Rope-A-Dope In Baghdad

Saddam Hussein has been preparing a long time for a long war. If there were no other clues to his strategy, his hideout might well tell the story. Built a decade ago by the Germans, this "fuhrerbunker' lies more than 50 feet beneath his Baghdad palace. It boasts such luxuries as a sauna and fourposter bed with a red silk canopy; such precautions as walls built to withstand atomic blasts--there are even toilets tested for radiation. According to one German report, 25 people "could live for a year without care" in its fortified recesses.

But even before word leaded of this Strangelovian paradise, there was little mystery about Saddam's basic plans: to draw out the conflict as long as possible and break the political will of his enemies. Those who know Saddam best believe there is a fundamental difference in the way Washington and Baghdad see the conflict. For the coalition, this is a war of weapons. For Saddam it is a war of nerves. Arab envoys who met Iraq's president over the last six months came away stunned by his cool. "He is the calmest human being I have ever seen," says one. "He told our people long ago the first hit would be [a score] for the Americans," says a senior Jordanian official. He believed he could "absorb" the strike "and continue doing so for two or three weeks. Then it's his chance: the land battle. That's when the coffins start going to the United States and Congress starts reacting. He is waiting and controlling himself for that moment. He is very eager for [it]." A senior American official agrees: Saddam's strategy in the war is like Muhammad Ali's "rope-a-dope" tactic. The former heavyweight champion would let his opponents wear themselves out before he began fighting in earnest.

Saddam's shelter is not the only installation built to take the best the coalition can throw at it. Much of his Air Force remains in hardened bunkers buried in the sand. Built by a Belgian firm in the 1980s, "they are stronger than NATO shelters," according to Kenneth Timmerman, a Paris-based defense analyst. As long as his planes are operational, the chance remains that at a critical moment he could launch an all-out attack against the allied forces or Israel.

But it's not in conventional combat that Saddam is most likely to surprise the coalition. "You will not be able to define the battlefield, the kinds of weapons that will be used in the showdown or its duration," he declared as the fighting began. The dumping of millions of gallons of oil into the gulf, apparently with the aim of disrupting Saudi Arabia's water desalination program, is but one example. Explosions in the last two weeks aimed at targets from Paris to Manila suggest a terrorist offensive already may be underway. Debra van Opstal, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, warns that even if the war ended tomorrow, terrorist plots set in motion now could continue erupting for months or years to come.

One of Saddam's obvious aims is to drag Israel into the war and destabilize Washington's relations with its Arab allies. So far, he has failed. But even if Israel remains restrained, the Scud attacks on Tel Aviv dramatize Saddam's argument that his fight in the gulf is "linked" to the fight for Palestine, and the course of the conflict has obscured for many Arabs the original cause of the crisis. "Kuwait just seems irrelevant now," says a moderate Jordanian who fled Iraq's August invasion.

Ironically, Saddam may be hoping for attacks on Iraq's population centers and its religious shrines. He claims allied bombers already have hit the Shiite holy cities of Karbala and Najaf, and despite the Bush administration's desire to spare innocent lives, "collateral damage" is mounting after more than 20,000 sorties. Last week Iraq began releasing videotapes of civilian casualties, including wounded and dead children. Saddam's random Scud attacks are an invitation to retaliate in kind, his treatment of captured pilots an incitement to vengeance. But one Arab official warns of what would follow: "If the United States attacks civilian targets, you will lose the war. It will be seen as the infidels slaughtering Arabs. Saddam can get away with it, but you can't."

Iraq president openly takes heart from the U.S. antiwar movement. Americans, he notes, have "taken to the streets in the tens of thousands to denounce [President Bush's] aggressive policies." But it's on the streets of the Muslim world that Saddam sees his main chance. Already there is a chorus of restive voices in key countries allied to the United States, and he is doing his best to conduct them toward a crescendo.

Egypt's powerful Muslim Brotherhood has roundly condemned the war. Other Egyptian opposition parties are following suit. President Hosni Mubarak has postponed the reopening of high schools and universities to prevent them from erupting in protests. Turkey's President Turgut Ozal continues as a faithful U.S. ally, but his government has been racked by dissent and resignations. The leaders of Jordan and Iran have tried to remain neutral, but their parliaments seethe with anti-American proclamations and calls for holy war supporting Saddam.

The most vulnerable of Iraq's opponents may be Syria. Its newfound alliance with Washington is based on President Hafez Assad's personal hatred of Saddam, his need for funding and his fear of being drawn into a war he can't control. But Saddam is doing what Assad has only talked about: taking on Israel and its American backers. Mopre than 40 Syrian intellectuals and artists braved the wrath of the secret police in Damascus last week to sign an open letter supporting Iraq. Even some of Assad's top officials are left in a quandary. "I venture to confess the overwhelming joy I felt when I heard the news about Iraqi missile attacks on Israeli targets," declared Defense Minister Mustafa Tlass.

Despite Saddam's stratagems, America's allies probably will stick together. "Assad's a wily old fox who wouldn't have taken this stand if he didn't feel he was in control," says Francois Heisbourg at London's International Institute for Strategic Studies. But David Kimche, formerly second in command of Israel's Mossad, warns that the coalition could triumph on the battlefield and still lose the region. If Saddam wins the propaganda war, Kimche wrote last week, the Middle East would emerge "more fanatical, more radical, more extreme and more anti-Western" than ever before. Lying back in his bunker on his four-poster bed, that may be just what Saddam is dreaming.

When "Gotterdammerung' in the gulf comes for Saddam Hussein, he can follow tradition, spending the final days in his underground bunker. But two German magazines reported last week that Saddam's hideout is a lavishly decorated 12-room complex. In 1981, at a reported cost of $65 million, Saddam hired a civil engineering firm in Dusseldorf, West Germany, to built the nuclear-bomb-proof shelter underneath the guest house of the presidential palace in Baghdad. The main entrance is a three-ton steel door; the impenetrable walls are lead-lined concrete, six feet thick. In a situation room, Saddam can follow the war's progress on 24 TV screens and address his people from an adjacent broadcast studio. Interior designers from Munich furnished the family quarters with crystal chandeliers and plush carpets. Why did the Germans do it? "In 1981," says Georg Niedermeier, chairman of the German company that later incorporated the engineering firm, "Hussein was a relatively good guy in the West for waging war against the fundamentalist devils in Iran."

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