, diplomats, Congress members and business people--is the portrait of a shrewd conspirator who summarily disposed of his enemies and rewarded his loyalists. He is, as well, a man of baffling traits and quirks:

The somber leader who claims lineage to Nebuchadnezzar, king of ancient Babylonia, also regularly entertained picnic guests by giddily test-firing new weapons. He is the athletic tennis player who let himself develop a paunch, then ordered frightened ministers into going on the "Saddam Diet." His meetings with Western visitors are always conducted in Arabic--but he uses a keen grasp of English to correct his interpreters.

Outfitted by Pierre Cardin, Hussein can pause to berate quaking aides with crude tribal oaths. He once ordered all foreign-language typewriters registered to stifle dissent but wrote hundreds of obscure political tracts. He is a proud family man, but he reportedly cavorted in public with the wife of an Iraqi airline official.

"He's considered very impressive among Iraqis," said former Assistant Secretary of State Morris Draper, who went to Baghdad in 1981 to renew American ties after years of neglect. "It's hard for Westerners to understand. He's got a certain charisma by Iraqi standards."

Saddam Hussein al-Tikriti was born on April 28, 1937, in Auja, a village of mud-brick huts outside Tikrit, a backwater north of Baghdad. Decades before it was bombed last week by American warplanes, the region was stunted with meager grain and melon farms. Biographers describe Hussein's parents as dirt-poor farmers. Others say he rose from the "\o7 petit bourgeoisie\f7 .\o7 "\f7

Hussein's father is said to have died before his birth. His mother remarried. His earliest influence was an uncle, Khayrallah Tulfah, an army officer stripped of rank by the British after he joined a failed 1941 coup. Taking the 10-year-old Hussein to Baghdad, the older man became his guide through the political maelstrom of postwar Iraq.

Tulfah had definite theories about Iraqi society. He made them part of the boy's political education. Later, Tulfah expounded on them in a pamphlet: "Three Whom God Should Not Have Created: Persians, Jews and Flies."

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