It's true, there are places the regime doesn't feel entirely secure. On the main highway south from Baghdad, there are army posts every kilometre or so along the last 150 kilometres to the port of Basra. An important-looking black Mercedes I saw roaring down the highway was guarded front and back by a pickup truck of armed guards, including one on the back in a green hood manning a heavy machine gun.
Most of the people in this southern part of Iraq are Shi'ite Muslims, often alienated from the Sunni-dominated government in Baghdad. They rose in revolt after a US-led coalition defeated Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War, but the Americans did nothing to help them and Saddam Hussein's surviving Republican Guard troops pulverised them back into submission.
The remnants of the rebels took refuge in the marshlands west of the southern highway. My Information Ministry escort, Mohammed, said there were 'thieves and bandits' in the marshes and it was too dangerous to drive through. We didn't try.
And yes, the Kurds in the northern third of Iraq have effectively broken away from central government control, helped by a 'no-fly zone' enforced by Western aircraft and a bevy of US intelligence agents. One of the two main Kurdish factions invited Iraqi government troops into the area last year to help in a power struggle but they later withdrew.
But the bulk of Iraq is so tightly zipped up that there isn't any need for the regime to display its firepower. Saddam Hussein's government runs nine interlocking and overlapping civilian and military intelligence agencies employing 30,000 people. With a minimum of public fuss, they arrest, torture, imprison and, if necessary, kill anyone even suspected of criticising the regime. A single careless comment is enough to wreck your life.
Visiting foreigners get off lightly. I remember two American TV journalists who were arrested at the site of Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor after it was bombed by the Israeli air force in 1981. They were held for 10 days in underground cells, interrogated blindfolded for hours at a time in a room that smelt like a dentist's, and then released. Journalists are bugged, monitored, followed and occasionally harassed.
Iraqi nationals get the full works. The United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Iraq reported this month that he believed 1,500 Iraqis had been executed in the last year. Nobody is too important to be killed out of hand. When Saddam Hussein's two brothers-in-law defected to Jordan in 1995 and later returned after being promised an amnesty, they were shot dead.
The result is a remarkably relaxed atmosphere because most Iraqis simply don't mention politics at all. In two weeks in Iraq, the only person who volunteered any sort of political comments to me was my Information Ministry escort.
Other people didn't even try to push a propaganda line. Hospital doctors and oil engineers talked about UN sanctions as if they were an impersonal force of nature that just had to be coped with, rather than a deliberate policy chosen by the United States and its Western allies.
When I did manage to talk to a few Iraqis freely in private, they blamed their current miseries at least as much on the United States as on their own government. They said America was using an endless programme of UN weapons inspections to justify maintaining sanctions which have beggared and half-starved much of the population.
One intellectual put it particularly clearly. "With the technology they've got, in seven years they could have inspected the entire planet," he said. "America has exploited the situation for its own reasons."
"There is a double standard. Israel has nuclear weapons and there is no doubt it would use them if it came under threat. America does nothing. No country can go from nothing to such strength in 40 or 50 years unless it is an artificial creation of a great power. There have been UN resolutions about Israel for 30 years. Not one has been implemented," the intellectual said.
He added: "The West should bring Iraq back into the international community. When you isolate someone, he's bound to become disturbed and bitter. It's possible for countries to fight a war and then have normal relations... It's not in the interests of the West that there are people in Iraq who don't have money to buy food or medicine or clothes for their children."
Maybe in the climate-controlled corridors of the State Department in Washington, Saddam Hussein looks like a dictator so hated by his people that if America keeps up the pressure long enough, someone will overthrow him.
In Iraq, that looks laughable. Saddam's security apparatus has defeated every threat to his power for 30 years. And even if Saddam were overthrown, who's to say his successor would be any more sympathetic towards the West?
The Americans haven't got a strategy, they've got a lottery ticket.