Originally created 02/04/03

Rallying the troops or ordering coffee, Saddam is TV's nightly star



BAGHDAD, Iraq -- It's 9 p.m. in Baghdad, time for the main TV news and a solid hour or more of Saddam Hussein, giving pep talks to his generals, ordering coffee, sending regards to faraway tribal chieftains and denouncing American "wickedness."

Although his portraits and statues are everywhere, the Iraqi leader hardly ever appears in public, and until the past month he hadn't been seen much on tightly controlled state television. But lately the personality cult has been dominating the air waves, usually in excerpts of meetings with officers and aides.

Field-Marshal Saddam Hussein, "The Leader President, The Victorious, May God Protect Him" in the official media's words, is usually seen in a three-piece suit at the head of a long table, a small leather bag of his beloved Cuban cigars at hand.

The officers, ranging in rank from colonel to general, stand stiffly at attention and salute as Saddam walks in. His son Qusay, a civilian who heads the elite Republican Guard Corps, is often present and also at attention.

"It is sweet to sit and talk to you," Saddam tells a group of army officers in footage from Jan. 27.

The officers, mostly in olive-green army fatigues, tell Saddam how privileged they are to meet him. One officer tells of being nagged by his children who have seen other officers with Saddam on TV and want to know when it'll be dad's turn. Officers sometimes break into songs of praise of Saddam.

The reasons for all this sudden exposure are many: a way of rallying the estimated 22 million Iraqis for a possible American attack, a show of control and business-as-usual, a display of battle readiness and a demonstration of loyal camaraderie at a time when Saddam's enemies are reported to be working on the generals to overthrow him.

Those in search of other fare can flip to Al-Shabab, a channel set up in 1994 by Saddam's other son, Odai. Lately it offers the American series "VIP," starring Pamela ("Baywatch") Anderson, and an Egyptian soap opera about a greedy man who marries women for their money, only to lose it all on the stock market.

But many Iraqis are tuning in to the Saddam footage, if only for the novelty of seeing him relaxing, talking and joking.

Here's the leader meeting with army commanders: As each officer identifies himself, Saddam names his tribe or clan and sends regards to its chief. Battle tactics come up and he is instantly the supreme commander, stressing, for example, that war games should use live ammunition.

At a meeting Jan. 29, a special forces commander tells Saddam his men walked 48 miles in 17 hours with only one two-hour rest stop. Saddam's response: They should walk faster so they can reach an enemy target, attack it and return to base the same day.

On Feb. 1, Saddam wants to know what his commanders are learning from watching Israeli tanks in TV footage of clashes with Palestinian clashes. Another time he's telling them to make sure their men wash regularly and that their water taps work.

Saddam appears at pains to come across as a simple country boy talking about how village people light their homes, and describing what real darkness feels like far from the city.

He listens patiently to army officers reporting on their troops' readiness. He laces his talk with Muslim prayers and refers to any war with the United States in a religious context of "righteousness" versus "evil."

He interrupts one meeting to call out "Can someone bring us some coffee here?" Another time he turns avuncular, ordering his officers to "Drink your tea before it gets cold."

The official media projects an impression of calm deliberation. One recent Cabinet meeting is said to have debated a 10-year economic plan. Last month newspapers reported Saddam had ordered Cabinet ministers to bar hawkers from setting up shop on sidewalks.

The media also give prominence to anti-war demonstrations abroad and publish lengthy reports on the rift over Iraq among U.N. Security Council members.

State-owned publishing houses continue to churn out books about the Iraqi leader's life, philosophy and speeches.

In "Saddam Hussein and the Travel to the Cities of Light," a study of Saddam's ideology, Muayyad AbdulQader writes: "After long years of darkness, Saddam Hussein has lit the candles of hope in the sky of a homeland that the winds of despair, darkness and regression tried to uproot."