Why Saddam Is Dead... Again

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Saddam Hussein does a Stalin impression for New Year

If his enemies are to be believed, Saddam Hussein has died a thousand deaths. Iraq on Wednesday denied reports that the strongman had suffered a massive stroke, after Western news agencies carried reports by Iraqi opposition sources claiming Saddam was once again at death's door. TIME.com's Tony Karon looks at what has become almost a daily phenomenon:

What lies behind these constant rumors?

They're part wishful thinking and part psychological warfare: Wishful thinking because they're a tacit acknowledgement that Saddam's health right now is the best bet for his ouster given the failure of Western military action, sanctions and support for Iraqi opposition groups; and psychological warfare because they undermine the image Saddam is trying to project in the Arab world. Just a day before the latest rumor, Saddam had appeared in the streets of Baghdad taking the salute of a four-hour Soviet-style military parade involving more than 1,000 tanks, the whole shebang ostensibly designed to show support for the Palestinian uprising. It would certainly behoove his opponents to counter these images with tales of a man about to breathe his last. Tales that, as anyone paying attention to newswires knows, appear as regularly as the seasons change.

Still, the fact that the regime in Baghdad felt compelled to issue denials suggests that it's widely known that the 63-year-old dictator's health may be the major shadow over his grip on power. Plainly, many people believe Saddam is ill, and is into his autumn years.

So what happens when he expires?

For one thing, when Saddam dies we'll probably get the news direct from Baghdad pretty quickly — and it will likely be relayed by his successor, who will be moving quickly to consolidate his grip on power by eliminating key rivals and signaling to any ambitious military officers in Baghdad that the job has already been taken. When Saddam's son Uday Hussein was shot and badly wounded by opposition activists in 1996, Iraqi TV reported the news within hours, suggesting that Baghdad's power players don't like to leave space for rumors.

What's the story on Uday? Isn't he a crazy party animal?

You party with Uday at your peril. Saddam's eldest at 36, he had been widely regarded as the leader's natural heir, a prospect that sent shudders through many Iraqis, given his reputation for drunken fits of homicidal brutality. He's most notorious for a 1988 incident in which he got drunk at a party and killed one of his father's top aides using a pistol and a battery-operated carving knife. That's probably the pick of the bunch, although the list includes wounding an uncle and killing six dancing girls at a party seven years later.

But the assassination attempt left him partly paralyzed, and in subsequent years he appears to have been eclipsed in the succession stakes by his brother Qusay, younger by two years. Qusay heads up his father's all-powerful secret service, and in 1996 supervised a bloody purge of senior figures suspected of plotting a coup. Last year Qusay was named as his father's deputy "in the event of an emergency," suggesting paramountcy in any succession struggle. Still, you don't want to count out a rival who may come at you with an electric carving knife.

What is the U.S. likely to do when Saddam does eventually meet his maker?

Well, assume Qusay takes over. Or Uday. Or even some other hard man from inside the corridors of power who musters the moxie to kill the brothers Hussein and inspire enough fear in their loyalists to crown himself the new dictator.

In any of those scenarios, the strategic logic that stopped President Bush from ordering his army to destroy the regime in Baghdad when they had the chance in 1991 still holds true: Saddam's regime represents a minority of Sunni Muslim clans who lord it over Iraq's Shiite and Kurdish majority. The collapse of that regime would almost certainly precipitate the dismemberment of Iraq, with the 60 percent Shiite population making common cause with Iran while the 25 percent Kurdish population looks to create an independent state in the north. And that would mean big trouble for the region, and Washington's interests in it — a burgeoning Iran with potential control over a lot more oil reserves than it currently holds, and a Kurdish state that Turkey would find intolerable on its doorstep.

Testifying before Congress last fall, General Anthony Zinni, the former U.S. commander for the Gulf region, warned that the priority remained ensuring stability in Iraq. "Removing Saddam is not the issue," Zinni told the Senate Armed Services Committee. "The issue is what kind of Iraq and what kind of region do we end up with. What's important is that what comes out of this is a stable Iraq, one that's intact, territorially intact, politically intact, and still a major influence in the region." Hello, Qusay.