Late in Joseph Stalin’s reign, the budget for his personal bodyguard was cut. Knowing Stalin, one can’t believe that the decision was made with his input or approval. This is a man who was so paranoid that he had an ingrown toenail treated by sticking his foot through a hole in a wall; the doctor who was on the other side of the wall was not told whose foot it was. Sounds silly, but Stalin remained in power longer than any other Soviet ruler, so clearly he knew how to run his tyranny. Nevertheless, the government cutting his bodyguard budget — and then announcing it? This was a signal, and somebody must have understood it because Stalin was soon dead under circumstances that are still debated.
In totalitarian societies, open debate over leadership is impossible, and even private communication is problematic. The secret police penetrate everywhere and the higher the level in the power structure the more likely the person you are talking to has been compromised. This is intended to forestall coup plotting, and generally, it works. So people in totalitarian societies, especially in the ruling class, have to resort to subtle signals to communicate dangerous ideas, things which are unmistakable to those in the know but which also can be denied if accusations arise. Of course, if it gets to the point of accusations arising, the signal was not subtle enough, something to ponder before the electrodes are attached.
All of this is why questions arose when Saddam Hussein’s personal bodyguard appeared at a press conference March 27 standing behind Iraqi Defense Minister Sultan Hashim Ahmed. (I have heard it reported that the bodyguard’s name is “Murafiq” but this is Arabic for “companion” — Saddam’s close bodyguard detail is known as the Murafiqin, and the chief among them Murafiq Aqdam (principal companion). Thus it is most likely his title, not his name.) Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld was asked about it on Fox News Channel, and said he found it “interesting.” This, coupled with a senior administration official’s statement that Baghdad would “fall from within” makes the situation more interesting still. But what could it mean?
It might mean that the defense minister is running the show. However, if he took charge, why would he keep Saddam’s bodyguard around, unless the man had proved his loyalty by plugging the maximum leader himself? But if that had happened, certainly the inner circle would know about it, and there would be other contenders for power, such as Ahmed’s son-in-law, Qusay, better known as Saddam’s son and heir. There would be some signs of disruption, and Ahmed’s bid would have to have been more dynamic. In that press conference, and in Iraqi media in general (what’s left of it), there are not even subtle rhetorical indications that Saddam is not in control. One still hears the same praise to the “unique leader,” the same honorifics, and Iraq radio is still carrying the popular “Sayings of Saddam Hussein” five-minute spot. For that matter, Ahmed is not dominating the airwaves; Information (or Disinformation) Minister Muhammad Said al-Sahhaf seems to be the star.
So let us assume the bodyguard was assigned to Ahmed. Perhaps he felt some need for protection. It was a live news conference, and the defense minister, a serving, uniformed Iraqi army general, is a legitimate target. There was no telling who might be out there in the press pool that day besides Peter Arnett. But why that murafiq in particular? Is Saddam running out of trustworthy men? It is not an academic question — two months ago reports surfaced that Abu Hamdi Mahmoud, Saddam’s bodyguard-in-chief, had defected to Israel and was providing all manner of useful information. Mahmoud is the kind of guy who knows where the bodies — and bunkers — are buried and could be the source for much of the targeting information for the nightly Baghdad bombings. In addition, we still do not know who the finger man was for the decapitation strike, though Saddam may have already taken care of that patriot.
The more likely explanation is that the defense minister cannot be trusted and Saddam sent someone that both he and Ahmed knew would enforce Saddam’s will if he got out of line, and who, in any case, would report back everything he saw and heard. This thesis is reinforced by a report that appeared in February in the Cairo-based newspaper al Ahram stating that Ahmed had been placed under house arrest to prevent a coup. Ahmed was an admired military leader during the Iran-Iraq War, and is still much respected in the Iraqi army. In other words, he is not the kind of person Saddam would want roaming free. Moreover, since Saddam’s bodyguard is a known symbol of his authority, his presence would imply that Saddam still runs things despite what others in the power structure might have heard to the contrary. The situation communicated — don’t get any ideas.
That being said there is little public evidence that Saddam is even alive. There has been no recent live video or audio, no recorded video or audio that make reference to known facts since he was last seen, no public sightings, little evidence of command and control in his armed forces, no strategic counterattacks against Israel or targets in the U.S. (the fedayeen ops require no particular command guidance other than “kill,” so they are not proof). Of course, Saddam would be a fool to allow any electronic signal to connect himself with the outside world. He cannot know Coalition capabilities to trace live signals back to their source, and cannot know if the couriers used to transfer tapes to the outside are trustworthy, even if ten degrees removed. The edited footage that has been released is strangely unconvincing. One recently aired meeting showed Saddam and company in a small conference room with a clearly visible round passageway directly to his left, looking very much like an escape tube, the kind any evil genius bent on world domination would have in his secret underground lair. Another such video ran on March 29, showing Saddam and some chief leaders, including Ahmed. Both reports were voiced over, and there was nothing to prove that the videos were shot on any particular date. You would think Saddam would want to make the fact of his survival unambiguous. Osama bin Laden had indisputably genuine tapes out immediately when battle was joined in Afghanistan, though they stopped in December 2001. (And by the way, where are the al Qaeda attacks, statements, and so forth that were supposed to take place upon the opening of the attack on Iraq? This is a widening credibility gap I will address in a future column) If he is alive, wouldn’t Saddam want to give the Coalition his personal thumb’s up?
Nevertheless, if Saddam is dead, why are the Iraqis fighting back? If one of his sons or underlings has taken control, why not announce it and fight on under new management or, to avoid further difficulties, cut a deal? Is the terror bureaucracy of the regime on autopilot? No doubt it can function well that way. On the other hand, maybe the commanders keep Saddam “alive” because no matter what happens in coming days they can blame it on him?
It is fun to speculate about these things, and very noteworthy that it does not seem to matter from a warfighting perspective whether Saddam is alive, dead, incapacitated, or asleep. The war is moving along to a successful conclusion regardless of Saddam or his minions. Every day the military equation shifts further in favor of the Coalition, and the self-interest calculus of those who have supported Saddam’s regime becomes more difficult, the timing more acute. If Baghdad falls from within, they will have to play a role if they want to survive. But when to make the move, and what to do? How to swap horses midstream and survive? The Coalition is coming, but Saddam is not yet gone — perhaps. There is still plenty of time to be executed if they move too soon; Saddam will be shooting traitors until his dying breath. When the Republican Guard units around Baghdad are routed and the fedayeen are readying for street fighting, the upper-mid-level elites — high enough to have a great deal to lose but low enough to have a potential buy-in to the new regime — will have to make their choice, to go down fighting or turn on their former master. I suspect they are the pragmatic sort who will choose the latter. In which case, to paraphrase Caesar, we can hate the traitors but love their treason.
— James S. Robbins is a national-security analyst & NRO contributor.