CAIRO – All the Arab capitals – as much as Washington – wish he would just go away. He won’t. As an unusually exasperated diplomat remarked in Geneva: “It’s not about Iraq. It’s not about inspections. It’s not about oil. It’s about one man really. Why doesn’t he just … disappear? Osama bin Laden – yesterday’s villain, untraceable, uncatchable – remains in the shadows, like a specter. Saddam Hussein – unlike Osama – is in your face, our face, everybody’s faces, everyday on Iraqi TV, a creepy, stony remake of a Babylonian emperor chairing meetings with army officers and security agencies.

Osama bin Laden has not lost his gift for timing. Even before George W. Bush, with religious exaltation and crusader spirit, talked about the State of the Union, Osama, with religious exaltation and crusader spirit, was purportedly talking about the state of the umma. He has sent a 26-page text with his “trademark secret signature” to the Islamic Center for Studies and Research in Pakistan. The text was obtained by the Saudi-owned newspaper Al-Sharq Al Awsat, and the story was published on January 26. In the text, Osama stresses that Muslims should “enter into the blessed obligation of jihad by highlighting the importance of unity and eliminating differences of opinion.”

It’s not a coincidence that this call for unity happens just as the war against Iraq seems inevitable. Millions of angry and frustrated Muslims – especially in the Middle East – are bound to echo Osama when he asks: “When will Muslims wake up from their long sleep, and when will they distinguish between their friend and enemy? When will they direct their own arrows that they use to fight each other to their external enemy that steals and loots its fortunes and its resources?” Dictatorial Arab regimes tremble when they hear these words. They know “regime change” is not applicable to Osama, but they also know Osama wants to apply his own version of “regime change” to them.

As far as Washington is concerned, in the absence of Osama, Saddam Hussein remains the next best option. Colin Powell himself recognized after a meeting with Pakistan’s Foreign Minister that Saddam’s exile – along with his family and the leadership of the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) – plus immunity, would be the ideal solution. Powell even hinted that if the UN approved it, the US might go for it. A few days before Powell, Donald Rumsfeld had already said that an arrangement like this “would be a fair trade to avoid a war.”

Washington wants something that Baghdad will never deliver. Egyptian politician Farouq Goweida says why: “The US is probably aware that if Saddam dies under American bombing, he will become a symbol of resistance for the Arab world. So obviously they will refuse him the privilege. That’s why his only way out is to remain in Baghdad.” On January 17, Ali Hasan Al Majid, aka “Chemical Ali” (he is the alleged mastermind of the gassing of Iraqi Kurds in 1988 and one of Saddam ‘s cousins), visited Syria. “Chemical Ali” is as close to the leader as you can get: he manages Saddam’s personal affairs. Obviously he dismissed all the speculation about exile as “absurd.”

Mohsen Khalil, Iraq’s ambassador to Egypt, in an analysis that could have been penned by Osama himself, also dismissed the rumors as “another example of US propaganda and lies where they leak information that is not true so that they can create a rift between Arab leaders.” And in another echo of Osama’s call for unity, the ambassador said that “Arab leaders refuse to interfere in the internal political affairs of other nations, because they know if it happens in Iraq, it will happen to them next.”

Colin Powell certainly does not believe in the exile option, and is now getting ready for the pitch of his life next Wednesday at the Security Council, the new key date set by Washington. President Bush is very clear: the US will consult with the UN, but if Saddam does not disarm, in the name of security and peace, the US will lead a coalition and go to war.

George W. Bush has not declared war, not yet. But he has announced it. He didn’t lay down an ultimatum. But he formulated it. With one stroke, Bush smashed the importance of the meeting this past Wednesday where the inspectors’s report was discussed at the Security Council; smashed the importance of the new report to be presented on February 14 (a German proposal); and imposed on the UN his own calendar – faster, and with a very clear objective. The date that matters now is February 5, when Powell presents the alleged new evidence capable of convicting Saddam’s regime. Very important: Bush never pronounced the word “resolution.” This means that as far as Washington is concerned the war won’t depend on a UN vote in a new resolution; the war depends on a clear choice by Saddam Hussein, right here, right now.

In a secret document titled “What does disarmament look like,” leaked in the beginning of this week, the White House accuses Qusai, Saddam’s youngest son and heir, of organizing the dissimulation of Iraqi means of production and storage of weapons of mass destruction. According to the document, the Iraqi organization put in place to aid the inspectors works as an “anti-inspector corps.” These “anti-inspectors” are supposed to be scientists capable of protecting sensitive installations from the UN operation. The White House document says these scientists are much larger in number than the inspectors, and they also get help from “thousands of others, coming from all Iraqi security agencies,” in a mission to “hide documents and materials from the inspectors.” According to the White House document, Qusai Hussein – the head of the Special Security Organization (SSO) – controls the whole operation. Normally, Qusai heads the Jihaz Al-Amn Al-Khas (Special Security Service), created in 1984 and listing some 5,000 officials charged with protecting sensitive sites.

The White House document goes even further, saying that a whole basket of security agencies is engaged in preventing the UN from working properly. These include operatives from the military industry; the special division in charge of the security of Baghdad; military intelligence (with as much as 6,000 agents); the Republican Guard; and the Special Republican Guard (with as many as 100,000 personnel). It’s practically certain that Colin Powell will present this kind of evidence to the UN next week, along with a battery of Ikonos satellite images of movement of sensitive material, and photos of recent mosques or hospitals built inside or around military sites considered to be certified bombing targets.

As far as the al-Qaeda-Baghdad connection goes, things are much more complicated. It’s fair to assume Powell’s presentation will rely on confessions obtained by US intelligence in Guantanamo, Cuba. European intelligence agencies don’t believe in the veracity of the information, but American intelligence says al-Qaeda “enemy combatants” confessed having received chemical products from Iraq for their training. Al-Qaeda operatives may have been to Iraq for training (very unlikely), and Iraqis may have been to Afghan training camps (very likely, as Asia Times Online confirmed in August 2001).

Saddam Hussein, as expected, remains defiant. According to a source inside Iraq, Saddam said this week on Iraqi TV that everybody should be inspired by the suicide-bombing of “our Palestinian brothers.” It appears that Qusai – now on TV every day – along with army generals, has been charged by Saddam to organize the key Iraqi defense around Baghdad.

Another US option would be to simply exterminate Saddam: CIA and Special Forces operating in Iraqi Kurdistan have authority to use lethal force. According to a presidential order signed by Bush in 2002, it’s now legal for Americans to assassinate foreign leaders or civilians. Many within the Bush administration believe assassinating Saddam is an unrivalled option in terms of cost-benefit.

It’s unlikely the legal killer brigade has reached the gates of Baghdad yet: At the moment they are supposed to be training opposition Kurdish and Shia leaders, and also scouting for potential landing strips to be used in case of war. Nonetheless they can rely on a massive armory of satellites monitoring the phone calls and walkie-talkie transmissions of Saddam and his generals. A converted Boeing 707, called a RC-135 Rivet Joint, flies up to 10 hours a day at 35,000 feet over Iraq, intercepting all phone calls and identifying callers’ locations with a minimal margin of error. Two satellites are dedicated to tracking Saddam. The Micron Spy satellite, stationed more than 33,000km above the Middle East, picks up phone calls and sends them to a US listening base in Yorkshire, England. The Trumpet satellite picks up cellphone calls and sends them to a base in Colorado.

It’s unlikely Saddam Hussein has been using a phone, mobile or otherwise, these days. Nobody on the planet can tell for sure how will he choose to exit from History. When he delivered his speech for the 12th anniversary of the Gulf War – known as “Mother of All Battles” in Iraq – he compared the next Desert Storm to the 1258 conquest of Baghdad by the Mongols. The Mongols destroyed the city and killed Al-Mustasim, the last Abbasid caliph. The caliph died fighting. The reference matches Saddam’s recent eulogy of Palestinian suicide bombers.

But only a few days before this speech, Saddam told his army commanders that Gilgamesh – the legendary king of Uruk – decided to abdicate from the throne and wander the earth “in search of the secret of immortality.” One thing is certain: Saddam is no Shah of Iran. So how will he play it? As a martyr, like the last Abbasid caliph? Or as a philosopher-king, like Gilgamesh?

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