They adoringly call him "big uncle."
Separated in their early teens from parents, recruits of Saddam Hussein's personal guard are taken to his palace complexes and transformed by years of brutal training into zealots prepared to die for the Iraqi dictator, experts say.
The Himaya unit, drawn mostly from Saddam's al-Bu Nasser tribe and other clans from around his hometown of Tikrit, is at the core of a security machine that permeates Iraqi society. Using informers, murder, and other means, it has sustained a climate of terror that has helped its leader survive coup plots, uprisings, the 1991 Gulf War, and crushing economic sanctions.
As America girds for a possible clash with Iraq, Republican leaders and others are calling for air strikes to smash Saddam's "infrastructure of repression," thereby triggering his ouster. But many experts scoff at the idea, saying his more than 90,000-strong security machine is so deeply entrenched that only an invasion could eliminate it and the despot it protects.
"It is difficult to see how a bombing campaign would cause that kind of damage," says a Pentagon analyst. "This is a society that is so pervaded by spies and spies spying on spies and a security apparatus that reaches right into families. This is a closed society like Stalin's Russia."
The Clinton administration seems to have reach the same conclusion, saying that while air attacks will be devastating, they will be aimed only at compelling Iraq to comply with with United Nations weapons inspections.
Experts say the Iraqi security machine is not monolithic, but a scrum of agencies vying for the perks of patronage, slices of the shrinking economy, and shares in sanctions-busting smuggling rackets. Adding to those tensions are rivalries between members of the al-Bu Nasser and allied tribes for whom Saddam reserves most top posts.
Saddam exploits the rivalries to keep his subordinates weak. Yet the frictions are also believed to have triggered several failed coups and strife within Saddam's family, and they may be slowly eating into his power, experts say.
"You can see cracks," asserts Amatzia Baram of the US Institute of Peace, in Washington, and author of a forthcoming book on Saddam. "But does it mean things will happen quickly? It does not."
The most recent example of the fissures is a December 1996 attack in Baghdad by unknown gunmen on Saddam's eldest son, Uday, that left him disabled. Iraqi dissidents say hundreds of security officers, state officials, tribal leaders, and members of Saddam's extended family were arrested, and an unknown number executed.
Other evidence is the August 1995 defection to Jordan of Saddam's sons-in-law, Saddam Kamal and Hussein Kamal, both top-ranking security chiefs. The latter oversaw Iraq's illegal weapons programs. Both were killed after returning to Baghdad in February 1996. Some 40 relatives are also said to have been murdered allegedly at Uday's direction.
Four pillars of protection
The security apparatus is one pillar of Saddam's power. The others are the regular military, his Baathist Party, and alliances with key tribal leaders. Yet, experts say, the latter three are thoroughly infiltrated by security agents and have less influence. With most of his 23 million people suffering due to shortages of food and medicine, Saddam has had to increasingly rely on the coterie of relatives and other members of Iraq's Sunni Arab minority who run his security machine, experts say.
"He has put more and more power in the hands of people who are family or clan-related," says Judith Yaphe, an expert at the National Defense University, in Washington. "The problem has been that under sanctions, his ability to provide a high level of support is no longer there."
At the top is Saddam, followed by his youngest son, Qusay, who oversees daily operations as deputy chairman of the Special Security Committee. According to independent experts and Iraqi dissidents, the panel comprises the top security chiefs. It supervises Iraq's illegal arms programs and the efforts to hide them from UN inspectors.
Qusay's right hand is Abed Hammed Humud, a distant cousin of Saddam and the director of the presidential office, says Dr. Baram.
Qusay also directs the most important security agencies, including his inner-most security unit.
Baram says the unit's 13-year old recruits "are conditioned to kill without thinking twice. Some die because the training is horrendous. So these guys are not only loyal to Saddam, but also scared stiff of him."
The other key agencies are the Special Security Organization (SSO), the Special Republican Guard, and the Republican Guard.
The 5,000-strong SSO, which helped import the technologies for Iraq's illegal arms programs, provides security for top officials, spies on other security services, and monitors political dissidents, experts say.
The Special Republican Guard, estimated at 26,000 troops, is Iraq's most elite military unit and was formed in March 1995. Its 13 infantry and armor battalions provide Saddam's outer security wall, guarding his palaces and other "presidential sites." Mostly recruited from the Tikrit region, its members are well paid.
The Republican Guard, comprising seven armor and infantry divisions of about 50,000 men, is the best-equipped and trained formation in the Iraqi army, most of which consists of 352,000 conscripts.
The remainder of the security machine, experts say, includes:
* Project 858, Iraq's equivalent of the US National Security Agency, in charge of intercepting radio and telephone communications.
* At least two military intelligence services.
* The General Security Service, an 8,000-member Interior Ministry secret police force.
* The Mukhabarat, or Iraqi Intelligence Service, concerned with foreign espionage operations and infiltration of Iraq's Kurdish rebel groups.
* Saddam's Men of Sacrifice, a 40,000-strong paramilitary force of loyalists formed in 1995 by Uday Hussein as an apparent private army. He was removed from its leadership in 1996 after reportedly transferring sophisticated arms to it from the Republican Guard without Saddam's knowledge.