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Saddam T-shirts and watches remind Iraqis of who's on top

The writer recently visited Baghdad, Iraq. Bustling Baghdad these days offers fewer visible reminders of the victims of the Iran-Iraq war than of its most prominent local survivor, President Saddam Hussein.

His portrait is everywhere. An inscription near the city airport, itself named for President Hussein, drips with presumptuously historic grandeur:

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''Constructed in the era of the Leader-President, Saddam Hussein.''

Although Iran has set the Iraqi leader's ouster as one condition for a negotiated peace, he so far shows not the slightest sign of obliging. Known in the Arab world simply by his first name, Saddam has negotiated potential political pitfalls of the war with all the shrewdness, pragmatism, public-relations flair, and raw muscle that initially paved his path to power.

He has been effective ruler of Iraq, via its Baath Socialist Party, since the mid-1970s, although he formally became President only in 1979.

Some foreign diplomats here do envisage the possibility of an eventual ''settling of accounts'' inside Iraq's leadership over conduct of the war, and a possible ''change in the leadership lineup'' as a result. Says one ambassador, ''If it comes, it will be over the economic'' aspect of the war - the fact that the regime waited some two years before abandoning its ultimately unworkable policy of trying to provide ''both guns and butter'' by frittering away Iraqi financial reserves.

But the diplomats think Baath Party rule is likely to continue for a long time, whoever is at the top. On Iran's aim of installing some kind of Islamic republic here, diplomats are largely skeptical.

Saddam has paired a reported crackdown on Shiite Muslim activists with heftily increased development investment in those generally rural areas where Iraqi Shiites, an overall national majority, predominate. He has played on the Shiites' Iraqi nationalism with remarkable success.

Himself a Sunni Muslim - and never known to be a particularly observant one - Saddam has also become more visibly Islamic these days. Among the dozens of poses in which Saddam is pictured throughout Baghdad is one of the President kneeling on a prayer rug.

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In the public-relations department, Baghdad offers something for every strain of Saddam fan: posters of the President signing papers and looking presidential; of Saddam in uniform looking military; or of Saddam with a little girl and looking almost paternal. And there is Saddam with a scythe in the fields; or, near the city center, a 30-foot-high cutout of Saddam in full military uniform, a sword at his side.

Occasionally Iraqi teen-agers can be seen walking the steamy summer sidewalks in genuine Saddam Hussein T-shirts. And the particularly enterprising shopper can snag a surely unique gift item: a gold wristwatch adorned with Saddam's portrait.

Another kind of ''watch'' - this one by perhaps the Arab world's most vaunted internal security force - is one key to President Hussein's staying power, foreign diplomats here say.

To the extent that the diplomats see a threat to the Iraqi leader's political longevity, it is in the possibility of conspiracy - whether within the Baath, or from a military that has won greatly increased political prominence in the war.

It was through conspiracy that the Baath initially seized power in the early 1960s. It is conspiracy that has marked various attempts, by coup or killing, to unseat various of the country's subsequent rulers, Saddam included.

The preoccupation with potential plots runs deep in the Baath and predates Saddam's rise to the presidency. Even before then, for instance, it was illegal for anyone in Iraq to own a typewriter - that excellent tool of conspiracy - without a special permit.

As if to set the tone for his own rule after becoming President, Saddam ordered the execution of 21 of his colleagues on allegations of plotting treachery. More recently, Iraq's health minister was put to death in 1982 after charges by Saddam that he had imported medicines that had caused a number of deaths in the country.

One of the political rumors that periodically percolates through the foreign diplomatic community here has it that the minister's crime was, in fact, to have suggested in a Cabinet meeting that perhaps a brief ''vacation'' by Saddam might ease a negotiated end to the war with Iran. According to this unconfirmed rendition of events, Saddam personally took the man out and shot him.

The most reliable version of another recent incident - the ouster of Saddam's half brother as his security chief late last year - is distinctly less conspiratorial in nature. Arab diplomats say initial rumors that a coup plot was at issue were nonsense. Instead, what occurred was a mere family spat over Saddam's daughter's choice of fiance. Apparently bearing out this reading, Saddam himself said in a recent Arab news media interview that his ousted half brother was ''not a plotter, no conspirator.''

Still, in a region where muscle is the single most valuable political asset and governments more often change via coup than by ballot, rumors or other accounts of ruthless responses to alleged plots may do Saddam less harm than good, diplomats suspect. Ditto, they say, for the dozens of less prominent reports of disappearances, imprisonments, or executions on which Amnesty International periodically queries Iraqi authorities.

The result seems to be an innate sense among most ordinary people here that the quieter, cleaner, less overtly political existences they lead, the better.

''There's not much corruption here,'' for instance, remarks a nonaligned diplomat. ''You can't even offer a small gift to a friend in a (government) ministry. They're scared to death.''

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