On Wednesday evening, the embattled Iraqi regime released a tape of a weary and pale Saddam Hussein proclaiming his infinite defiance, ending his speech with overtones of Islamic jihad (“holy war”), Palestine, and a half-hearted “Allahu Akhbar” (“God is Great”). Not that this language should come as a surprise to anyone: throughout his career, Saddam has manipulated a slick ideological propaganda machine to create an image for himself as the “fearless leader” of his mighty armies and the Arab and Islamic world at large. But this time, he may have finally reached the end of the line: despite Saddam’s desperate televised pleas for unified Islamic solidarity against foreign encroachment, the reaction in the region, both in and outside Iraq, represents far from an overwhelming endorsement of the embattled dictator.
Of course, this is not to say that the war in Iraq has been well received in the Middle East. Quite to the contrary, popular tensions have risen sharply from Cairo to Jerusalem. Abdel Aziz Al-Rantisi, a senior leader of the Palestinian Hamas terrorist organization, advised Western journalists this week, “Iraqis should prepare explosive belts and would-be martyrs [suicide bombers] to combat the U.S. occupiers.” Even America’s supposed allies in the secular Palestinian Authority (led by Yasser Arafat) have openly called for jihad against the West. On official PA television last Friday, Sheikh Ibrahim Mudayris declared, “Oh Allah, support us against our enemies. Oh Allah, destroy our enemies! Oh Allah, destroy America and Israel! Oh Allah, shake the land under their feet!” Clearly, there is strong and vocal regional opposition to the Western offensive against Baghdad.
Yet, despite this prevalent anti-American sentiment, the sympathy felt by these militants towards the situation of their Iraqi brethren does not often extend to Saddam himself. Even as the radicals exhort the masses to lay down their lives as holy “martyrs” to defend Iraq against the “crusader” army, their message is often muddled by a parallel frank hatred for “Uncle Saddam” and his corrupt henchmen. Abu Nidal (a.k.a. Sabri al-Banna) was one example of this phenomenon: a notorious Palestinian terrorist hiding in Baghdad, assassinated several months ago by Iraqi intelligence agents because, according to some reports, he had refused an order from Saddam to commit retaliatory terror operations against the United States. For all his own anti-American rhetoric, Osama bin Laden is another sharp critic of Saddam, who he has routinely labeled as an “infidel,” a “stooge” of the Western world, and an apostate ruler. In his latest audio statement on the Persian Gulf crisis, bin Laden clarified, “fighting should be for the sake of Allah only, no other, and not for the victory of… or for the aid of the infidel regimes in all Arab countries, including Iraq.”
Beyond the boorish missives of Osama bin Laden, Saddam also faces serious opposition among many Iraqis themselves, including from within the elite Iraqi military structure. Since even before the initial Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, Saddam Hussein has suffered a series of quiet but embarrassing moments of civil unrest, often paradoxically instigated by his supposedly most trusted paramilitary units among the Republican Guard. On January 4, 1990, a major military coup was exposed in Iraq involving officers from the feared Republican Guard and led by members of the Jubbur clan, a key Sunni tribal ally of Saddam Hussein. In June 1996, the Guard was discovered to be mulling another major plot against Saddam and his henchmen. Since the Gulf War, morale among regular Republican Guard units has reportedly plummeted as a result of economic sanctions and cost-cutting measures. These units, formerly the prized flagship of the Iraqi military, have been saddled with older, obsolete equipment while their salaries and bonuses have gradually dwindled. One could argue that they are as much a threat to Saddam as they are to approaching American troops.
To offset the power of the Republican Guard and the danger it posed to him in the wake of the Gulf War, Saddam created two other paramilitary organizations to help safeguard his interests: the Fidaiyyi Saddam (Saddam’s “Suicide Commandos”) and the Special Republican Guard. The notion of the Fidaiyyi, patterned after the martyrdom squads of Hamas and al Qaeda, conjures up fantastic images of terrifying and unstoppable warriors strapped with explosive belts. However, the reality is nothing quite that dramatic. In fact, in 1994 at its creation, the Fidaiyyi wore no regular uniforms and largely brandished an eccentric and unimpressive collection of simple rifles and submachine guns.
Though Saddam has since vastly upgraded both the Fidaiyyi and “Special Republican Guard” units, their ultimate fealty to him is still a matter of some debate. There are undoubtedly commanders left in Iraq, whose own survival is absolutely predicated on that of Saddam. Yet for the majority of Iraqis, even Sunni Muslims from Tikrit, the prospect of a democratic alternative to their Stalinist dictator grows more attractive by the second, especially as American bombs begin to rain down on the special military units protecting Baghdad.
If Saddam is unable to safeguard a brittle police state and his prized weapons of mass destruction, it is only a matter of time before even his most trusted men begin turning on him. A defeat of such magnitude would directly undermine the culture of fear and terror that the Iraqi dictator uses to cement together his troubled nation. Modern Iraqi history is littered with similar examples of weakened rulers deposed suddenly by force. Indeed, Saddam — if he is still alive — may soon be more at risk from his own emboldened and disgruntled bodyguards than even the latest in American satellite guided weapons.
— Evan Kohlmann is a senior terrorism analyst at the Investigative Project, a Washington D.C.-based counterterrorism think tank established in 1995. He is currently writing a book, The Martyrs of Bosnia: Al-Qaida’s War of Terror in Europe.