139. Telegram From the United States Interests Section in Baghdad to the Department of State1

231. Subject: Saddam Hussein: Part I—The Man. Ref: CR 79–14508, August 1979.2

1. (S-entire text)

2. Summary: For as long as he remains in power, Saddam Hussein will be the single individual guiding and directing Iraq’s domestic and foreign policies. This message attempts to analyze him as a person and as a leader, the first step in determining what these policies are likely to be.

3. It is highly indicative of the nature of Iraq that Saddam, who was number two for 10 years is still something of an enigma. There is a marked divergence of views as to what he really believes and stands for, as opposed—perhaps—to what he says. Some maintain that he is a rational and pragmatic nationalist; others believe he is a ruthless and [Page 441] ambitious ideologue. He may on occasion appear to be the former but is often, and perhaps more significantly, the latter. End summary.

4. An effort to determine accurately whether Saddam is a closet moderate or a rigid megalomaniac is difficult but potentially useful. As long as he is in charge (which could well be a long time), his personality and beliefs will direct the nation. Last August’s executions eliminated a part of the leadership which allegedly had his ear, and probably silenced most of those remaining who might otherwise have offered significantly different viewpoints or opinions.3 The Iraqi system does not provide for meaningful inputs from anyone outside the very topmost levels of government, and the security apparatus effectively acts to rule out other possible signs of divergence. Isolated from the people by the apparatus that he has helped to create and from his associates by the fate of their erstwhile colleagues, Saddam is likely to rely increasingly on his own beliefs and views in running the country. It is axiomatic that internal and external developments can act to alter or delay preferred courses of action, if only temporarily, but basic objectives and means should remain the same.

5. As far as we are aware, few U.S. officials have had contacts with Saddam, but he has not been totally inaccessible. Several diplomats have relatively frequent dealings with him and a number of journalists, including two Americans, have conducted lengthy interviews. Over the past 24 months we have had numerous conversations with these individuals in an effort to develop an understanding of Iraq’s undisputed leader. We have carefully watched his frequent television appearances, studied his speeches, noted his decisions and actions. On this basis, we believe that a number of reasonably sound assessments and rational estimates can be made of certain aspects of his personal beliefs and objectives, and therefore Iraq’s.

6. A man of 42 who has spent many years in exceptionally and increasingly powerful positions, Saddam appears to be an egoist of massive proportions. Thoroughly accustomed to adulation, obedience, unctuous publicity, slavish devotion and servility, he acknowledges the cheers of the masses with a cool, distant smile and an upraised royal hand. (Stalking majestically into a building, a cape-like abaya over his double-breasted suit, he will drop the abaya backwards off his shoulders without looking to see if there is anyone to catch it. There is.)

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7. Saddam is a handsome and striking figure, relatively tall (at about 5′10″), always dressed in an elegant, impeccable Western manner. In repose, his face is youthful but strong and stern, an impression heightened by his heavy Baathi moustache. He has a magnificent smile, however, which transforms his appearance dramatically to one of openness, friendliness and warmth. He exudes confidence and self-assurance to the level of arrogance, but always moves, gestures, and speaks in a slow, measured and almost regal manner. His speeches, which are generally given without notes, tend to be highly prolix, convoluted, elliptical and long. They are laden with personal pronouns, slogans, buzzwords, platitudes and—above all—ideology. They are usually delivered as if from the throne, aimed downward to the unenlightened. Saddam is not a gifted speaker; his delivery is a monotone interspersed with long, frequent silences during which he stares directly and balefully at the audience.

8. In much of what he says and does, it is evident that Saddam seeks to be a Nasser, or a Castro, beloved by the masses. He is seriously lacking in many of the personality characteristics that would contribute to the development of real popularity, except perhaps inside Iraq, and does not really have the necessary common touch even here. Charisma, to Western observers at least, disappears as soon as he opens his mouth, but it is widely conceded that he has a strong self-image as a new Salladin,4 to whom comparisons are often drawn.

9. Saddam’s appearance, personality, and mannerisms create a very impressive leader image. He gives every indication of believing that he is one, on a scale that probably transcends the present borders of Iraq. His aspirations seem global, and Iraq has the funds to make his pretentions worth serious attention.

10. Saddam has been an active militant all his adult life. Thrown out of secondary school for political activities, he has participated actively in every Baathi coup, including the unsuccessful 1959 assassination attempt against Kassim.5 In this effort, age 22, he was one of the trigger-men and was wounded (an incident he enjoys recounting, with evident heavy nostalgia for those days of direct action). He has twice fled the country when coups failed (1959 and 1963)6 and was imprisoned in 1964 after discovery of a plot to assassinate Aref. It should not be unexpected if, after a lifetime of total immersion in and [Page 443] dedication to the principles and goals of the Baath Party, Saddam were unyielding and rigid on these matters.

11. During the last few years, however, he has managed to develop a reputation in some quarters as a rather flexible, relatively moderate and reasonably pragmatic leader. This seems to have resulted to a large degree from the impressions generated in meetings with leaders from other countries, particularly the moderate Arabs but also Europeans and third-worlders. In conversations, Saddam evidently comes across as intelligent, dynamic, capable, shrewd and tough, but reasonable. He has a great deal of personal charm, knows how to use eye contact and firm handshakes, can be a good listener (depending upon the subject and who is speaking) and has a general made highly-favorable impact on his interlocutors. As Iraq has emerged from its period of virtually total political isolation, with the clout that comes with oil, Saddam has emerged as a leader of considerable and growing stature. His performance in inter-Arab councils, especially his successful efforts in organizing and directing the Baghdad Summit,7 as well as at the Havana NAM,8 earned praise and enhanced the image of a seasoned and rational statesman. We believe it is significant that this is how he is seen by those over whom he has no direct control.

12. The view of Saddam the statesman conflicts rather sharply with the repressive and often brutal manner in which he deals with any evidence of internal divisiveness. USINT has earlier referred to him as a good-looking thug with high-developed sartorial tastes. He is certainly not slow or stupid, nor is he totally without a certain flexibility, but he can be a vicious and intemperate despot whenever circumstances require—if circumstances also permit. This is not a side that is normally revealed to non-Iraqis, and never in bilateral conversations, but it may be a better indication of the real Saddam and the real Iraq he heads.

13. There is little question that Saddam believes in running a tight ship domestically. No dissent of any kind is tolerated. The government has amply demonstrated its readiness to apply whatever force is required, without hesitation, to repress any group that it feels offers a threat to stability: Shia, Communists, Kurds, whatever. The only thing that has thus far kept Iraq from being a totally effective police state, as opposed to being just a total police state (which it is), is the relative ineffectiveness of the organizations involved. Tariq Aziz, as theologian and spokesman, put internal policies in comprehensible terms a short time ago and his words merit repetition. Speaking to a Western news [Page 444] man on the possibility of Shia unrest last June, he said, “if there are those in Iraq who seek martyrdom, the government is prepared to accommodate them”.

14. Any vestigial doubts as to Saddam’s personal views on this general subject should have been dissipated by the actions taken against some of his closest personal associates last August. It is generally agreed that the essence of the crime was more the fact of questioning his absolute authority than any substance upon which the questions might have been based. Adnan Hussein, et al, were executed by a group of volunteers from all over the country who emptied their Kalishnikov’s into the condemned in the presence of the remaining RCC members. There were no further questions.

15. If it is possible to secure agreement on what Saddam/Iraq believes is appropriate inside the country, there is perhaps still room for discussion as to the ultimate objectives of foreign policy. While some countries have peripheral interest in the manner in which Iraq conducts its internal affairs, actions outside the borders probably have greater potential significance. It is obvious that Iraq’s ability to control events on the other side of its frontiers is limited by both internal and external circumstances, and it is equally obvious that there may be considerable slippage between the spoken word and the actual objective, but there is still some utility in examining the logical bases for the relationships between Iraq and certain definable segments in the outside world.

16. In Iraq, it may be that Oriental despotism of the traditional type is the only way to survive; there is certainly historical precedence. The fabric of the nation is of recent creation and lacks cohesiveness in a number of important respects. An Iraqi may view domestic behavior in a different light than an outsider, but that particular aspect of Saddam’s personality may be of importance in considering what can perhaps be expected whenever he has the option to behave in his normal manner.

17. Not well educated himself (his law degree, earned while he was Vice President, is somewhat suspect), surrounded by equally inexperienced and uneducated sycophants, but a highly-competent and shrewd tribal chieftain, Saddam has only his own experiences and beliefs to guide him. His evident willingness to rely on violence, which he has employed beyond Iraq’s borders with some frequency, should be sufficient to give pause to neighbors, and others, who maintain he is a moderate. Part II will discuss this subject.9

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D800064–0960. Secret. Sent for information to Abu Dhabi, Amman, Ankara, Beirut, Cairo, Damascus, Djibouti, Doha, Jidda, Khartoum, Kuwait, London, Manama, Moscow, Muscat, Sana, Tel Aviv, Tunis, and Tripoli (by pouch).
  2. Not found.
  3. On August 8, 1979, 21 officials of the Iraqi Government, including 5 members of the Revolutionary Command Council, were executed for allegedly taking part in a conspiracy against the government. (“Baghdad Executes 21 Officials for an Alleged Plot,” The New York Times, August 9, 1979, p. A4)
  4. Muslim military leader and first Sultan of Egypt and Syria who defeated the Crusaders at the Battle of Hattin on July 4, 1187.
  5. See Foreign Relations, 1958–1960, vol. XII, Near East Region; Iraq; Iran; Arabian Peninsula, Document 205.
  6. See Foreign Relations, 1961–1963, vol. XVIII, Near East, 1962–1963, Documents 153, 154, 159, 169, and 174.
  7. See footnote 6, Document 12.
  8. The Summit meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement took place in Havana, Cuba September 3–9, 1979.
  9. Part II, telegram 488 from Baghdad, March 4, evaluated Saddam’s policies and political objectives. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D800119–1216)