Prague, 4 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- A new round of rumors that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is in ill health is once again highlighting the near impossibility of learning the Iraqi leader's true state of health.
Several media based in England and Germany have recently carried reports based on claims by the exiled Iraqi opposition that Saddam has been in intensive care after suffering a stroke.
Those reports have immediately been denied by Baghdad, with a top Iraqi information official yesterday calling them, in his words, absurd. The Ministry of Culture and Information issued a statement saying that Saddam's personal appearance at a military parade in the capital last weekend proves he is in robust health.
David Newton, director of Radio Free Iraq, says the recent reports of a stroke are the latest round in a series of constant rumors concerning Saddam's health. Newton:
"These reports come periodically and they have really come about, particularly, since last July when Saddam at his national day speech looked tired, gave a much shorter speech than usual and was even more divorced from reality. There was a report at that time he had leukemia."
Newton says that the reports, which so far have proved impossible to independently confirm, have created a well-established cycle in which Saddam usually follows the rumors with a public appearance designed to squelch them. If he looks healthy, the rumors die away for a time. If not, they gain strength. Newton says:
"Assuming that [Saddam] then appears on television heading some kind of meeting, then the report will disappear. If he does not, the rumors will continue to grow. People will watch for these signs because they have no other way of finding out. So, we will be waiting to see if he shows up some kind of event in the near future."
Whatever the nature of Saddam's next appearance, Newton says new reports of ill health will almost certainly arise soon afterward.
He says that is partly because the rumors of ill health fulfill the wishes of Iraq's opposition that Saddam will one day disappear of natural or unnatural causes. And partly because the absolute secrecy Baghdad places on Saddam's health guarantees that people constantly wonder about his real state.
Given these circumstances, Newton predicts that the only time the public will truly know Saddam has been sick will be when the Iraqi leader dies. And until then, Iraq watchers will be left to weigh each new report about Saddam's health with as much reason for skepticism as belief.