From the Belly of the Beast
A briefing by Saad al-Bazzaz
May 16, 1996
Saad al-Bazzaz, a defector from Saddam Husayn's Iraq, previously served as head of the Iraqi Radio and Television Establishment and editor of one of Baghdad's main daily newspapers. Now living in the Philadelphia area, he recently offered members of the Middle East Forum his assessment of Iraq's current and future condition.
Saddam Husayn's retention of power after the Kuwait war has proven mystifying and vexing to many in the West. Since 1991, he has faced civil uprisings in the north and south of Iraq, endured an unprecedented economic embargo, and survived the betrayal of a principal lieutenant, Husayn Kamil. How has he clung to power?
According to Mr. Bazzaz, Husayn's power structure rests on two pillars: an elaborate security apparatus, which he personally oversees; and the media, which he closely manipulates for his propaganda requirements.
The security apparatus. Though Iraq's security apparatus is huge, Saddam controls it closely. Even its most obtuse employees realize that although they officially work for the state of Iraq, their jobs, and even their lives, depend on unwavering loyalty to Saddam. There are two civilian agencies: the Mukhabarat counters foreign intelligence operations; and the Amn crushes domestic dissent. Likewise, there are two military security agencies: military intelligence, which performs the standard function of monitoring foreign military threats; and military security, which seeks out treason within the armed forces and installs "political officers" in all units to indoctrinate the troops with the Saddam Husayn-approved party line.
Saddam's son Qusayy oversees all these agencies; he is in fact more powerful than his more famous elder brother, Udayy. Saddam relies not just on threats but also on perks to keep members of the security apparatus in line. Saddam makes sure his enforcers are thoroughly insulated from the calamitous effects of embargo; their food allotments are six times greater than those for everyone else.
Saddam's massive investment in security agencies has led, ironically, to a significant increase in street crime, for the security personnel know that as long as they remain loyal to Saddam Husayn, they are free to victimize the common citizenry. The upshot of all these sinister machinations is a police state rife with fear. All members of the elite and their families are viewed with intense suspicion and monitored constantly with electronic bugs. All statements criticizing Saddam Husayn, no matter how mild, are regarded as capital offenses. When a woman remarked, on watching Saddam and his wife tour a village, "Here comes Beauty and the Beast," in reference to the Disney film that had recently been aired on Iraqi television, her comment was overheard and she was executed.
Media star. Saddam believes that incessant and fawning television coverage has a key role in keeping him in power. He goes to bizarre lengths to ensure the right kind of coverage. By executive order, Saddam's name or image must be incorporated into every program on the nonreligious television channel, with only two exceptions (the night movie and cartoons). This leads to such improbable programs as "The Leader and Iraqi Literature," in which major Iraqi poets testified (with straight faces) about Saddam Husayn's importance to the development of modern Iraqi poetry. Assistants meticulously monitor his depiction on television; in addition, Saddam himself often watches the coverage and personally reprimands (or worse) anyone who deviates from the accepted line.
Mr. Bazzaz told how he was once reprimanded for showing a news clip that had been approved by Husayn Kamil, but evidently not by Saddam himself. It was, he observed, a singularly unpleasant experience.
Although television is Saddam's primary interest, he also follows coverage of himself on the radio and in the printed press; he especially enjoys songs composed in his honor. When the subject is personal flattery, Saddam evidently has a boundless attention span.
In sum, Mr. Bazzaz noted, despite Iraq's multitude of problems, would-be usurpers of Saddam's rule still face a formidable challenge because of the extraordinary measures Saddam Husayn takes to retain power.
This summary was prepared by Nick Beckwith, a research assistant at the Middle East Forum.
Related Topics: Iraq
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