Saddam's Final Hours

What Will Iraq's Dictator Plan For His Last Stand?

Baghdad may be falling fast, but is Saddam Hussein among the fallen? We simply don't know. And it may be worth remembering that it took a long time after the end of World War II to establish that Hitler had died in his bunker.

But if Saddam is still alive, how much time does he have left and what are his options?

We talked to the man we thought best qualified to answer these questions. Said Aburish worked for Saddam in the '70s and '80s, spent time with him, and wrote what is widely considered to be the most serious biography of the Iraqi leader. It's called "Saddam Hussein: The Politics Of Revenge."

Aburish will tell you that if a craving for revenge has driven the dictator, his surest instinct has been survival.

But will he try to emerge from the rubble one last time? Correspondent Bob Simon reports.

We asked Aburish if there was a chance that Saddam may have constructed not only a bunker but an elaborate escape plan, in case U.S. coalition forces hit Baghdad.

"I don't think that's ever a consideration for Saddam Hussein," says Aburish. "That would have given away everything he ever stood for. He had this preoccupation from the time he was in his 20s: 'I belong in this page of Arab history.' Going down with Baghdad, going down with the ship completes him."

According to Aburish, who has studied Saddam for decades, the most important thing in life for this Iraqi leader is to be remembered by the Arabs as another Saladin, the Muslim warrior who triumphed over the Crusaders 800 years ago.

"I think he imagines becoming a martyr," says Aburish. "And, being a martyr, he will occupy a certain special page in modern Arab history."

Saladin and Saddam both come from the same hometown, Tikrit, just 90 miles north of Baghdad. Aburish believes this is where Saddam will choose to end his life – in a bunker.

The Americans bombed one the first night of the war, and apparently didn't get him. They bombed another Monday and we're still waiting for word of his fate.

But if he's still alive, does he know what's happening upstairs on the streets of Baghdad? Does he know that some of his favorite statues are no longer there?

Aburish doesn't think so, and it's not only because Saddam is living underground.

"Saddam, like all dictators, lives in isolation. He doesn't want to know, and he doesn't know," says Aburish. "The bearer of bad news suffers. So nobody is willing to take a chance and tell Saddam, 'Listen. Maybe it's time you save the Iraqi Army from, the Iraqi people from this misery.'"

According to Aburish, the only time it's ever happened was during the war with Iran, when the minister of health made a suggestion and was killed by Saddam shortly after.

"During a cabinet meeting, Saddam looked at him and said 'We have to meet alone,'" remembers Aburish. "He took him to the waiting room and blew his brains out. He himself shot the guy. Just one shot in the head. And went back to continue the meeting with the cabinet. That's who you are dealing with."

That sounds like something Joseph Stalin might have done, and indeed, during Saddam's rise to power, this Soviet dictator was his role model.

But that changed over the years. Saddam has been presenting himself not only as a man of God but as a direct descendent of the Prophet Mohammed. He has insisted on being treated as a holy man. You can see it in the way his officers greet him.

"They salute, and then they step forward and kiss him on both lapels. That is what you do to a holy man. That's a sign of respect." says Aburish. "Gone is the old Arab embrace. They don't hug each other anymore. Saddam is above that."

So how do other "religious leaders" in the Middle East view Saddam's new religious pretensions?

"With disdain," says Aburish. "As a matter of fact, it has made him into somewhat of a ridiculous figure. If I had been in the business of undermining Saddam to the Arab masses, I would have underlined these things that make him look foolish."

And did Saddam go through a personal religious transformation? Or was it just a political move he had to make?

Aburish sees it as a cynical political move.

"I don't think Saddam had a transformation. I don't think he's a born-again Muslim. I think he still drinks Old Power whiskey," he says with a laugh. "I always wondered who drinks Old Power. I saw it all my life in bars, and I found out it's Saddam Hussein is the only person."

Saddam may be the only person who believes he won the first Gulf War. After all, he likes to say, who was still in power after the war? Not the first President Bush.

But does Saddam realize that this time, this is one battle he is not going to get out of? Or does he think his luck is going to save him once more?

"He believes he's going to survive this one," says Aburish. "And that is where the danger is. Will he, at the last minute, with his back to the wall, entertain us to something awful?"

Aburish thinks that if he can, he will.

As for the possibility of a general putting a bullet in Saddam's head, Aburish doesn't think it likely. He says Saddam has made sure his followers, his inner circle, understand the facts of life and death.

"He showed them a two-hour documentary film about the fall of Ceaucescu -- how he was captured, how he was tried summarily, how he was executed with his wife. After the two hours, there was dead silence," remembers Aburish. "Nobody knew what to say. Saddam was having a good time. He was in the back of the room, and then he stood up. He said, 'Fellas, this is not going to happen here.' And he walked out."

Aburish, however, is convinced that the pictures broadcast last Friday of a man who looked like Saddam, walked like Saddam and talked like Saddam was, in fact, Saddam, even if he wasn't quite his dapper self.

"He always looked like the man on top of the wedding cake. He's a natty dresser and he's careful not to wear glasses," says Aburish, who attributes Saddam's disheveled appearance to the poor transportation system in the bunkers. "Uncle Saddam has to walk from one point to another. Sometimes he appears in front of the television cameras after he's walked two kilometers."

That matters in a television program, which is one thing this war has become. And if anyone knows that, if anyone has been contemplating how the script should end, it is Saddam Hussein.

So what will he do for his last stand?

"There is no way that Saddam Hussein will be taken alive from where he is," says Aburish, shaking his head. "This is what he wants, and this is the way it has been organized. If you want to get rid of Saddam Hussein, if you want to remove him, then you have to kill him."

Saladin was the one Muslim warrior who stood up to the Crusaders while other Arab leaders cowered in their palaces. According to Aburish, that's how Saddam believes his last scene should be remembered in the Arab world for the next several hundred years.

And Aburish believes that Saddam dead will be a more powerful force than Saddam alive.

"Saddam dead will leave behind a ghost," says Aburish. "And we will have to live with that ghost for a long time to come."
  • Rebecca Leung

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