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Hussein Projects an Air of Determination

Observers say the Iraqi leader thinks he still has cards to play in standoff with U.S.

February 05, 2003|John Daniszewski | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — He sat at the head of a long table in an immaculate business suit and tie, calmly puffing on a cigar -- a portrait of austere authority as he called on his generals and colonels, listened to their praise and anger, and responded to their remarks one by one.

For many people both inside and outside the country, President Saddam Hussein is Iraq, and in the televised meeting with military unit commanders last week, he betrayed no hint of emotion and no glimmer of panic about the gathering storm of a war to drive him from power.

Instead, he projected an air of determination to face whatever battles lie ahead and a willingness to accept whatever happens -- a confidence that the odds will turn and he and his rule will survive.

One Iraqi who has known no other president in his adult life said it would be against Hussein's essence to leave power. He characterized the president's attitude as one of "victory or death." Said a European observer in Baghdad: "He thinks that he is an incarnation of Iraq.... He is not able to leave."

That mind-set, in the eyes of diplomats and government officials here, is the reason that efforts to force Hussein to step down and spare the world the cost in blood, resources and stability of a U.S.-led attack are likely to fail.

Rather, Hussein looks set to marshal his diplomatic and public relations resources in coming weeks to try to slow the march to war, by receiving international envoys and making gestures aimed at bolstering public skepticism in the United States and Europe. At the same time, he has been working to bolster the loyalty of Iraqis and the larger Arab world by reminding them of perceived U.S. double standards and turning the tables on President Bush -- accusing the U.S. administration of aggression and lying.

Exile Deemed Unlikely

While Hussein is flexible and pragmatic to a point, those who have watched him for years cannot imagine him simply going off to live out his years in a foreign country. Accustomed to being in charge of himself and all around him, as he has been since 1978, he would never expose himself, these observers say, to the kind of humiliation now facing former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, who is on trial at the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague.

"This is rubbish -- psychological warfare [and] wishful thinking by our enemies," Uday Taie, a government spokesman here, said of reports of Arab initiatives urging Hussein to leave voluntarily.

Iraqi citizens increasingly are resigned to the inevitability of war, knowing that Hussein won't retreat and that the Bush administration is just as unlikely to be swayed from its course.

But experts here believe that the Iraqi president thinks he has time to play other cards -- diplomatic, public relations and military -- in the standoff with Washington.

Hussein already is signaling that he will try to talk directly to the American and British publics, over the heads of Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and argue that war would cost the United States dearly in lives, prestige and image and could lead to increased terrorism.

In an interview with former British Parliament member Tony Benn that was televised Tuesday, Hussein denied having any weapons of mass destruction or connections to Al Qaeda. He claimed that Iraq is cooperating with U.N. weapons inspectors. He accused the United States of being influenced by Israel and motivated by a desire to control Iraq's oil.

And, as the United States prepared to try to remove doubts at the U.N. Security Council about the importance of military action against Iraq by having Secretary of State Colin L. Powell present what Washington says is evidence of ongoing weapons violations, Baghdad sought to discredit the U.S. message ahead of time.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri wrote to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Friday suggesting that any evidence Powell presented today would be fabricated.

Sabri said Washington could use its "superiority in the techniques of espionage, fabrication, deception and misleading" to plant false evidence, and he challenged the U.S. administration to hand over proof immediately to back up its claims of ongoing weapons programs in Iraq.

Gen. Hussam Mohammed Amin, the Iraqi liaison to the weapons inspectors, repeated the charge at a news conference here Sunday night.

"The so-called evidence which will be presented by Colin Powell to the Security Council will not be really evidence. They will be fabricated space photos or aerial photos [of] some vehicles or something that could be interpreted in different ways just to create suspicions around the Iraqi declarations and the Iraqi position," Amin said. "They are just lies and fabrications."

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