(Autumn 1995) For a second time, Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein marched his troops toward the Kuwaiti border and -- in the face of international resolve -- marched them back again.
Two main theories have been advanced as to what Saddam hoped to accomplish, but it is now clear that on both counts the unpredictable leader again misread both his people and the United Nations. Some argued that the Iraqi tyrant had hoped his military posturing would "force" the United Nations into lifting its economic sanctions against Iraq. What it did instead was refocus international attention on the threat his regime still poses to international peace.
A second possible explanation for the march toward Kuwait was that Saddam had hoped military activity coupled with stirring oratory would somehow distract his subjects from their increasingly desperate lives. That was also a misreading: Visitors to Iraq before, during, and after the showdown reported a new phenomenon -- more and more people openly cursing him in the streets.
The misery of most Iraqis is as obvious as its cause. In force for many, many months now, UN Resolutions 706 and 712 authorize Iraq to sell up to US$1.6 billion worth of oil to purchase food and medical supplies. Saddam, however, refuses to do so because the oil sales and the use of the proceeds therefrom would be controlled by the United Nations. And that, Baghdad says, would be an affront to "national dignity and sovereignty."
With misery surrounding them on all sides, the dignity of Saddam Hussein and his chosen elite clearly remains unaffronted. Already in September Baghdad had imported US$25 million worth of Italian marble to build "the largest mosque in the world." Luxury goods for the inner circle still arrive on command via Jordan within 36 hours, and in Baghdad, shops for government employees sell food at preferential prices -- food clearly bearing the name of the UN World Food Program. The Republican Guards, too, are paid in dollars rather than worthless dinars.
In all appointments made since he took power, Saddam Hussein has placed prime importance on one quality -- loyalty. In fact, government in Iraq is essentially a family business. Most senior government and military officials are tied to Saddam by blood, marriage, or common political history.
Closeness to the Iraqi president pays off in power and wealth. Relatives or associates of Saddam are said to own many businesses, particularly those dealing in government contracts. An international team of investigators attempting to locate Iraqi assets abroad uncovered at least 48 firms owned by officials of the Baghdad regime. Among those listed as owners were six members of Saddam's family who control key ministries and, acting for their patron, rule Iraq like a feudal kingdom.
Compare that lifestyle to the one of an average Baghdad resident attempting to cope in a city where hunger spreads and shortages sends food prices have skyrocketing.
Granted, the regime has sought to offset at least partially the cost of Saddam's intransigence by distributing meager amounts of basics such as sugar, tea, rice and wheat at give-away prices. But even those tiny rations were soon cut in half. Some Iraqis have become so desperate that they are stealing in order to survive -- a trend acknowledged by the official press when it complains of "poverty, rampant crime, immorality and social disintegration."
Prolonged food shortages can aggravate medical problems, and so it is in Iraq, where medicines and medical supplies are also scarce. Hospital directors complain that they do not have enough cat gut for basic surgery and that only the most basic and important drugs are available. Doctors, meanwhile, dilute disinfectants to make them last longer and cut sheets of X-ray film in half. Again, medicines and medical supplies are -- and always have been -- excluded from the UN sanctions against Iraq.
Yet questioning the regime or attempting to flee the hell-hole it has created are not looked on kindly. Opposition sources have reported several waves of executions that purged senior military ranks of alleged plotters. Saddam Hussein even ordered that those trying to desert would have an ear cut off. Repeat offenders would lose a hand or a foot. One doctor who fled to the Kurdish area in northern Iraq rather than obey those orders said he counted almost 400 mutilation cases in his hospital alone during only one week.
As Saddam Hussein becomes more isolated and more desperate, he has begun to inflict on those around him the same kind of tortures and persecutions he has long inflicted on Iraq's Kurdish and Shia minorities. Unfortunately, neither those atrocities nor the periodic threats against Kuwait are likely to end until Saddam's reign does.