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Behind Saddam's Hold on Power


THE United States's top priority may still be to remove Iraqi President Saddam Hussein from power, but its tactics - including a year-long embargo, a high-tech war and inciting the Iraqi people to revolt - have so far backfired.Saddam seems to have consolidated his grip on the country, in large part because many Iraqis, and some of Iraq's Arab neighbors, are afraid to see him go. He has also taken steps to win popular support. As economic hardships grow intolerable, say Iraqi officials and analysts, a popular explosion remains possible. But both the intellectual elite of cities like Baghdad and many ordinary poor people - their standard of living dramatically lowered since Iraq's invasion of Kuwait - fear a sudden uprising. "In the Iraqi collective consciousness, the prospect of a revolution no longer presents hope, but fear of a worse future to come," says an Iraqi writer who was once an active member of the ruling Baathist party.

Fears of change Analysts say that Iraqi fears of change stem from the absence of a strong and credible alternative to Saddam's leadership, one that can hold the country together, prevent sectarian rule, and protect the country from being swallowed up by its strong neighbors - mainly Iran and Turkey. When Saddam crushed Kurdish and Shiite rebellions last March he illustrated the power of his security apparatus and the powerlessness of the opposition. In an action that has tended to underscore this point, the Kurdish opposition decided to extend an olive branch to the Baghdad government and enter negotiations. The intentions of the US aren't clear here. A majority of the leading Iraqi intelligentsia - at least in Baghdad - argue that the US is trying to starve the Iraqi people to pave the way to a pro-US government. "Then people, the American government believes, will be desperate and will welcome any government that will end their sufferings," says Dr. Wamidh Nazmi, a political scientist at the University of Bahgdad. Some other academics have come to the conclusion that the US will not actively support a revolt here, unless it is sure that it can control the leadership and that it will not be a costly political process that might involve military intervention. Saddam's government seems to be aware of the various scenarios and has pursued a combination of domestic and foreign policies that - so far - have successfully placated the population. Even the most cynical Iraqis - and their numbers are rapidly increasing - are impressed by the relatively efficient and rapid reconstruction of power plants, buildings, and bridges that were destroyed by the allied bombing. Electricity has been totally or partially restored to most areas and some phone lines have been repaired. The government is trying to cater to the needs of the various segments of the society in different ways. Cultural activities, including fashion shows, concerts, and art exhibitions are under way, and plays are on in Baghdad's renowned theaters - all to give the capital's financial elite a sense of normality. The government is apparently trying to dissuade the wealthy - who have been flooding into Jordan to seek immigration to the west - from leaving the country, and encourage them to invest in Iraq. The government rations of staple foods are still a crucial element in calming the poor, but analysts observe that unless Iraq is allowed to resume its oil trade, nothing that the government can provide will meet people's needs.

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Buying time Aware of its inability to meet the needs of the people, the government is buying time with promises of democracy. In a recent speech, Saddam called democratization irreversible and implied that he was ready to do anything - short, of course, of stepping down - to ensure that new press and publication laws are enacted soon. Saddam has also been able to decrease his Arab isolation. Arab countries and groups that had not joined the alliance against Iraq, but which were trying to distance themselves from Baghdad after the war, are reestablishing closer ties with Saddam. Jordan, the Palestine Liberation Organization, Algeria, and Tunisia fall into this group. Even countries which supported the alliance, such as Morocco and Pakistan, sent telegrams to Saddam congratulating him on the 23rd anniversary of the Baathist revolution. And Iraq remains an Arab League member; no country has sought its expulsion. An Arab League debate over Iraq's actions would force the discussion of issues that many of the members find uncomfortable: the role of Egypt and the Gulf allies in joining Western troops, Syria's conciliatory attitude towards Israel in the aftermath of the Gulf War, and whether Saddam's action had popular support in the Arab world.

Gulf states need a buffer Observers also point out a consistent concern of Iraq's Arab neighbors - that a collapse in Baghdad would lead to a rise in the influence of Iranian Islamic militancy in the region. In the Iraqi view the Gulf states will not wholeheartedly support an operation against the regime unless they are confident that Iraq will remain a buffer between them and Iran. Saddam is evidently cashing in on all of these factors to make his regime a reality that other Arab states have to come to terms with. But analysts here wonder about the very slow process toward democratization. "Nobody expects a change overnight. But the minimum the leadership can do is to remove the barrier of fear that had been built over the years," says one Iraqi writer. "After all, what good would it do if the Iraqi leadership restored gradual recognition by the Arab countries and lost its own people?"

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