The Survival of Saddam
secrets of his life and leadership
an interview with said k. aburish
A journalist and author of numerous books, including the latest, Saddam Hussein: The Politics of Revenge, he also was a consultant for this FRONTLINE report.  For several years he worked closely with Saddam's government in posts which gave him the chance for unusually close access to Saddam Hussein himself.  Beginning in the mid-seventies, he was a go-between for Western arms manufacturers doing business with Iraq, and he was part of Saddam's secret plan to acquire chemical weapons and an atomic bomb.
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Why did you decide to spend so many years writing this book about Saddam Hussein?

photo of said k. aburish Saddam Hussein is the most methodical Arab leader of the 20th century. He's organized. He's a daydreamer. And also, he had the following. He was popular. But Saddam Hussein is a planner. And he has affected the Middle East so considerably that we need to understand him.

What insights can you give us into understanding him?

Well, the first thing to remember is that Saddam Hussein spent 20 years creating a personality, an image for himself. And since the Gulf War, his opponents have done the same -- created a completely different personality, of course. So you have to sift through what Saddam created and what his opponents created to reach the real person. The real person has no ideology whatsoever. That is the most important thing to remember about Saddam Hussein. Saddam Hussein is into realpolitik. He wanted to take Iraq into the 20th century. But if that meant eliminating 50 percent of the population of Iraq, he was willing to do it.

And he had to be the one in charge?

Without any doubt. You know during the war with Iran, I remember telling someone Khomeini isn't the only person who talks to God. Saddam Hussein thinks he talks to God. He has a message -- he has to lead Iraq, make it a model for the Arab countries and then attract the rest of the Arab countries and become the sole Arab leader of modern times.

Extraordinary willpower?

Without any doubt. Considering his humble background, amazing willpower, amazing focus. Amazing ability to achieve his dreams. There is no stopping the man. He always has things in focus. He never misses a beat. In terms of what the country's all about, and in terms of where his country fits in the whole world.

One of the re-occurring things in your book is the idea that he's imposed Stalinism on a tribal society. What do you actually mean by that?

Saddam Hussein borrowed from Stalinism. He had his security people trained in Eastern Europe, particularly East Germany. Then he brought them back to Iraq and he taught them how to use the tribal linkage to eliminate people. So whereas they used Stalinist methods to discover people who were opposed to the regime, after that came the tribal factor, when Saddam said "Don't get rid of Abdullah, get rid of his whole family, because one member of his family might assassinate us." And that made it a perfect system for Iraq. It is practically foolproof.

Do we know whether or not Saddam has actually studied Stalin's tactics?

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that Saddam studied Stalin. Stalin is his hero. Stalin came from a humble background. Stalin was brought up by his mother. Stalin used thugs. Stalin used the security service. Stalin hated his army. And so does Saddam Hussein. Saddam Hussein models himself after Stalin more than any other man in history.

He has a full library of books about Stalin. He reads about him, and when he was a young man -- even before he attained any measure of power -- he used to wander around the offices of the Ba'ath Party telling people "Wait until I take over this country. I will make a Stalinist state out of it yet." People used to laugh him off. They shouldn't have. It was a very serious proposition indeed.

Briefly, what is his background?

He was from a very poor family, in a village called Al Awja, which is next to the town of Tikrit. As a young boy he had to steal so his family could eat. He stole eggs, and he stole chicken, things like that. He was illiterate until the age of 10. He heard that his cousin could read and write and demanded that he be afforded the same opportunity.

He is above all an organizer, in a part of the world which hasn't seen much of that.  And this is why he--to use a word that doesn't fit him--actually shines when you compare him with other Arab Leaders After that he became a gunman, a thug for the Ba'ath Party and he participated in the assassination attempt on the country's strong man, Gen. Kassem, in 1959. Then he went into exile in Cairo. Came back after the Ba'ath took power and proceeded to organize the party and give it supremacy over the army, which was a very important development.

Whatever Saddam Hussein is he is above all an organizer, in a part of the world which hasn't seen much of that. And this is why he -- to use a word that does not fit him -- he actually shines when you compare him with other Arab leaders.

For people who don't understand Iraq, how important are family and tribal connections in that society?

Family and tribal connections are supreme. They come ahead of ideology. They come ahead of commitment to the nation-state, they come ahead of all commitments. Saddam Hussein realizes that. This is why, at a certain point, he transferred power from the Ba'ath Party, which put him in power, to his family, because he decided that the family can be trusted, but the party cannot be trusted.

He weakened the party and strengthened the family, and that is the situation in the country now. His second son is the head of the dreaded security system. His first son, who was a psychopath, runs all types of committees in the country. His brother is on the security system, his cousins are in key positions in the army. The people who come from Al Awja are in other positions in the army. The people who come from Tikrit, the town near Al Awja, are in other positions. It's a pyramid of relationships, tribal and familial. And this is what he depends on. And, those people are loyal to him, because they believe that if Saddam goes, they will go as well.

During the time of that assassination attempt in 1959, when Saddam first leaves the country and goes to Damascus, goes to Cairo, what was the great game being played in the Middle East at that time?

The great game played in the Middle East in 1959 was Arab nationalism under Nasser. Nasser wanted to unite the Arab countries into one great one, capable of being completely independent. Most of the Western powers were opposed to that. The Ba'ath Party, to which Saddam belonged, believed in Arab unity as well. The man who ran Iraq, the man Saddam tried to assassinate, Gen. Abdel Karim Kassem, did not believe in that. And this is why Saddam and his crew tried to kill him. And that is also why once Saddam escaped after the assassination attempt, he found refuge in Cairo, under Nasser's patronage. That was the situation: The Arabs trying to unite; the West, the United States and Britain in particular, were opposed to this unity.

While he was in Cairo, there's some belief that he may have had contact with Americans, with the CIA. What can you tell us about that?

There is very good reason to believe that Saddam Hussein was in contact with the American embassy in Cairo when he was in exile. This is not strange, because alliances of convenience were taking place every day, and the United States was afraid that Iraq, under Kassem, might be going communist. So was the Ba'ath Party. So they had a common enemy, a common target -- the possibility of a communist take-over of Iraq.

So there is a record of Saddam visiting the American embassy frequently, and there is a record of the Egyptian security people telling him not to do that. However, one must remember that at that time, Saddam was a minor official of the Ba'ath Party. He was not terribly important. And he was really following in the footsteps of other people who are much more important.

And what would be the idea behind all this?

The visits to the American embassy by Saddam Hussein and other members of the Ba'ath Party had one purpose, and one purpose only: to cooperate with the Americans towards the overthrow of General Kassem in Iraq. Kassem was slightly pro-communist and the Americans wanted to get rid of that danger. Allen Dulles described Iraq as the most dangerous part of the earth in front of a congressional committee. The Ba'ath thought Kassem was their enemy, so there was a mutuality there. And whether a conspiracy transpired or not, the evidence is actually in favor of it having taken place. But the conspiracy was for the duration of getting rid of Kassem. It was not an alliance of permanent nature.

There was a coup in Iraq in 1963. What do we know about the U.S. involvement in that coup?

The U.S. involvement in the coup against Kassem in Iraq in 1963 was substantial. There is evidence that CIA agents were in touch with army officers who were involved in the coup. There is evidence that an electronic command center was set up in Kuwait to guide the forces who were fighting Kassem. There is evidence that they supplied the conspirators with lists of people who had to be eliminated immediately in order to ensure success. The relationship between the Americans and the Ba'ath Party at that moment in time was very close indeed. And that continued for some time after the coup. And there was an exchange of information between the two sides. For example it was one of the first times that the United States was able to get certain models of Mig fighters and certain tanks made in the Soviet Union. That was the bribe. That was what the Ba'ath had to offer the United States in return for their help in eliminating Kassem.

Do we know to what extent Saddam Hussein was involved in the killings when he came back from Cairo?

I have documented over 700 people who were eliminated, mostly on an individual basis, after the 1963 coup. And they were eliminated based on lists supplied by the CIA to the Ba'ath Party. So the CIA and the Ba'ath were in the business of eliminating communists and leftists who were dangerous to the Ba'ath's takeover.

The coup took place in April, Saddam Hussein did not return to Iraq until May. But he went to work immediately. He became an interrogator in the Fellaheen and Muthaqafeen detention camps. They are camps where they kept communists and fellow travellers, after they took power. And in interrogating people in those camps, he used torture, and undoubtedly like everybody else involved in this activity, eliminated people. In 1963 he was still one of the party's toughs, one of the party's thugs, if you wish.

Jumping forward a few years to 1967 and the Arab-Israeli conflict, we've heard that the Soviets then looked to Baghdad in terms of gaining influence in the Middle East. And the Ba'ath Party also wants to get back into power. Describe in the run-up to the 1968 coup, the Cold War dynamics of what was going on in the Middle East, and in particular Iraq, and how the Ba'ath Party was able to use those dynamics to help them get back into power.

In 1968, Iraq had a weak president who was beholden to Nasser, a follower of Nasser. But the defeat of [the Arabs by Israel] in 1967 meant that whatever government was in power when that defeat took place had to go. So the Ba'ath saw an opportunity in this and they thought the time has come for them to take over the country again. The background was extremely interesting. There were two things happening within Iraq at that time. They were developing their own oil and very close to giving the concessions for huge new oil fields, to the USSR and France. And the price of sulpher had shot up so greatly that they were about to mine the sulpher mines in the north and sell it in the world market.

The United States didn't want either to happen. The United States wanted the oil for American oil companies; they wanted the sulpher for themselves. They thought that if Iraq went to the Soviet Union or France, Iraq would be lost to them. In this they were joined by the Ba'ath Party. The Party used the concessions for oil and sulpher as a bargaining point to endear itself once again to America. And they arrived once again at some kind of an agreement of collaboration between the two sides. On the American side negotiating for both the oil and sulpher was a well-known personality, Robert Anderson, the former secretary of treasury under Eisenhower. He met secretly with the Ba'ath and they agreed that if they took over power these concessions will be given to the United States.

And so once again the United States was in the business of supporting the Ba'ath office for the government of Iraq. The Ba'ath was successful. This time Saddam Hussein played a key role. He was one of the people who donned a military uniform -- though he's not a military man -- and attacked the presidential palace and occupied it. The president, being weak, surrendered immediately. Two weeks after they took over power on the 17th of July 1968, there was what they call "the correction movement." That meant getting rid of the non-Ba'ath elements in the coup, and Saddam was prominent in that. As a matter of fact he held a gun to the head of the prime minister and said, "You're going with me to the airport because you're leaving this country." And the guy pleaded with him, said, "I have family, I have a wife and kids." And Saddam said, "Well as long as you behave, they'll be fine." He took him to the airport, he put him in a plane, he deported him, and of course years after, he assassinated him in front of the Intercontinental Hotel in London. The man couldn't escape him in the long run.

However, the communists are hardly thrown out and not long after, they turn to Saddam, and he personally leads a delegation to Moscow, and there's a development of a relationship between the two. What game was he playing?

Well, alliances of convenience don't last very long. The Ba'ath Party was committed to certain things which American foreign policy could not tolerate. In this particular case it lasted a very short time, really a matter of two weeks. And Saddam got rid of all of the pro-American elements in the government and he asserted his authority on the country. He was not the president. He was the second man, after a relation of his from Tikrit, President Ahmed Bakr. But what happened immediately after that is the things they needed, they couldn't get from the United States anymore. They needed help economically. They needed arms. And the United States were not in the business of openly supplying arms to Arab countries to re-equip themselves for another round of fighting. That was the major issue between the two sides. Saddam knew he could get the arms from Russia and he journeyed to Russia -- this was his first trip outside Iraq, outside of exile of course -- and he got what he wanted. And the alliance of convenience disintegrated as they always do.

So, there was a new alliance, this time with the Soviets.

In 1972, Iraq and the Soviet Union signed a treaty of friendship and cooperation. They wanted to seal the cooperation taking place between them in a formal alliance. The reason Saddam signed that treaty of friendship and cooperation was because that obligated the local communist party, which was very strong, to cooperate with the Ba'ath Party, which was not so strong at that time.

Of course the Russians loved an opportunity to have a hold on Iraq and they signed the treaty and told the local communist party to join the Iraqi government. That alliance internally did not last very long. But the external one was on and off for a very long time. And the Soviet Union at one point thought Iraq was a more important ally than Egypt. Its army always acquitted itself better than the Egyptian army. It was a wealthy country that didn't need a lot of aid, like Egypt. And it was the gateway to the Gulf, to oil. It represented a more immediate threat to the West's lifeline than Egypt did.

So Saddam in the early '70s is Iraq's vice president. Could you describe how he's already setting up a Stalinist system with control of the government.

In the early '70s, Saddam started out controlling one small department called the Peasants Department; at that time the Ba'ath regime, for a very brief period of time, was committed to installing a democratic system in Iraq. It was a bit of a dream. Came the time for them to assign the job of head of the security system, and no one from the inner circle wanted the job. Everybody says, "This is a dirty job. I don't want it." Young Saddam Hussein raised his hand, and said, "I want the job. I'll take over the security system."

He took over the security system, called it the Department of General Relations and proceeded to expand it. This was his first step towards attaining power.

The president at the time, Ahmed Bakr had been a general, and a very nice man. Quite a religious man too. Saddam was a relation of his. He surrendered everything to Saddam, because Saddam worked an 18-hour day. In no time at all, Saddam was head of security, he was head of the Peasants Department, he was head of relations with the Kurds, he was head of the committee that controlled the oil. He was head of the committee that controlled relations with the Arab countries. He was head of the workers syndicate.

There was a conflict between all these departments that Saddam controlled so tightly and the armed forces -- because the armed forces is the one organization capable of overthrowing government. Saddam proceeded to emasculate the army and place his professional soldier relations from Tikrit in key positions. For example, his brother-in-law became chief of staff of the army. And of course soon enough, like all people who are dictators, who are jealous of the army, he appointed himself general and eventually like Stalin he became field marshal.

So much of what you just described certainly has Stalinist overtones.

Without any doubt everything Saddam did had Stalinist overtones. In particular, the reliance on the security system rather than the armed forces, the jealousy of the generals in the armed forces, the use of criminal elements within the country, and, incorporating them into the security system. And those people were sort of semi-literate thugs whose loyalty was to Saddam, without whom, they were nothing. And so he brought them in, he depended on them, and they did him service. Anybody he wanted to get rid of he got rid of. And the door was wide open.

He had two qualities that put him ahead of his colleagues. His ability to work an 18-hour day. Endlessly. And a sense of organization. You didn't see Saddam at three o'clock and miss that appointment by five minutes. Because Saddam would ask you why you are five minutes late, or five minutes early. If you had an appointment with Saddam at three, you showed up at three. That was that. He is that organized. He is that methodical.

And perhaps another comparison to Stalin is his relationship with Bakr and, Stalin's relationship with Lenin.

Without any doubt there are similarities in the careers of Stalin and Saddam. Among other things, the major one is Stalin played second fiddle to Lenin for a long time. And it was then Lenin became very suspicious of Stalin. Saddam did the same thing with Ahmed Hassan Bakr and towards the end, Ahmed Hassan Bakr became very suspicious of Saddam and wanted to get rid of him. But it was too late. By then Saddam was in control of the whole country. And Bakr was shoved aside and replaced. Saddam became president. That is one similarity.

The use of criminal elements is key in this. Both of them used them, both of them rotated the heads of the security system because they knew this was the system that controlled the country. So no one could stay in that position for a long time. The longest serving head of security was Saddam's half-brother who was there for eight years. And he eventually was moved into another job by Saddam because he became too powerful.

Let's talk about your own personal involvement in the early '70s. You mentioned Saddam wanted certain things from the Soviet Union, but perhaps he wasn't getting them. Arms -- he wasn't happy with what he was getting. He looked to the West and there was a directive that came out, asking if Iraq was working with the best companies. Could you tell us that story?

I became involved with the regime working through a Palestinian group which had set up a consulting company in Beirut. I worked with its successor, Arab Resources Management. And we were in the business of helping the Iraqis realize the huge economic development plans which came very fast as a result of the first oil shock in 1973. In 1976, I received this very short memorandum. It was not addressed to me, it was addressed to one of my colleagues in Beirut and it says -- addressing him by his first name -- "Are the best companies in the world working in Iraq? And if the answer is no, why not?"

So my colleague gave me this and he said, "You're a word man, answer him." Of course I prepared an answer, 12 pages long, not as short as his question. And I said basically no, the best companies in the world were not working in Iraq. The reasons were changes of priorities, bureaucracy, this that, many reasons. But the last reason was that they put politics ahead of competence. They awarded the contracts to companies on the basis of the country's political outlook, rather than because they're the best companies in the world.

The memorandum came back from Saddam saying "I agree with everything except this -- everyone in the world does this. But now, your job is to get me the best companies in the world to work in Iraq." And we proceeded to do that. And everybody wanted to work in Iraq. Iraq had oil. Iraq had a population unlike some of the sparsely populated oil producing countries. Iraq had first class technocrats. Iraq had a functioning bureaucracy and Iraq had the plans to develop their country. And he went into developing the country in a very big way.

Down-streaming the oil business came first. Reclaiming land for agriculture came after that. Building railroads, building roads. Mining phosphate, mining sulpher. Building even factories to make stone windows. Nothing escaped Saddam Hussein's attention. And he never forgot a thing. And he got the best companies in the world. We got them for him, and he worked with them, and he worked with them very very successfully. Iraq, soon enough, because of the pace of development in the country, needed labor and they imported 2 million Arab workers from other Arab countries. And through being generous to the Arab workers who came and worked without work permit, went on social security without needing it, and things like that, Saddam was making his first bid towards Arab leadership. That was his first move towards assuming the leadership of the Arab people. Through the workers who came to work in Iraq through during the heydays of OPEC.

Why were you working for the regime of Saddam?

There is a whole generation of people like me. We are about the same age as Saddam -- I'm two years older actually -- who believe that is where the Arab dream was -- in Iraq. Iraq had wealth, it had population, it had prospects, it had a strong army. They were not backward -- and I will use the word "backward" -- like some of the oil-producing countries. They offered us a future. And we took that chance. We were enamored with what Saddam was doing. Make no mistake about it. Anybody who tells you otherwise didn't know what Saddam was about. He's not telling the truth.

We knew Saddam was tough. But the balance was completely different then. He was also delivering. The Iraqi people were getting a great deal of things that they needed and wanted and he was popular. He eliminated people here and there. With time, as with all dictators, the balance switched. And all we saw of Saddam was elimination and very little benefit to the people.

You became aware that he was actually looking to acquire a nuclear capability for a bomb?

Saddam started a program to acquire unconventional weapons in 1974 when he was vice president. He formed a committee and called it the Committee for Strategic Development. It was a three-person committee with Saddam as chair. His brother-in-law and chief of staff of the Iraqi army, as a member, and his deputy, Adnan Hamdani, as another member. This committee operated secretly. Even the president didn't know what they were doing. They skimmed off 5 percent of the oil income and used it to acquire unconventional weapon. It was the only thing this committee was doing.

Now, to achieve his aim, he needed two things in Iraq. One, money. And there was a great deal of money -- we had the first oil shock and Iraq was getting more money than it was spending. So 5 percent of the oil income was a great deal of money. He had the money. Then, you needed the human factor -- the scientists and engineers -- and Iraq had a great many of them. But to show you Saddam's brilliance, he added to that by starting a repatriation program of Arab scientists and engineers from all over the world. And I mean Arab, not Iraqi. I'm talking about Egyptians, Palestinians, Moroccans, you name it. He brought them over and he integrated them into his program.

With these two things in place and the will to acquire unconventional weapons, there was only one way to stop Saddam. That would have been for the supplier countries who made the equipment, or made the atomic reactors, not to sell them. That did not happen. And to put it in the vernacular -- after that, he was off and running.

And you saw up close the willingness of some of these countries and companies to work with him and the willingness of their governments to approve these various exports?

Most of Saddam's requests to Western governments were positively received. If there was the occasional no by a government, he went to another place and he got what he wanted. There were no constraints on getting what he wanted. He got it in time. Time was the only limit to what Saddam was capable of achieving. He got blueprints to help make chemical warfare plans from the United States. Everybody accused the Europeans of that. It was actually an American company and writers in New York would supply him with this blueprints. The U.S. government knew about it.

He got offers for fighter bombers from both the U.K. and France. For helicopters, for an atomic reactor from France. For suits against atomic biological and chemical warfare from the U.K. All of these things took place. Nobody basically said no. Saddam was not stopped through any denial of equipment he needed. He was occasionally stopped through policy. But that didn't last long.

And what gave the whole program of acquiring unconventional weapons an impetus was in the 1970s. The main aim of the West was to pry Saddam away from Russia. And in order to do that, they were bribing him. They were giving him everything he wanted. In the 1980s, the reasons changed [for helping Saddam]. ... Khomeini appeared on the scene and the West decided that Saddam was the lesser of two evils. And they continued to support him and give him what he wanted. In this case, including credit.

The third phase of this relationship was immediately after the cessation of hostilities in the Iran-Iraq war, when Saddam seemingly came out victorious. All of a sudden he was sitting on top of a million-man tested army, unconventional weapons and he was broke, and restless. He became dangerous. He had to do something in order to survive. This was followed by a series of incidents which led to a crisis, the discovery of the supergun, the discovery of the atomic triggers, Saddam threatening the American fleet in the Gulf, things like that. And the whole thing, of course, culminated in his invasion of Kuwait and we know what followed that.

Regarding the building of weapons of mass destruction, when it came to an atomic weapon, why did you still believe that that was okay?

I don't think there was any Arab in the '70s who did not want Saddam Hussein to have an atomic weapon. They wanted him to have military parity. Israel had atomic weapons. The Arabs wanted an Arab country to have atomic weapons. Iraq was the head of the pack and therefore all Arabs supported Saddam Hussein. I have news for you: I don't think there are many Arabs at this moment in time -- you can exclude me out of this statement at this moment in time -- who do not want Saddam Hussein to have an atomic weapon now. They don't look at it as weapons of mass destruction. They look at it as transfer of technology. That the Arabs have done it, the Arabs have joined the modern world. That's the way they see it. And that pleases them. The fact that Saddam Hussein eliminates people, kills innocent men, uses a chemical weapon against his own people, is actually in a way secondary to this image. The Iraqi people are concerned with the latter. They suffer because of the latter. But the Arab people outside of Iraq do not suffer because Saddam Hussein eliminates people, because he doesn't eliminate them. He eliminates Iraqis.

So there is a division between the vision of Saddam Hussein that the Iraqis have and the vision of Saddam Hussein the rest of the Arabs have. To the rest of the Arabs, he is the man standing up to West. To the Iraqis, he is the man who dragged us into this state of misery. Unwillingly.

After the revolution Saddam was still vice president and in July of 1979, he makes a visit to Amman. And, at the same time, he meets with CIA agents there. What is he doing? And what are the consequences of this trip?

Before starting the war with Iran, Saddam Hussein went on a tour of several Arab countries. His first stop was Amman in Jordan. And there he had two things he did not have in other places: an indirect line to the Americans through King Hussein, who has always been a friend of America, and, the possibility of meeting three senior CIA agents who were there, not to spy on Jordan, but to use Jordan as a listening post for the rest of the Middle East.

There is absolutely no doubt that Saddam discussed his plans to invade Iran with King Hussein. There is considerable evidence that he discussed his plans to invade Iran with the CIA agents that King Hussein prevailed on him to meet with. After that he flew to Saudi Arabia and there is a record of him telling King Fahd that he is going to invade Iran, and then after that, I think he had a stop-over in Kuwait and he did the same thing. What the trips did was to guarantee him American support in invading Iran. Financial support from the oil producing countries after their invasion and a channel to buy arms.

One of the great unknowns or perhaps unthought of elements in the war between Iran and Iraq was the people who fronted for them in purchasing arms. Saddam had acceptable countries who fronted for him. Jordan bought arms for Saddam. Jordan is acceptable in the West. Egypt bought arms for Saddam. Egypt was acceptable. Saudi Arabia bought arms for Saddam. Saudi Arabia was acceptable. Iran did not have that advantage. Iran had Syria and Libya to front for it, and neither country was acceptable. So the flow of arms to Iraq was at the much higher scale. And they were more sophisticated stuff. They got more sophisticated pieces of armament than the Iranians. And this is why they prevailed in the end.

So you can look at this picture as having begun with this tour that Saddam took immediately before he invaded Iran. He was protecting his back with conservative regimes, with pro-West regimes. He was not protecting his back with the USSR. As a matter of fact the USSR cut off the flow of arms to Iraq once it invaded Iran and Saddam had to rely exclusively on Western armaments for three years until the USSR changed its mind and start selling him again. They saw that they were losing out in Iraq because the West was willing to give him everything he wanted.

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