The Legend Of Saddam

Khalid Khawaldi calls himself "the strategist." Sincere and dignified, he waves a hand to indicate the deployments of air force, infantry, cavalry. Here are the Iraqi divisions, there the Americans. "Inshallah, victory to Saddam," he proclaims. Then the air force giggles--and the battle of the Zahrat al-Madayen school playground begins. Arms raised as wings, the American planes zoom into action. The fighting is tough, its course chaotic, the casualties high, but the outcome is clear from the start. Khalid, 11, determines the winner, and in this Jordanian schoolyard the Iraqis never lose. "If it was for real," says Loai Muhammad, a 12-year-old picked for the American side, "we'd all have been with Iraq."

More than two weeks into the war, the legend of Saddam Hussein is growing in the Arab world. The symbolism of his Scud missile strikes against Israel and the bravado of his attack on Khafji touch notes of grudging respect even among his enemies. Leaders allied with Washington argue that he has split Arab ranks and brought catastrophe on the region. Makram Mohamed Ahmad, editor of Cairo's weekly al-Mussawar magazine, says the Egyptians know Saddam as "a very bad man, a ruthless dictator, bringing ruin to the Islamic people." But Ahmad also notes that many admire Saddam because he "stood his ground." In a part of the world starved for heroes, where men of rhetoric have been common and men of action rare, the power of Saddam's myth may be his most important legacy, whether or not he survives the war.

Saddam's efforts to portray his current struggle as one of Islam against the infidels have paid off in the popular imagination. (The Iraqi president's eight-year war against Iran's fundamentalist Muslim regime is rarely mentioned.) As children race to their mock battles in Amman schoolyards, they call for Saddam to defeat the Americans and Israelis as Saladin defeated the Christians to retake Jerusalem eight centuries ago. "The word 'crusade' is flashing before us," says Kamel Abu Jaber, a Jordanian political scientist. "This is the Middle East. Always there is an interchange between myth and reality." Saddam's zealous message has not been limited to his neighbors. In Borneo, a Muslim realm, 18 Indonesian newborns reportedly were named Saddam Hussein during the first two weeks of the war. In south Lebanon, anyone or anything deemed gutsy or tough is called "Scud."

In Jordan, where the government tries to remain neutral but people in the streets support Saddam, the Iraqi dictator has attained mythical attributes. "I heard that the first rocket that hit Israel--Saddam fired it with his own hands," says Ghada, an 11-year-old girl. Stories of last week's attack on Khafji resonate with imagery from the era of Sinbad and Aladdin. By one account, the town's defenders were caught off guard because each night before the attack the Iraqis sent riderless camels with lights tied to their saddles to wander across the lines and unnerve the Saudi troops.

Saddam has also developed the mystique of a multimedia star. Watching the televised war as if it were a cartoon, Jordanian boys have put Saddam in their pantheon of heroes alongside Sylvester Stallone and the Masters of the Universe. At the pirate cassette shops in the Amman souk, an album of throbbing paeans called "Saddam of the Arabs" is outselling Madonna by a margin of 50 to 1. In the al-Afghani souvenir store, the proprietors have trouble keeping up with orders for Scud key chains and Saddam buttons that declare, among other things, BUSH IS RAMBO II, BUT SADDAM IS TRUE.

Such euphoria could be short-lived. "It's comforting that Scuds are hitting Tel Aviv," says a U.S.-educated Lebanese Shiite, "but we know Saddam is finished, his country is finished and Israel is going to emerge much more powerful from this war. It all has to do with frustration and anger and nothing to do with common sense."

The Iraqi dictator is often compared to Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser, the last leader truly to inspire the Arab masses. Until this year, Saddam's claim to Nasser's mantle was read as little more than arrogant pretense. Where Nasser roused the region with his language and personality, Saddam was seen as icy and inarticulate. "He's brutal. He's not the same man as Nasser," says one Jordanian who knows him. Yet "Nasser made expectations so high that he could not meet them," notes Palestinian historian Amin Mahmoud, "so there was a lot of disappointment. [Saddam] did not depend on words, on poetry. He built his popularity gradually. His deeds got him the admiration of the masses."

Saddam's example today--and his legend tomorrow--are direct challenges to many Arab regimes that have been in power for 20 years or more without delivering victories in war or prosperity in peace. "Saddam's standing up to Bush is the catalyst for the acceleration of history in the Middle East," says left-wing Egyptian columnist Mohamed Sayed Abmed. "We know he will not win the war. What we do not know is whether the removal of one Saddam will create 100 others."

On the playing fields of Amman, there is little doubt. In Jordan, as in most of the Arab world, approximately 40 percent of the population is under 15. "Should Saddam die, there will be a lot more like him who will carry out their duty," says Rima, 11, as she watches her schoolmates. Already, the strategists are emerging.