Behind Saddam Hussein's Smile Lies a Ruthless Ambition to Forge a New Arab Empire

updated 08/20/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/20/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

With a pistol in his holster and a million-man army at his command, Saddam Hussein is armed and dangerous. The Iraqi President's lust for power knows no boundaries, geographical or otherwise. "He exudes power," says Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who met with Saddam in Baghdad last January. "I found him to be a very powerful man with a steady gaze, a firm handshake. I came back to the Senate and said this is a man interested in meeting with us." Events have proved otherwise. And perhaps the most surprising thing about the current Middle East crisis is that it came as a surprise at all. For the conquest of Iraq's tiny neighbor, Kuwait, is but the latest chapter in the 53-year-old dictator's campaign to become the ruler of a new Babylonian empire.

Saddam's Baath Socialist Party had only recently seized control of Iraq when journalist Georgie Anne Geyer obtained a rare interview with him in 1973. "A tall, handsome man came into the room. He wore an elegant French suit and a beautiful gray silk tie," she recalls. But the veneer of gentility was belied by something in his eyes. She asked why he had murdered many political opponents. The mouth below the Stalin-like mustache uttered platitudes about unfortunate necessity, but the eyes were more eloquent. "He has hooded eyes. The hood came down over his eyes, and they took on just a slightly different look. I could see he could be a ruthless brute. Anything he could do, he would do."

Within weeks of being named to succeed Iraq's retiring President in 1979, Saddam summoned his party's top men, then coolly ordered the execution of 21 whom he suspected of disloyalty. In 1980 he invaded Iran. The war ended in stalemate eight years and a million lives later. But even amid that carnage, Saddam was able to devise a horror that stood out: His planes dropped poison gas on his own country's village of Halabja, killing 5,000 men, women and children. They had incurred his wrath by being born Kurds, an ethnic minority that opposes his rule.

Opposition, real or imagined, is viewed by Saddam as a capital offense. Born a poor peasant—and a minority Sunni Moslem in predominantly Shi'ite Iraq—he learned radical politics from his maternal uncle. (His father had died in Saddam's infancy.) Saddam became a revolutionary fighter at the age of 15, and at 22 was shot in the leg in a botched attempt to assassinate then Prime Minister Abdul Karim Kassem. According to official legend, Saddam cut the bullet out and barely escaped alive by riding a donkey across the desert into Syria. "He believes that if he doesn't kill his enemy, he will be killed," says Near East expert Barry Rubin. "He wants people to be afraid of him because he feels that is how you get respect."

People are afraid of him. He has ruthlessly silenced all dissent, even banning the unauthorized possession of a typewriter, and has forced a million Iraqis into exile. Children have been tortured and executed for the political sins of their families. But of respect he can never have enough, though his portrait stares down from seemingly every wall. "Saddam is very isolated and paranoiac," says strategic analyst Shireen Hunter. "Part of the reason for the foreign invasions are his own internal problems."

Those problems extend even into his family life. The presidential marriage was strained in 1988 when Saddam indiscreetly appeared in public with a mistress. That same year, he had his elder son, Uday, briefly imprisoned for killing a palace servant. Saddam's wife, Sajida Talfah, a former schoolteacher who is his first cousin, sided with Uday and sought the support of her brother, Iraqi Defense Minister Gen. Adnan Khairallah. Khairallah died six months later, when his helicopter crashed in what Saddam called "a crazy storm." Coincidentally, at least two other Iraqi generals were reported killed in helicopter accidents.

Apparently, from Saddam's closest aides to his countrymen to his fellow Arabs and beyond, there is no blood he will not shed. "We're dealing with a megalomaniac who is immensely vicious," says terrorism expert Robert Kupperman. "This problem is not going to go away tomorrow."

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