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What Motivates Saddam Hussein?

What motivates Saddam Hussein and how has he managed to survive for so long as Iraq's leader?

In much of the world, Saddam Hussein is viewed as a tyrant, a man capable of gassing and killing his own people. But inside Iraq some see him as a great leader.

"We have a leader who is not a madman by any means," said Political psychologist Jerrold Post, who has written about the Iraqi leader. "He's a rational calculator, but who often miscalculates for two reasons. One, he is surrounded by sycophants who will tell him what he wants to hear rather than what he needs to hear."

Mr. Post says the Iraqi leader also miscalculates because he is ethnocentric.

According to many, Saddam also uses fear to control every aspect of his regime. Over the years, thousands of people have disappeared. "Saddam's method of dealing with his enemies, of eliminating whole layers of people whom he feared might one day turn against him, is very typical of what Stalin used to do in the Great Purges, where the slightest hint that somebody might in the future turn against him was sufficient to send him and whole layers of people around him off to the Gulag," said Kanan Makiya, an Iraqi author who wrote the book "Republic of Fear."

The Iraqi government declined VOA's requests for an official response to this report. But in the past, Saddam has sought to deflect criticism by suggesting his critics have ulterior motives.

"The enemy has many objectives behind this uproar and self-defending pandemonium," Saddam said in a speech to Iraqi people in January. "Iraq is not the only target in this confusion. Even with this uproar, he wishes to scare or use this as a cover-up for his aggression when his evil side pushes him to it."

Since 1947 and his early involvement in the Arab nationalist movement, Saddam has had a reputation for using violence as a political tool. After he took full control of Iraq in 1979, one of his first acts was to stage a Stalinist-style purge to eliminate Baath Party officials he did not trust.

Fawazi al-Shamari, a senior Iraqi Army general in the 1980s, met with Saddam Hussein many times, and believes the Iraqi leader enjoys watching torture.

"The chief of intelligence at that time, he was my friend. And he told me, the first time he installed the acid pool, and explained exactly how he is going there with Saddam Hussein and with a few bodyguards, in a secured place," he said. "And they bring the political and military leaders and they hang them from their hair and drop them in the acid pool. And then, after that, he was smoking his cigar and laughing."

Another former Iraqi military official says Saddam's government acts as if it owns the lives of the Iraqi people, confiscating property without warning, or executing people without a trial. Intifadh Qanbar, an Iraqi Air Force general who was imprisoned in Iraq, says one evening he and his brother were picked up by Saddam's security services for talking with a friend who wanted to leave Iraq.

"My brother was tortured," he said. "They use all types of methods, using pliers to pull out nails, using techniques of dentists to pull out your teeth. Burns, they would use acetylene burners that blacksmiths use to burn parts of your body. They would put irons on your back, hot irons. It is amazing the ways. It is really, really very difficult, I should say, if not impossible, for anybody not to confess."

Allegations of repression and torture have been made many times by dissidents in exile. But many Iraqis inside the country express loyalty to the leadership and unity in opposing outside threats.

Saddam's desire for dominance spilled beyond Iraq's borders with invasions of Iran in the 1980s and Kuwait in 1990. According to General al-Shamari, Saddam planned to use revenues from Kuwait's oil to build up his army and develop nuclear weapons. The Iraqi army was expelled from Kuwait by a U-S-led coalition.

What will Saddam do this time? Iraq denies it has weapons of mass destruction, but General al-Shamari believes Saddam will use them to fight off an invasion.

Saddam Hussein bought the chemical weapons, or millions he spent, not to play with that," he said. "That's illogic. He buys them to use them. And he will use them."

General Al-Shamari also says Saddam will never give up, but if his captors are getting too close, he may try to flee.

"There have been a number of notions of him going down to that last flaming bunker. I don't see that," said Professor Post. "On the other hand, he will certainly not accept exile like Idi Amin did, and be sunning himself in his retirement years around some pool in Saudi Arabia or something like that. As Idi Amin does. The only meaningful life for him is a life in power."

Over the last 20 years, Saddam has demonstrated his ability to stay in power. But those who have studied him carefully believe the current crisis may be his toughest challenge yet.