Saddam’s Strategy on the Brink of War

Amatzia Baram
Amatzia Baram Senior Fellow, U.S. Institute of Peace; Former Visiting Fellow, Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Brookings

February 20, 2003

As the United States and the international community draw closer to a war with Iraq, Saddam Husayn clearly recognizes that he is in a difficult spot. But with France and Germany splitting the UN Security Council, he likely remains confident that he can wriggle out of this one as he has so many in the past. To understand Saddam’s likely course of action in the coming weeks, it is important to understand two key issues regarding his approach to weapons of mass destruction (WMD). First, why is the Iraqi leader unwilling to give up his WMD peacefully, even under the threat of war and his certain demise? Second, what are the chances that he will change his mind? Overall, Saddam most likely will be willing to make additional concessions to try to string out the inspection process, but given his obsession with weapons of mass destruction, he almost certainly will not fully comply with the disarmament requirements of Resolution 1441.


Judging from Saddam’s behavior since the Security Council mandated in 1991 that Iraq shall not have WMD, his attachment to these weapons is near-total. His refusal to give them up has meant that the UN oil embargo has remained in place, costing the Iraqi treasury more than $180 billion over the last 12 years. This situation has paralyzed the Iraqi economy and caused considerable suffering to the vast majority of the Iraqi people. The sanctions have even led to the further deterioration of Iraq’s conventional military power—and certainly prevented it from being rebuilt.

Why this obsessive attachment to chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons? First, Saddam considers WMD crucial to maintaining his ability to suppress large-scale domestic opposition to the regime. Shi’ite relations with the Ba’th regime have always been rocky. The Shi’ah represent almost 60 percent of Iraq’s population and present a major challenge to Saddam’s regime. The ruling elite consists mostly of Sunni Arabs who represent 15 to 17 percent of the Iraqi population. The brutal rule of such a small minority over such a large and occasionally hostile population creates a constant threat of mass revolt. The use of chemical weapons against the Kurds in 1988 was mainly intended as a lesson for the Shi’ah. Saddam’s forces, especially after the end of the Iran-Iraq war, could easily have destroyed the Kurdish revolt with the use of conventional weapons. The use of chemical weapons were meant to indicate to the Shi’ah that they would suffer a similar fate if they dared to rise up against Saddam. When the Gulf War guns fell silent the Shi’ah revolted anyway, prompting the Ba’th regime to conduct at least one mock chemical attack on a Shi’ite town a few years later. This mock attack deeply affected the whole Shi’ite population. They took the hint and have been mostly quiescent since.

Another domestic target for Saddam’s WMD is Iraq’s officer corps. All non-conventional missiles are under the control of the Special Security Organization (SSO), whose loyalty to Saddam is complete. Thus, they serve as a counterweight to the armed forces. Since he became president Saddam has had a complex relationship with his professional army officers: they do not respect his military and strategic thinking, mostly because he never served in the armed forces. But by emphasizing to them that he can win wars essentially without them by wielding non-conventional weapons, Saddam demonstrates he needs his officers less than they think. Of course, there are no wars without armies, but as he sees it, the importance of the officer corps in any future victory will be further minimized once Saddam possesses nuclear weapons.


Iraq’s WMD has also been used very effectively against a superior foreign enemy. The Iraqi military leadership ascribes a large portion of the Iranian defeat in 1988 to the lavish Iraqi use of chemical weapons. Likewise, the leadership believes the main reason the American forces did not try to advance on Baghdad in February 1991 was the fear that Saddam would resort to chemical weapons when defending his capital city. Thus, to Saddam the usefulness of chemical weapons in any war against a superior foreign enemy is so great that it is unlikely that he will be willing to give them up. In addition, U.S. and South Korean policy toward North Korea’s new nuclear capability almost certainly has cemented Baghdad’s belief that while chemical weapons are a useful deterrent, only nuclear weapons can provide the ultimate deterrent. It is highly likely that Saddam believes that once he possesses a nuclear arsenal, Iraq will be totally immune to an American attack under any circumstances.

The third factor is Saddam’s self-appointed role as leader and redeemer of the Arab world. The first phase of fulfilling that role is seen as gaining control over much of the Persian Gulf’s oil resources. Saddam tried this in 1990 when he invaded Kuwait, and his failure proved to him that it could not be achieved without a nuclear arsenal. As a nuclear power, Saddam believes he will be able to enforce his policies on his neighbors even without having to conquer their lands. In a wider context, in the spring of 1990—again, before he became a nuclear power—Saddam already endeavored to replace the USSR as the protective shield for all the Arab states against the West and Israel. Saddam offered to use all of his arsenal (which included only medium-range missiles tipped with chemical and biological warheads and aerial bombs) against Israel if the latter would encroach on even “one inch” of the territory of any Arab state, and if that state asked for his protection (and, by implication, accepted his hegemony). Should he acquire nuclear weapons, it is likely that he will brandish his newly acquired potential to confront Israel and in this way elevate himself overnight to the coveted position of leader and protector of all the Arabs. Without nuclear weapons, he stands no chance of being able to face Israel eyeball to eyeball—the only way he knows of becoming recognized as the hegemonic Arab leader.

In short, Iraq’s WMD arsenal is so important to Saddam Husayn that he is not likely to give it up even when threatened with an American attack. As he sees it, both his survival and his historic destiny would be seriously jeopardized in such a case. If the threat of war is absolutely credible, he may give in to some of the UN inspectors’ demands. But relinquishing his WMD altogether is unthinkable.

Is it possible that he will change his modus operandi if he finally realizes that the alternative is his and his regime’s certain destruction as the result of an American attack? Theoretically it is possible, especially since Saddam is no stranger to political U-turns. However, because Saddam is an incurable optimist, it is unlikely that he will ever acknowledge that his demise has become inevitable. Even when his French and Russian advisors warn him that his end is near (as they did just before and during the Gulf War in 1991), he almost certainly will still believe he has a chance not just to survive but to prevail. In 1991, he believes he was right. As for his own advisors, they have never dared to tell him unpleasant truths once they realized he had made up his mind.


Saddam Husayn’s refusal to part with his chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons programs, even under severe pressure and the threat of a U.S. invasion, may appear self-destructive and irrational to an outside observer. However, Saddam sees his possession of WMD as essential to his and his regime’s survival, as well as to his deeply held aspirations to hegemony and hero status in the Arab world.

Certainly, Saddam can be expected to continue to make tactical concessions as he recognizes the extent of the danger facing his regime. If presented with an ultimatum from the UN Security Council, Saddam could decide to make significant concessions on matters of procedure to create the impression that he was removing all the obstacles to total cooperation with UNMOVIC. Nevertheless, his purpose in doing so would be to buy more time for inspections and stave off a U.S. attack.

The key for Saddam is that any such concessions can only be tactical, and above all must be reversible. In order for him to give up anything, he must believe he can reverse the process and rebuild his WMD programs and his arsenal at a later date. Thus, it is exceptionally unlikely that he would give up the core capacities—the scientists, the blueprints, and the basic materials—that would enable him to reconstitute his non-conventional weapons quickly in the future, when the international community tires of the effort to disarm him. Saddam’s pursuit of WMD is so bound up with his own conception of himself and his historic destiny that it is unlikely that he will ever be prepared to give it up completely. As long as French and Russian advocates insist on holding open the prospect of inspections, he has no reason even to contemplate such a step.

With the Security Council now split, Saddam undoubtedly interprets the standoff as proof that he can avoid war by satisfying the minimum demands of those who oppose the United States. Thus, he is likely to do more to help the French, Germans and Russians argue that inspections are working and should be given more time. That dictates tactical flexibility, but no change in the strategic objective of keeping those WMD capabilities. Indeed, he recently agreed to one-on-one interviews with his scientists and to a resumption of U-2 flights over Iraq. He can agree to more. His intent will be to string out the inspections until an American-led war becomes impossible.