Saddam has survived coup and assassination attempts and major wars against Iran and the United States.
CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR
AMMAN, Jordan -- Gambling yet again with his rule, his life and the fate of one of the most powerful nations in the Middle East, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein appears unfazed by the rising pressure brought to bear by the United States.
Almost nightly on Iraqi television Saddam calmly waves a Cuban cigar, exhorts his generals to prepare for war, and denies the existence of weapons of mass destruction.
Saddam is an inveterate survivor. Longtime Saddam watchers say hopeless odds to him are simply an opportunity to seal his place in history.
"You could make the case that [Saddam] thinks he is protected by Providence, and to some extent there is evidence for that," said Andrew Krepinevich, a former U.S. Army strategic planner who heads the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington. "Saddam feels that he is a man on a mission, and that somehow he will be allowed to complete it."
Such a mind-set is posing problems for U.S. war planners. When will the rational, diplomatic response -- now in evidence, even as pressure builds -- give way to the violent lashing out of a man with his back to the wall? How might chemical and biological weapons, if Iraq has any, come into play?
Those secrets may rest in Saddam's brass-knuckled -- and sometimes white-knuckled -- history. Born dirt-poor and unwanted in a Tikrit backwater village, Saddam was able to violently claw his way out of an abused childhood to the top of the ruling Baath Party.
He has survived numerous coup and assassination attempts, a devastating war with Iran in the 1980s and then took on the United States and United Nations in the 1991 Gulf War. He further survived a widespread, postwar rebellion, followed by more than a decade of sanctions that have impoverished his oil-rich nation.
"We may look at [the current U.S. build-up] and say the odds are really long, and Saddam's answer would be: 'I've been doing this all my life,' said Krepinevich.
In his first television interview since 1990, which aired on the BBC Tuesday, Saddam said that Iraq has no weapons of mass destruction nor any link to Al-Qaida. The CIA assessed last fall, in fact, that Iraq posed little threat if unprovoked. But the agency determined that any conflict that sought regime change was likely to result in Saddam's use of any remaining chemical or biological weapons against U.S. forces and Israel.
Saddam is "not a martyr," and "has this funny kind of optimism," said Jerrold Post, a political psychologist and former U.S. government analyst at George Washington University, who has focused on profiling Saddam for some 15 years.
A formative moment was the 1991 war, which was widely cast in the West as a decisive defeat for Iraq. For Saddam, surviving meant a coveted international role. Palestinians cheered from rooftops as Iraqi Scud missiles struck the Israeli capital; an Arab leader was standing up to the United States and its close Jewish ally.
"He was filled with dreams of glory, to follow in the path of Saladin and liberate Jerusalem from the Crusaders ... to be a hero of the Arab world," said Post. "This was an explosion of narcissism for him. Kuwait quickly went off the screen, and he was a major world leader."
Such grandiose views and Saddam's rule over a deeply ingrained, all-seeing police state are coupled with unreliable information about how aware or isolated Saddam and his people are from the outside world. Iraq is "where you imposed East European knowledge and discipline on Arab wile," said Said Aburish, author of "Saddam Hussein: The Politics of Revenge," who once worked for the Iraqi leader.
"The fact that people can't gather to conspire, combined with the fact that Iraqis have been let down by the U.S. on more than one occasion, means you reach an unknown: Will the Iraqi people respond to an American invasion, and how?" Aburish said.
Before that moment, few Iraqis will raise their heads above the parapet. Aburish noted that Shiite Muslim opponents of the regime killed a stand-in for Saddam in the early 1980s, and the leader "jumped in his car and ran to the television station to say: 'I'm still around.'" Today "not a trace" exists of that village of 10,000 people north of Baghdad, said Aburish.