Not With a Bang, But a Whimper?

Although fighting continues, Saddam Hussein may fall from power without invoking his long-standing threat of a final disaster.

Not With a Bang, But a Whimper?

Although fighting continues, Saddam Hussein may fall from power without invoking his long-standing threat of a final disaster.

Tuesday, 22 February, 2005

Those who knew him best always predicted that he would not go quietly. If his regime was ever seriously threatened, they said, Saddam Hussein would bring the temple down upon his head. He would use chemical weapons, attack Israel, wreak revenge upon the Gulf sheikhdoms he feels betrayed him. Saddam himself warned that anyone trying to take Iraq from him would inherit "an empty land".

But as American tanks squat in the centre of Iraq's capital, and British troops control its second city, Basra, Iraqis are daring to believe that Saddam, one of the most vicious rulers of the past 100 years, will go not with a bang - but, incredibly, a whimper.

"We all thought that there was some strategy," says Ali Allawi, a London-based banker and independent opposition figure. "We thought Saddam was drawing the coalition forces into a closed ring of defence in Baghdad. But there was no strategy - just strategy on the hoof. It was the bluster of a cheap dictator who has been terrorising people for years. It now seems that the back of his regime was broken on the first day, but we didn't realise that when we saw the resistance at Um Qasr," the port on the Fao Peninsular where Iraqi forces resisted artillery shelling and intense air strikes for almost a week.

Part of Saddam's bluster was his claim that he had raised a six-million-strong army - called the Jerusalem Army - to defend his regime. But although the elite Republican Guards and the Fedayeen of Saddam, a militia composed largely of criminals and brainwashed youths, have put up fierce resistance, the Jerusalem Army, like the regular army, has been conspicuous largely by its absence.

"The big question is: where is the army?" says Dr. Sahib Hakim, head of the London-based Organisation of Human Rights in Iraq. "We haven't even seen an army barracks in Basra. And where was the army in Najaf? There are rumours that Saddam took guns away from the army and gave them to the Republican Guard and the Fedayeen because he didn't trust the army. In Najaf, the coalition got tribes from the areas around the city to talk over loudspeakers to the troops holed up in the holy shrines, and they just gave themselves up. This suggests the army is collapsing."

As the Iraqi regime crumbles, with no major missiles launched in the last several days and with surprisingly little resistance in Baghdad itself, the question on everyone's lips is whether Saddam will, in extremis, use the weapons of mass destruction that were the pretext for the Anglo-American war against him. Most Iraqis believe Saddam still possesses WMD - including the chemical weapons he used against his own Kurdish citizens - even if not in the quantities claimed by Washington and London. But they say possession has almost certainly become academic.

"Saddam would have liked to use chemical weapons, but he can't," says Dr. Hassan Chalabi, a Beirut-based law professor who once taught the young Saddam in Baghdad. "He laid a trap for himself when he told the whole world he doesn't have them. If he uses them now, all the countries that supported him will turn against him and call him a liar. Saddam is in the realm of the unknown now. He's confused and he doesn't know where he's going."

Although there is no conclusive evidence that Saddam is alive, most Iraqis believe he is. Keeping even his own people guessing is, they say, one of the few weapons left in his possession. If he were not alive, surely some in his regime would have known and would have risen against his regime. Saddam is hated not only by his people, but by many in his innermost circle. He has killed not only close associates, but members of his own family.

"His end is coming for sure," says Dr. Chalabi, "but even now he is playing his hand to scare his people, to keep them unsure whether he is alive or dead."

Iraqis are divided over how Saddam will play his end game. Some believe he might yet seek asylum abroad. Already there are rumours that he left Iraq on the plane that evacuated Russian embassy staff on Sunday. But the majority think he will seek to go down in history as a fighter, the defender of Iraq and Arabism - although with both of them betrayed and corrupted by his years of absolute, bloodstained rule.

"Saddam is now seeing himself as a martyr, a symbol of the Arab nation," says Ghassan Atiyeh, another London-based opposition figure. "He'll be thinking that the right way to die is defending Baghdad from the enemy. He has got no options left. The morale of the army is going down and the coalition has encircled Baghdad. It is a Greek tragedy which will end in bloodshed."

Julie Flint is Iraqi Crisis Report co-ordinating editor and a former IWPR trustee.

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