Courtesy Reuters

How Does Saddam Hold On?

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, MR. PRESIDENT

T. S. Eliot called April the cruelest month. It is also, fittingly, the month most cherished by Saddam Hussein-the month in which he was born and in which his ruling Baath Party was founded. To celebrate Saddam's April 28 birthday one year, 15 million Iraqis reportedly lit candles to demonstrate their joy; in other years, fireworks, parties, processions (with the ruler sometimes borne in a royal carriage), and exhibitions of photographs of a beaming Saddam have marked the occasion. Saddam's birthday is also a pretext for inaugurating grandiose projects, the latest of which was a new, eponymous city northwest of Baghdad, Saddamiyyat al-Tharthar. Occasionally the "birthday cult" takes an even more grotesque form, with parchment pledges of allegiance to Saddam written in the blood of the senders. Through such rituals, Iraq's absolute ruler seeks to bind himself and his subjects together for life and death.

This year Saddam's birthday-his 63rd-arrived amid persistent rumors that his days were numbered. Thus far, all such predictions have proved wishful thinking. For 20 years, ever since the start of the Iran-Iraq War in 1980, Saddam's fall has been called "imminent." In the waning hours of the Gulf War, the coalition agreed to end its hostilities after a 100-hour ground war in large part because U.S. analysts figured that Saddam was doomed. Since then, Western leaders have watched in a mixture of confusion and consternation as his grip on power has held firm.

Saddam's longevity has deeply frustrated those searching for a viable post-Desert Storm Iraq policy. Rollback -- using the Iraqi opposition to depose Saddam and replace him with a friendlier regime -- remains wildly unlikely, since the Iraqi opposition is weak and the United States is unwilling to provide the massive support that Saddam's foes would need. The main alternatives to rollback are various forms of containment to box Saddam in: either arms inspections without economic sanctions, sanctions without inspections, or a wearying attempt to keep both sanctions on and the inspectors in.

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