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10 years on: Saddam still the undisputed leader of Iraq

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February 26, 2001 


BAGHDAD- (Bangla2000/AP) - During a meeting with an ultra nationalist Serb leader earlier this month, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein boasted to his guest that he had survived numerous attempts on his life by the United States.

America's "most serious failure" has been its inability to find allies inside the country to overthrow his government, Saddam told Vojislav Seselj. His comments were reported by the official Iraqi News Agency.

The world may still be officially ostracizing Iraq with some of the toughest economic sanctions the United Nations has ever imposed. But 10 years after the embargo that was meant to suffocate Saddam and his government was imposed, the Iraqi leader is still defiantly in the driver's seat, buoyed by an unprecedented wave of support from the same countries that had clamped the sanctions against Iraq and fought the 1991 Gulf War against it.

As he toured the region on a trip that ends Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, a former general who helped lead America's Gulf War campaign, found himself denounced by protesters who accuse the United States of targeting ordinary Iraqis with bombs and sanctions.

Powell, pressed by former Gulf War allies like Egypt to rethink the sanctions, said Saddam was still a threat that needed to be contained.

"Saddam Hussein is stronger than he was following the end of the war," said Kadri Saeed, an analyst at Cairo's independent Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.

"Saddam has managed to overcome numerous difficulties and deal with the international community in such a way that has made him and his regime continue," Saeed added.

Things certainly seem to be going Saddam's way. Baghdad's poshest hotel, which stood empty two years ago, is busy with European, Asian and Arab diplomats and businessmen in three-piece suits or open-neck shirts vying for lucrative contracts.

Baghdad's Saddam International Airport, closed after the Gulf War, has reopened. It receives almost daily friendly flights, thinly disguised as "humanitarian," bearing professors, actors, athletes and politicians keen to rebuild old ties. Iraqi Airways, grounded since the war, is now offering travelers domestic trips, defiantly flying through Western-imposed no-fly zones in the north and south.

Old foes, such as Syria, which stood with the United States during the 1991 Gulf War, have been reaching out to Iraq and urging the lifting of sanctions.

The cordon around Iraq's borders is growing even leakier. Smugglers are bringing goods into the country that have not been seen for years on supermarket shelves, in smart boutiques or electronic shops: American corn flakes, chips and oats, slinky Italian evening gowns and top-of-the-line Turkish leather goods, Pentium III computers and Korean and Malaysian television sets and stereos.

Analysts say Saddam has been boosted in part by America's failed Mideast peace policy and the U.S. bombings on Iraq, especially those targeting Baghdad in December 1998 and the capital's outskirts Feb. 16.

The eruption of the Palestinian intefadeh, or uprising, on Sept. 28 has ignited a wave of anti-US rage that burns more intensely every time British and American warplanes target Iraq. Saddam has risen to the occasion, mobilizing Arab public opinion by slipping into his favorite role: that of a modern-day Saladdin standing up to the big powers. Saladdin was a Kurd from northern Iraq who wrested Jerusalem from the Crusaders.

Since the Israeli-Palestinian violence, Saddam has sent truckloads of humanitarian supplies and millions of dollars in financial aid to the Palestinian territories, and on Feb. 17 announced the formation of an army of volunteers to fight for Jerusalem.

"The American policy has given the government strong justification to keep the state of emergency in effect, thus strengthening its grip on the situation and delaying the return of normal life," analyst Saeed said.

Iraqi officials scoff at the airstrikes and sanctions, saying the United States and Britain are now the ones facing isolation.

"The world has started coming to Iraq," said Abdel-Razzak al-Hashimi, a senior member of the ruling Baath party. "Everyone has reached the conclusion that America can no longer implement its program in Iraq and change the government."

Referring to the Feb. 16 airstrikes that came eight days before Powell arrived in the Middle East, al-Hashimi pulled an imaginary trigger and called the Americans "cowboys."

"Actually, what they did with this stupidity is they put their friends in the region in an awkward position in front of their people."

At the Tower of Defiance, a communications tower destroyed by the allies during the Gulf War, a bronze, larger-than life statue of Saddam rises over schoolchildren brought by their teachers.

At Saddam's feet lie small bronze likenesses of the leaders who spearheaded the anti-Iraq campaign, including former U.S. President George Bush, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Saudi King Fahd.

"I love Saddam Hussein," Nour Abdel-Razzaq, 10, said, as she looked up at the statue. "He's like my father because he has protected us against evil America."

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