ASK ALMOST ANY Arab leader these days and you are sure to hear the same thing: Why don't the Americans just have Saddam Hussein killed, thus sparing everyone the dangers of another war? The answer may be because they cannot find him.

Saddam learned the art of evasion in his youth as a fugitive from the police. In 1959 he took part in an attempt to assassinate the military ruler of Iraq, Colonel Abdelkarim Kassem. The attempt failed, and the regime's bloodhounds hunted Saddam and his four accomplices. The accomplices were eventually found and put to death. But Saddam managed to escape, making his way to Egypt. Later, he hid for months in a dark basement room in Baghdad, where a contact provided him with food and water.

Coming to power as the strongman of a new regime in 1968 did not cause Saddam to forget the experience. "For a political fighter, it is as important to know how to fade from view as it is to shine," he wrote years later.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Saddam murdered many of his colleagues in the Baath party's top leadership and was himself the target of at least seven assassination attempts. Each time he escaped because the would-be assassins arrived days or even hours after he had left.

The trick has been to make sure that no one knows where he is or what he is doing at any given time. Appointments with Saddam are made for weeks, rather than days or hours. Even foreign dignitaries have to cool their heels in state guesthouses, until they are suddenly taken to see the "Great Leader." Sometimes a visitor might wait a week and still end up not seeing Saddam.

Saddam also has at least one look-alike working for him at any given time. These look-alikes perform some of the official duties of the chief. In one notorious incident in 1990, Saddam sent a look-alike to greet President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt at Baghdad airport. It was only when Mubarak had arrived at his official palace that he was told that the "real" Saddam Hussein was waiting for him there. Mubarak often mentions this as one of many experiences that soured him on the Iraqi leader.

Since 1991, after his defeat in the war over Kuwait, Saddam has almost never left Baghdad. That makes it easier for his security services to assure his protection.

Saddam lives and works within a network of 12 palaces designed and built in the late 1980s by the French company Bouygues, while the German company Siemens provided the electronic surveillance equipment for the entire complex.

Saddam's palace offices are all decorated in the same style, creating the illusion that he works from a single headquarters. The walls are covered in cloth, and there are never any windows.

According to Iraqi defectors, the palaces form part of an underground city that includes two hospitals, a shopping center, sports facilities, a cinema, and several schools. The city's estimated 400 houses are home to Saddam's close relatives and senior party and government leaders. To be sure, a massive bombing raid might do great damage to the labyrinthine complex. But in the process, tens of thousands of civilians might also be killed.

Saddam's protection is further assured by the limiting of physical access to him. A corps of 800 handpicked men, controlled by Saddam's second son Qusay, is in charge of close-proximity protection. They are rotated so as to make it virtually impossible for any particular group of them to be together close to the president at any given time. Virtually every visitor, even Saddam's wife Sajidah and their children, is subjected to a body check before being admitted to his presence.

General Wafiq Samarrai, once head of Saddam's security services, says he was surprised that even he had to undergo a thorough body check each time he went to see the leader. Saddam himself always carries a gun and keeps several others within reach.

Beyond his praetorian guard, Saddam has two corps dedicated to his protection. One consists of an elite force of 6,000 headed by Qusay. The other is a parallel army known as the Republican Guard under the command of Saddam's son-in-law, General Kamal Mustafa. The Republican Guard consists of four divisions, some 80,000 men at full mobilization.

The pattern developed over the years shows that Saddam ensures his safety by moving a great deal within a relatively limited area, while avoiding more distant travel. For example, he has not visited Basra, Iraq's second largest city, since 1991.

Saddam also uses six parallel security services, including one dedicated to spying on army officers. Each of these services fears the others, certain that the slightest faux pas could mean an individual's destruction.

Concentrating virtually all powers in his own hands, Saddam uses patronage as a powerful tool for buying and ensuring personal loyalty. He is president of the republic, prime minister, secretary-general of the ruling party, leader of the national front coalition of several largely fictitious parties, and chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council. But he is also commander in chief of the armed forces, chairman of the council on petroleum and minerals, chairman of the currency board, and president of the national council of culture. All in all, Saddam holds 57 posts, ensuring his personal control of all aspects of Iraqi life.

Ultimately, however, Saddam is protected by the terror he inspires in his people. Iraqis know that, if angered, Saddam could wipe out their entire families or clans to exact revenge. In 1980, Saddam executed 127 Shiite religious leaders in a single week in retaliation for a botched attempt to kill one of his aides, Tariq Aziz. In 1996, he executed over 300 members of the Juburi clan and razed 30 of their villages to the ground after hearing rumors that the Juburis were planning to kill him. He has also executed two of his three sons-in-law and wiped out large numbers of their relatives.

"When dealing with those who move against our revolution, we destroy the evil plant with all its roots," Saddam said in a chilling speech in 1977.

Can Saddam go into hiding and disappear, as Osama bin Laden has apparently done? Most Iraqi experts believe not. Few Baghdadis would want to help their oppressor hide from his enemies. If and when the element of fear is removed, Saddam may find that he has nowhere to hide in Baghdad. He may try to make a dash for his hometown of Tikrit, north of Baghdad. But moving out of his underground bunkers could play into the allies' hands--by making him a target.

Amir Taheri is an Iranian author and journalist.

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