Emory Report

 December 1, 1997

 Volume 50, No. 14

Baram helps explain secret
to Saddam's enduring power

Defeat, sanctions, embargoes, United Nations weapons inspectors. None so far has managed to break Saddam Hussein's grip on Iraq and its ruling class. Amatzia Baram, senior fellow at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, professor of Middle East history at Israel's Haifa University and author of Iraq's Road to War discussed "Saddam's Nine Lives and One Ambition" at a White Hall lecture Nov. 21.

While professing the origins of the present crisis are not entirely clear to him, Baram, a leading expert on Iraq, made a few guesses. "The U.N. weapons team probably was onto something-a few hundred gallons of a biological substance," he said. What the inspectors do know, according to an article in The New York Times, is that Iraq has the ability to make enough of the deadly bacterium anthrax to fill two missile warheads a week. "Had they found it," Baram added, "it may have helped them identify the system by which the Iraqis were hiding it."

Saddam, whom Baram deemed a smart man who makes tactical blunders, also knew members of the U.N. security council were at odds over economic sanctions-with the former Soviet Union and France on one side and the United States and Great Britain on the other.

More tellingly, three to four weeks before he started the present crisis, Saddam slashed food rations to Iraqi citizens. In a country where a bottle of Coca-Cola costs about half a month's income, Saddam reduced the dry food staples handed out to his citizens from 15 days' worth to about 10. "That's nothing to be trifled with," Baram said. "That's the second time he's done that to save himself some money." Saddam then declared a national emergency and whipped his alarmed citizens into a "war frenzy" over the weapons inspector issue, said Baram. "It helps obscure what he did about the rations."

Saddam's enduring power lies in the concentrical, tribal-based power structure surrounding him and in the longheld desire for a pan-Arab state that stretches from Morocco to Iraq, said Baram.

At the core of Saddam's power base lie members of his extended family, said Baram, some estranged but far enough away to keep from hurting him. The next layer involves Saddam's tribe, Albu Nasir, a group of some 10 to 12 million people. He takes from its ranks his bodyguards and paramilitary units, usually drafting them around the age of 15 and turning them into toughened soldiers. Finally, there's a federation of about 15 tribes that work in conjunction with Albu Nasir. "The way he builds [armed] forces goes well with the structure of his social power base," Baram said. Officers and senior government officials usually come from the inner core. "The closer they are, the more horrible things they did in his name and under his command and there is no way back," said Baram.

When the Gulf War ended and sanctions were imposed on Iraq, conventional wisdom held that the country's citizens would overthrow Saddam and move Iraq back into the world's good graces.

Saddam himself could do much to free his country from its present state. To end the weapons inspections-originally a two-month assignment that has turned into a 75-month ordeal-Saddam only has to admit to developing and hiding biological weapons and lead the U.N. team to them. "The moment he does that, the embargo will be lifted," Baram said.

In reality, the situation is much more complex. Historically, Iraq has been the most militaristic Arab state-more so than Syria, Jordan, Egypt or the Palestinians, Baram said. Secrecy is "like a state religion, especially in regard to security issues." That's why the weapons inspectors rub Iraq's ruling elite the wrong way, said Baram. The process clashes with Iraqi notions of honor and destiny. "They feel that these weapons are their ticket to the future," Baram explained. Given a choice between becoming an economic tiger or a military superpower, Iraq will always choose the latter.

"The elites share this view with [Saddam]-the traditional pan-Arab dream [with] Iraq as its leader," Baram said. "You do this by destroying Israel. Syria and Egypt have given up this dream, Jordan never had the idea, but Iraq hasn't given up.

"In order to do this, Iraq needs weapons of mass destruction. Even if the embargo is lifted, the international community will not allow them to buy weapons," Baram said. "The only way is a nonconventional aresenal-a great equalizer and very cheap." He estimated it would take at least $50 billion to rebuild Iraq's army, but maybe $10-20 billion to develop nonconventional weapons.

The wildcard to this scenario is the Israeli-Arab peace process, said Baram. "If and when the Arab-Israeli talks break down, Saddam Hussein will become a hero," he predicted. "[Arab nationalists] will be looking for a messiah and will find him in anyone-even Saddam."

To Westerners it seems inconceivable that, given the havoc he's helped wreak on the region and his own people, Saddam would be considered a hero, much less a messiah. "When people hope and dream and wish something very badly," Baram noted empathetically, "they can be Einsteins, but still your heart will always manage to deceive your head."

-Stacey Jones

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