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voices in the storm: at the brink of war

listen to at the brink of war
And now the first in a special series of Flashbacks to mark the fifth anniversary of the Gulf War.

Guy Smith presents 'Voices in the Storm'--the inside story of the crisis told by those who were there.

Actuality
George Bush
Just two hours ago, allied air force began an attack on military targets in Iraq and Kuwait.

Three, two, one. [sound of firing and bombs and people screaming]

Norman Schwarzkopf
'I'm now going to show you a picture of the luckiest man in Iraq.

Woman
Why? We are human, like you. Why? [chanting, singing]

Soldiers
One, two, three, four, United States Marine corps, hurrah, hurrah...

George Bush
Tonight, a battle has been joined.

Narrator
Five years ago, the storm clouds of war were gathering over the Gulf. President Saddam Hussein said it would be the 'mother of all batttles.' A million soldiers prepared to fight in the desert. On one side, Iraq, which five months earlier had in vaded its neighbor Kuwait. And on the other, the American led coalition with the United Nations mandate to throw them out. Despite sanctions and immense international pressure, Saddam had refused to back down. But now, at the very brink of wa r, there was one last chance for peace.

[Music]


Narrator
A week before the United Nations deadline for the withdrawal of Iraq from Kuwait, President Bush's envoy, James Baker, was to meet face to face with President Hussein's closest adviser, Tariq Aziz. The meeting was to take place on neutral territo ry at a hotel in Geneva on 9th January 1991. If full scale war was to be averted, this is where the diplomatic solution to the crisis had to be found.

Actuality
Tariq Aziz
I have come, in good faith. I am open-minded, and I am ready to conduct positive, constructive talks with Secretary Baker, if he shows the same intention.

Narrator
The historic confrontaton was to take place at a distinctly unmemorable location--a conference room at the Intercontinental Hotel. Baker's assistant Secretary of State, John Kelly.

John Kelly
Well, this was a typical hotel conference room. Rather featureless, no decor. A long table with seven or eight seats on each side. Um. We filled up one side, the Iraqis filled another.

Narrator
Nothing was left to chance. Under Secretary of State Bob Kimmit saw to that.

Bob Kimmit
Before we went into the meeting with Tariq Aziz, we had discussed, not just important substantive points, but important public relations points too. And most specifically, what would Baker do if the press asked him to shake hands with Tariq Aziz . Our decision, and what eventually took place, was that the Secretary would shake hands in a very business-like fashion and then sit down and be prepared to get right to work.
Actuality
[Press conference] Thank you everyone.

Bob Kimmit
There was a press line set up. That handshake did take place. The world of course, has seen the photo. It took about five seconds. We sat down, the press filed out, and the meeting began.

Narrator
James Baker started the meeting by saying he had brought a letter from his President to the President of Iraq.

James Baker
I said, "I would like to begin the meeting by giving you this letter." He said, "Do you have a copy of it that I can read?" And I said, "Yes. I do."

Tariq Aziz
And he gave me the letter. I took the letter, from him and I read it. I read it very carefully.

John Kelly
And, Tariq Aziz probably took ten or fifteen minutes in going throught he letter very, very carefully. I remember a few times he stopped and underlined passages in the letter. He was reading silently to himself. No other memeber of the Iraqi del egation was looking over his shoulder. I remember, although he's a tremendously accomplished diplomat, the tension was visible in Tariq Aziz. His hands trembled slightly as he held the letter. I remember seeing a small touch of perspiration r unning down his temple.

[Music]


Tariq Aziz
And then when I, I ended reading it, I told him, "Look, Mr. Secretary, this is not the kind of correspondence between, er, two heads of state. This is a letter of threat, and I cannot receive from you a letter of threat to my President.' And I returned it to him.


John Kelly
Mr. Baker responded, saying the language is strong, indeed, but it is not impolite. It conveys an important message to your President, and I urge you to take this letter back to Baghdad and to give it to your President. And Tariq Aziz, said, "N o, I won't do that, I can't do that. It's not appropriate language." And Mr. Baker said to Tariq Aziz...

James Baker
And I said, "Well, Minister, it seems to me you've taken a rather large burden on your shoulddfs since you're the only person on your side of the table, who has read the letger. " And it was at that point that several of my er, aides there in t he meeting said they seemed to think, seemed to see his hands tremble, a little bit.

[Music]


John Kelly
The envelope, the sealed envelope, lay in the middle of the table, between Tariq Aziz and Jim Baker, the entire day. Throughout the negotiatiiong session. When we broke briefly at midday, security guards were maintaining the integrity of the roo m, so the letter was not touched. It just lay there. Until the evening when it was near 6p.m., when we'd finished seven hours or so of terribly intense talks. As, as we broke up, both sides rose from the table and Mr. Baker sort of turned half way back, towards Tariq Aziz across the table, and said, "Are you certain you wouldn't like to take the letter with you?" And Tariq Aziz said, "No, I, I won't take it." And, and Mr. Baker then picked it up and, and carried it back to his room, with him.

Narrator
The letter, which Tariq Aziz, perhaps not wanting to be the bearer of bad news, refused to take back to Baghdad, contained a thinly veiled threat to the Iraqis.

James Baker
The President's letter to Saddam Hussein, er, in effect said that, er, that they better not consider using, er, weapons opf mass destruction against our forces or the American people would demand vengeance. And we had the means to, er, to obtai n it.

Narrator
But Tariq Aziz remained defiant.

Tariq Aziz
My response was very cool. I told him, "Mr. Secertary, Iraq is a very ancient nation. We lived for, er, six thousand years, I have no doubt that you are a very powerful nation. I have no doubt that you have a very strong military machine and you will inflict on us, heavy losses. But Iraq will survive. And this leadership will decide the future of Iraq.

Narrator
As the talks continued and the world waited for news, rumors began to spread through the hundreds of journalists downstairs, that progress was being made.But upstairs, behind closed doors, the sides were now trading threats and counter threats.< P>

Tariq Aziz
He said another leadership is going to decide Iraq. I told him, you are wrong. In this region, in our region, when a leadership fights against Americans, it politically survives. And remember what happened to Nasser when he was defeated in 1967, he resigned and then the, the people, the masses returned him to power.

John Kelly
Mr. Baker explained the fact , that the coalition possessed overwhelming military super, superiority and technological superiority. So that, if it came to a war, the Iraqis would not be able to prevail. Tariq Aziz disagreed with tha t conclusion and said that we Americans, had never fought in the desert. We had never been on horseback in the desert. We didn't know the conditions of the desert. And that our soldiers would not be able to fight. And he said, that although th e war would be long and difficult for Iraq, in the end they would prevail.

[Music]


Narrator
After anout six hours of talking, it was clear that both sides remained entrenched and there was little more to say. James Baker started to wrap up the meeting.

James Baker
I said, "Minister, I don't want tho cut his off prematurely, I said. But I have said everything that, er, that I have to say and everything that er, the I think is important to say. And if you have anything further to offer, then we'll, I'll sta y here as long as you want to. And he concluded, he finally said, we don't have anything. I don't have anything furhter to say. And so we adjourned the meeting. And er, and er, he said something about. I had the feeling that er, that er, he was sort of resigned tto er, what was going to happen.

Tariq Aziz
I told him in this area, all monolithic religions appear--Judaism, Christianity and Islam. And the people of this region are real believers in God. They believe in fatality, you see. They believe that when there is faste, you have to face it.



[Music]


James Baker
And er, he, we shook hands at the end. In fact, I think most of our, each delegation shook hands and, and I was certain at the time, that we would be going to war. And going to war very, very, soon.

[Music]


John Kelly
We filed out one door, they filed out another. We then went back up to the Secertary's set of rooms in the hotel. He made a call back to the White House and gave a report on the meeting. And then we sat down to figure out what his opening line a nd opening statement should be. And to prepare him for the various questions and answers that we thought would come during the course of probably the most watched press conference in quite some time.

Actuality
James Baker
The message that I conveyed from President Bush and our coalition partners was that Iraq must either comply with the will of the international community and withdraw peacefully from Kuwait, or be expelled by force. Regrettably ladies and gentlem an, I heard nothing today that, in over six hours, I heard nothing that suggested to me, any Iraqi flexibility whatsoever.

And someone told me afterwards that the first word I used was 'regrettably' and when I said 'regrettably' tthere was a, that there was a, a tremendous amount of market activity in the various markets around the world, world markets and stock mar kets and so forth. And everybody concluded just from that one word, that, that things were nort going to work out politically that we probably would end up er, at war in the Persian Gulf.

Narrator
After James Baker, it was the turn of Tarqi Aziz to give his account of the meeting.

Actuality
Tariq Aziz
We are very well aware of the situation. We have been very well aware of the situation from the very beginning. And I don't ...

Narrator
Nowhere was the television coverage of the Geneva summitt being watched more closely, than in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where General Norman Schwarzkopf was reviewing the last details of his plans to send six hundred thousand troops into battle to liberate Kuwait.

Norman Schwarzkopf
Well it was very late at night in, in, in Riyadh, but I realized that this was, you know, this wa going to determine whether we went to war or not. And then Tariq Aziz came out and talked for, it seemed like for ever, and never mentioned one wo rd about Kuwait. At that point, I realized we were going to war. So, so you have this, this, you know, you're torn by two ends. Number one you are going thorugh detailed preparations to make sure you do, do it right and you do prevail. And at the same time, another part of you is saying, you know, gosh, it would really be nice if somehow this could all be brought about to a necessary conclusion without the need to go to war. It, it meant plain and simply, that we were going to war. T hat people were going to die.

[Music]


Narrator
Straight after his press conference, Tariq Aziz returned to Baghdad, without the letter. As he went to brief his President, he too had few illusions about what the coming days held in store for Iraq.

[Music]


Tariq Aziz
We were expecting a war. I, I tell you frankly and responsibly, we were expecting an Israeli aggression or an American aggression, or both, during that period, regardless of what we do. Margaret Thatcher and George Bush spoke about dismantling Iraq's military power, even if Iraq withdraws from Kuwait. So what does that mean? It means some sort of a war. With or without Kuwait. Damned if you do it, damned if you don't.

[Sirens]


Narrator
Seven nights later, war began.

[Sirens]


Narrator
Five years on from that fateful meeting in Geneva, Secretary of State James Baker is out of office, as is President George Bush. The other two world leaders who also played a crucial role in building the allied coalition, which went on to fight the Gulf War, Margaret Thatcher and Mikhail Gorbachev, have also fallen from power. And Tariq Aziz, as Deputy Prime Minister of Iraq, he continues to be the closest adviser to Saddam Hussein.


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