The Survival of Saddam
an interview with said k. aburish
home
secrets
interviews
photos
video
readings
the kurds
continued

previous

It's hard for people to understand why somebody would go down and take a lot of the people with him, and use chemical weapons as a final act of vengeance. Why would Saddam do that?

Saddam doesn't want to use chemical weapons. But, if he knows he's going to go down, I am sure that he is capable of using them. You are not going to get Saddam Hussein alive. Saddam Hussein will only leave Iraq as a dead person. He won't go into exile in the Riviera. He's gone beyond that point. He knows that he is dead the moment his regime is over -- so why not punish them, why not punish them for doing this to me? He's always shaken the state to its roots when threatened. He's always taken his colleagues and executed them, at any hint of conspiracy or threat to the regime. He got rid of his brother, who was the head of security, over a family feud, and threatened the future of the state, because he could not tolerate being challenged. This would be the same kind of thing.

The son-in-law story -- that was also a key point at which Saddam lost King Hussein as an ally.

Jordan gave Saddam's sons-in-law and their families sanctuary, and they were releasing information to the United Nations and the United States. That did not endear King Hussein to Saddam. He saw it as an act of betrayal. But Saddam is very practical. He didn't make a fuss out of that. He didn't like it, and it was the end of a friendship with King Hussein. But economic relations and trade relations with Jordan continued. Of course, it is because they continued that he finally was able to entice his sons-in-law back to Iraq, where they eventually met their deaths.

How did that happen? For most people, it's just unbelievable that they would go back. He made phone calls, he guaranteed their safety...

Saddam told his sons-in-law that, if they came back to Iraq, they would be completely safe. They foolishly believed Saddam. So, as military officers, they donned their uniforms, and they went back to Iraq. The moment they entered Iraq, they were separated from their families. Their families were taken to Baghdad, and they were taken out of the city. Like Saddam, they are very tribal, so they surrounded themselves with bodyguards, not trusting him completely. Two days later, there was an attack on the house by members of the family, to avenge the family honor. So Saddam claimed that he kept his word, as the chief of the armed forces, as the president of Iraq, that he would do nothing to them. So, when it was finally done, the attack succeeded and they were captured and killed. Saddam said, "I didn't go back on my word. This happened according to tribal tradition. The family had to avenge itself. The family had to recover its honor." That's how he explained what he did to them.

What do we know about him promising his daughters that their husbands would not be...

We don't know a great deal about the messages that went back and forth between Saddam, his daughters and his sons-in-law. But they did definitely contain a guarantee that no harm would become them. The sons-in-law, of course, are dead now, murdered by other members of the family. The daughters are alive, but they have not been seen in public since. They're under lock and key, and I understand that he does not see them personally, because they, too, betrayed him. But even Saddam stops at a certain point, and I guess that point is not killing his own daughters.

After that, the big coup is uncovered. He then goes up to Irbil. It's as if he's getting revenge on people who betrayed him, and he goes to the north, and attacks the INC in August 1997.

He was invited to the north by one of the Kurdish factions. He has always maintained contact with the two leading Kurdish groups, the Kurdish Democratic Party, and the Popular Union of Kurdistan. He plays them against each other. Unfortunately for the Iraqi people, they accept help and money from Saddam. When it suits him, he supports one side, and when it suits him, he supports the other side. The United States has not been able to prevail on these two groups to come together, to end their feuding, and to unite against Saddam. The Kurds don't trust the United States a great deal, because historically, they have been let down several times, so they, themselves, are in the business of keeping an open door to Saddam to deceive them.

The Kurds in Northern Iraq receive money from the United States. At the same time, they receive money from Saddam, and they receive money from Iran. So they trade and smuggle goods and oil to Turkey, and make money out of that. Actually, they're in very good shape financially. Everybody is courting them, and paying them money, and they get part of the income of the oil-for-food program, so they're doing very well. The one thing they have not managed to do is to become an effective force against Saddam by uniting and confronting him, and by allowing other opposition groups to use Iraqi Kurdistan as a staging area for forays against Saddam. They have not allowed that to happen, because they accuse the United States of not being true to any plan calling for that.

I personally do not believe that at this time Saddam Hussein wants to reassert his control in Kurdistan, because if he does, all he is buying is trouble. The Kurds will be within Iraq, and they're the ones in the mountains, where his army is not that effective. The Kurds could cause him a lot of trouble. He is better off drawing a line between himself and the Kurds for the time being, and keeping them separate. Otherwise, he'd have to commit his armed forces. He would have a civil war on his hands. He would spend all the money and ammunition he has against them. The way it is now, he is capable of influencing what the Kurds do at any juncture.

But in August of 1996, he went into Irbil. I know he was invited up there. But, at the time, did he see that as a plan?

Saddam sees everything in very many ways, including a highly personal way. For him to go to Irbil in 1996 was a triumph, and it was a triumph against the United States. "I'm back north in my country, against your wishes. I am back because the Kurds invited me. I am back, and alive, in the city of Irbil that you have mentioned so often in your pronouncements about protecting the Kurds. I am here."

It was a huge ego trip for him, and of course he used it. And then, he pulls back from that, and he goes back to his original position. But he's made his point -- he challenged the United States successfully in the north. He showed them that they cannot rely on the Kurds. This is a very, very big point, because this is one of the two major groups actually capable of acting in concert to topple him, the Kurds in the north, and the Shias in the south. The people outside don't have any followers. These are the two groups that have followers within Iraq.

1998 is becoming much more confrontational in Kurdistan. Had he concluded that Kurdistan was never going to lead to the lifting of sanctions?

I think that, in 1997 and 1998, Saddam Hussein was handed a victory. UNSCOM was operating within Iraq, but the pronouncements coming out of Washington and London were completely different. The pronouncements were saying, sanctions will not be lifted unless Saddam Hussein is removed. He used that very successfully to challenge UNSCOM, to say, "Why should I cooperate with you to bring about my own downfall? There is nothing to be gained by cooperating with UNSCOM." He convinced his own people of that. He convinced the Arab people of that, and he convinced many people in the world of that. He practically convinced the French of that. You know the French spoke out, and said there is nothing in the U.N. resolutions about removing Saddam Hussein.

So the people who are speaking for the U.S. and the U.K. governments tripped themselves by openly advocating the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Through that, they undermined the U.N. inspectors, and allowed Saddam Hussein to ask for their withdrawal.

Let's talk some about the increasing complication with the U.N. By the late 1980s, 1990s, had Saddam concluded that working through UNSCOM was not going to lead to sanctions being lifted?

By the late 1990s, Saddam Hussein decided that cooperating with UNSCOM was not going to help him, that it was not going to lead to the sanctions being lifted, that it was the policymakers in Washington and London who would decide when the sanctions were to be lifted.

Then little things enabled him to ask for the withdrawal of UNSCOM. He had maintained all along that UNSCOM was full of spies, and all of a sudden some officers in UNSCOM go on television and say, "Yes, we were spying for the United States, yes, we were cooperating with Israel." Saddam Hussein must have been full of joy. He said, "Look at it. I was telling the truth. Get out of here. We will not allow Israeli spies to operate within Iraq. We will not allow CIA spies to operate within Iraq." Everybody suspected that there were some spies in UNSCOM. But the way it came out, it certainly enhanced his image, with his people, and with the Arab people overall. It considerably undermined the image of UNSCOM. UNSCOM was finished after it became clear that it had been infiltrated by all of these intelligence services. It had no credibility.

Did Saddam overplay his hand? In December 1998, right after the inspectors pulled out, he was hit very hard with Desert Fox.

Desert Fox and similar operations do not faze Saddam Hussein. He doesn't care. If you kill another hundred Iraqi soldiers, it's no skin off his nose. If you hit him directly, if you threaten to topple him, if you attack him in Baghdad, that is a completely different matter. But these attacks do not threaten to topple him. After he asked UNSCOM to leave, the Iraqi Liberation Act was passed, but that doesn't matter, either. That is formalizing something that has been taking place over time -- the United States was supporting the Iraqi opposition before that. They didn't call it the Iraqi Liberation Act, but it doesn't matter what you call it, if the end result is the same. It's the same group of people, and they haven't produced any results. Why should they produce results just because we call it the Iraqi Liberation Act? The Iraqi Liberation Act is to the credit of some U.S. senators for internal consumption. But in terms of what the United States government was doing towards Iraq, it changed absolutely nothing. Now they're claiming that the United States is willing to train some Iraqis in some kind of military establishments to eventually fight against Saddam.

And when you ask the Iraqi opposition, as I did recently, how many of your people are being trained right now, the answer was four. This is not serious. This is the way for the United States government to say, "We are complying with the articles of the Iraqi Liberation Act," without doing anything. Four people are not going to overthrow the Saddam regime.

Throughout 1999, there were continual air strikes against him. Do these attacks somehow serve a purpose for him?

Attacking does serve Saddam Hussein's purpose, because it shows he is standing up, he is resisting. He is still telling the people, "You cannot fly over my country." It gives him a psychological lift. It is psychological for the Iraqi people, to think, "There is a reason behind what is happening to us. It is because we have enemies, enemies who are attacking our military installations and denying us food, denying us medicine, and making our life miserable. It is the same group of people." So you identify one with the other, and you get mileage out of it, and he is doing that. Above all, this enhances Saddam's image with the Arab people. Saddam Hussein is now the only Arab leader who has a following outside his own country.

Saddam Hussein is very popular with the people in Jordan. Saddam Hussein is very popular with the Palestinian people. Saddam Hussein is very popular with the people in Syria. Saddam Hussein is very popular with college students in Cairo and other places in Egypt. Saddam Hussein is standing up to the West. He has survived for nine years. He is a hero. He is not winning. But the mere fact that he survives, that he continues, is enough to make him a hero. And people like it. They don't live under Saddam Hussein, so they don't suffer from his actions the way the Iraqi people suffer. All they see is the fact that he is standing up to the West, and they like that.

What happened to his dream that Iraq could be a modern secular advanced Arab country? Does he still have that dream? ...

If Saddam has any dreams to lead the Arabs, they're certainly on the back burner. His immediate purpose now is to survive -- he cannot think beyond that. But mere survival is a victory. His mere survival on a day-to-day basis is a victory, and now it is much more difficult to remove him than it was in 1991. In 1991, people could have marched to Baghdad, removed Saddam Hussein, and say, "This is the way we punish people who invade Kuwait." Now that is gone. You can't use that reason to go into Baghdad. Why haven't you used it for the past nine years? If you want to use it now, it doesn't make sense. Now it is simply a case of punishing an Arab leader and punishing an Arab country. The Arabs quarrel and kiss and make up. They believe in making up, they believe in forgetting and forgiving. They cannot understand that the West persists in punishing the Iraqi people because of Saddam Hussein. As far as most Arabs are concerned, this is over and done with. He's been punished enough. "Get out of the Middle East, stop punishing our brothers, Arab brothers, Muslim brothers. We love them. Leave us alone, please, and stop this business." And it has made the United States and Britain very unpopular in certain quarters.

What about the oil-for-food program?

Saddam saw an opportunity in November, 1998, when oil prices went up, to force the situation of the oil-for-food program -- he insists that the sanctions should be lifted immediately. And with the price of oil going up, he decided to withhold his oil. So the price of oil increased further, and it actually threatened Western economies in a small way. The oil price increase certainly contributes to inflation, and brings the whole issue of Iraqi oil, the relationship, and the sanctions to the fore again. Saddam wants this issue in the limelight. He wants people to discuss it. He wants the pope to discuss it. He wants the United Nations to discuss it. He wants the French and Russians and Chinese to discuss it. He is essentially saying that everyone in the world agrees that the sanctions should be lifted -- except the United States and Britain. And the more he dramatizes this, the more it is a subject for discussion, and the more people of the world are aware of it. He's a master tactician. It's a master stroke, make no mistake about it. The timing is absolutely perfect.

Most of this past year he's been lying pretty low and quiet. What has he been up to?

For the past year, Saddam has been consolidating his position. He has achieved a major victory in forcing the United Nations to withdraw from Iraq, and still being able to sell oil. He has used the income from oil to consolidate his position anew. There is only so much he can do if he decides everything that happens in Iraq. He may not show the strain publicly. But once in a while, we see on Baghdad television that he has lost a great deal of weight. That is another way of judging whether the strain is showing or not. Saddam has lost over 20 pounds. He's much thinner, and he doesn't move with the agility that he had in the past. He has a very bad back problem. So it is beginning to show. We don't know what he's up to. He's a tactician, not a strategist, and you can't read him way ahead of time. But he is a master tactician, waiting for an opportunity.

And, unfortunately, over the years we have provided him with opportunity after opportunity to actually undermine the work of the United Nations, and to score victories against the people who would like to see him removed. The Iraqi opposition's behavior has provided him with many victories, because they cannot unite, they cannot act in unison. They are ineffective, obviously divided, and not worthy of really serious support. The United States and Britain provided him with victories when they openly asked for his removal, and there is nothing in U.N. resolutions about that. Then the United Nations provided him with another victory, when it was discovered that most of the inspectors were indeed spies. He has used all of the opportunities effectively. No one would have thought five years ago that Saddam Hussein would be able to ask the United Nations to leave and to be exporting oil at the same time, and he's doing that.

What kind of thought process went into your own decision to remove yourself from that regime? Was it an easy decision? What kind of effect did it have on you personally?

Working with Saddam's regime was always a very difficult proposition, because I was not blind to what Saddam was. I knew what he was, but the balance was in his favor. He was still doing a great deal for Iraq, and indirectly, he was still doing a great deal for the Arab people. He was certainly moving towards obtaining military parity with Israel, which interested all the Arabs of my generation -- we wanted that to happen. In the early 1980s, the balance tipped in the other directions. His criminality increased, and his ability to deliver to the Iraqi people and to the Arab people decreased. He got them involved in a war with Iran, and the whole business of power went to his head -- the maxim of power corrupting, and absolute power corrupting absolutely. Eliminating people became more frequent, and imprisoning people became more frequent. The straw that broke the camel's back was when he started using chemical weapons almost indiscriminately. I could not condone that. I could not accept that. That really seriously tipped the scales against him.

And I thought whatever promise he represented was absolutely eroded by this criminality inherent in his person, and I could not work with him anymore.

Was it hard to break away?

It was very hard for me to break away because there was no other country in the Middle East that could encapsulate Arab hopes -- that was gone forever, unless one wanted to back Islamic fundamentalism. And I wasn't ready to do that. So on a national, Arab basis, it was very difficult for me to break away. And on a personal basis, it was also very difficult for me to break away, because I supplied television and cinema film to the Iraqi government, and they owed me a great deal of money. But the decision had to be made, and I made it. I just walked out overnight, and I've never been to Baghdad again.

Are you afraid of them?

Are you asking whether making this program or writing Saddam's biography endangers my life? If speaking out for the rights and dignity of the Iraqi people endangers my life, then perhaps it does. But what a way to go. Glory be.

When you see pictures of him today, and compare that to the man that you believed in, what do you think of him?

When I see Saddam today, and think of what he represented at the beginning, I wish I could issue a warning to people who overlook the mistakes of dictators because they think dictators can correct their own mistakes. Dictators don't get better with time, they get worse with time. We overlooked his mistakes because we thought he promised something. And with time, we discovered that his mistakes grew larger, and the promise became smaller and smaller.

What is the most likely way in which Saddam is going to go?

Saddam Hussein will go one way, and one way only -- violently -- either through a coup d'etat or an assassination. The circle around Saddam Hussein is becoming smaller and smaller. There are fewer people he trusts, and they're his family. But eventually the time will come where some officer, or a person, or an army unit, will be able to move against him and replace him. Saddam Hussein is not still president of Iraq because he's a popular man. Saddam Hussein is president because neither the United States, the U.K., the Iraqi opposition or anyone else has discovered an alternative to Saddam Hussein that is not worse than Saddam Hussein as far as Western interests are concerned. If the people within Iraq are led to believe that things will be better, that Iraq will not fragment or be colonized, that Iraq will be allowed to run its oil affairs by itself, that not too many people will be punished, killed or imprisoned after Saddam goes, then that will open the way for Saddam to be removed. There are not many people who are willing to die defending him anymore. That is a critical point that we forget.

The other thing we forget is the people outside calling for the United States to give them air cover and things like that to topple Saddam Hussein -- those people are really in the business of asking the United States to do their work for them. If they want to topple him, then they have to establish connections with people within who are near him, and who can remove him. And they're afraid to do that, because that undermines their leadership positions. But that has to be done. After that, it will become easy. He has to go, and he will go. When we will reach this point, it will be a short while after, and Saddam will be done.

Do you think that there are people close to Saddam who would like him out, and they made the calculation in their own minds that for some reason now, either they can't get close enough to him, or something stops them from removing him?

I have no doubt that there are people within the security system, the army, the government of Iraq, and all over Iraq who would like to see Saddam gone, and the situation of Iraq change. But these people have to be assured that they will not suffer for what they do. And we have failed to establish connection with the people inside Iraq who can reach Saddam. We are dealing with outsiders who live in London and Washington and other parts of Europe -- people who have no following within Iraq. We have to open the way for people within Iraq itself, people within the system itself, to remove Saddam Hussein. That, beside an act of God, is the only way to remove him.

But the actual act of removing him after that would not be very difficult. He does not have a popular base. He lives there by virtue of the Iraqi people's fear. Once that fear is removed, the Iraqi people will move against him, as they have in the past moved against other dictators successfully, even ones who were very, very closely protected by their followers.

The circle around Saddam Hussein has grown so small, and there are so few people he trusts, that there is the possibility of an implosion, of that circle becoming too small to run the country, and self-destructing. All you have to do is take out one component of that small circle, and that small circle stops working. Saddam has two sons and two or three other people, who are all relations. Each of them is assuming so much responsibility for what happens in the country. All you have to do, for instance is remove his younger son, Qussay, who is now in charge of security. If two security officers are able to replace Qussay, or remove him, or assassinate him, then the road is wide open to move against Saddam himself. No matter where he sleeps -- and he sleeps in different places every night -- it wouldn't protect him.

The ultimate irony is that he came to power and asserted his control by eliminating rivals and narrowing the people that he relies on. He's done this over the years. And now it's so small, and actually sort of disintegrating.

The group around Saddam is too small to maintain power for a long period of time. He needs to rely on more people, and I doubt whether he has other people he can rely on. I doubt he can trust anyone who is outside the immediate family, outside his sons and his first cousins, and this is an impossible situation. You cannot hold power for a very long period of time that way. Even Stalin had more people around him than Saddam Hussein has. No dictator has been so confined in modern times as Saddam is at this moment. And this will lead to some kind of implosion. The system is not big enough to hold the huge structure behind it: the nine different security organizations, the Republican Guard, the Special Republican Guard, the army, the air force, the various governmental departments, allocation of money, dealing with the Kurds, dealing with the Shias, dealing with the Arab countries. This is a very, very big government. It needs more than about six or seven people. The decision-maker is Saddam, and he's surrounded by a small number of people, six or seven people only, that's it.

The other people are spokesmen who we see on television every day. They have nothing to do with decision-making. There is a joke about Saddam turning to his deputy prime minister, and saying, "What time is it?" and the deputy prime minister says, "Whatever time you want." That is the way Saddam operates. You cannot hold a government together that way.

home · secrets of his life and leadership · interviews · photo album · readings · the kurds' story
join the discussion · synopsis · tapes & transcripts · press
FRONTLINE · wgbh · pbs online

Some Photographs Copyright FRONTLINE/Iraqi News Agency
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation

SUPPORT PROVIDED BY

RECENT STORIES

FRONTLINE on

ShopPBS