The Survival of Saddam
an interview with dr. makmoud othman
home
secrets
interviews
photos
video
readings
the kurds

Dr. Mahkmoud Othman former chief negotiator with Iraq for the Kurdish Democratic Party
What do you know about the possible extent of U.S. and Western involvement in the 1968 coup in Iraq?

I'm not very sure that there was so much involvement, but I am sure of one thing. We were in the mountains--the Kurdish leadership--with Barzani and others. ... And the coup happened. Before the coup and after the coup, we had tried very hard to have a relationship with the United States of America. ... But Americans never talked to us, officially. Neither before the coup, nor after the coup. ...

And we noticed that after the coup, the Americans were more negative towards our contacts. They were always talking that they don't want any problems with Iraq and they don't want any interference and--'this is a new regime, try to have a sort of settlement with these people.' So that's what we saw. ... So possibly that may be an indication.

photo of Dr. Mahkmoud Othman And ... our contacts even when we started with Americans in 1972 it started with CIA. It was secret. They were never, ready to make open contacts. Or political ones. It was on the CIA level and it was led by Helms who was the CIA chief at that time. And that started in 1972--only when the Iraqi regime started having a pact with Soviet Union. ... Then the Shah of Iran was moved by that. He was afraid. He told the Americans to try to make contacts to Barzani and so on. And Nixon and Kissinger agreed to make contacts with us, and that was only through CIA. And it was me and Idris Barzani--who is the son of Barzani, who has died now.

We went together. We were the first delegation to go to United States to make official, but secret, contacts. And we went to Langley, whatever they call it, and we met Helms. And somebody from State Department and somebody from Pentagon. But Helms was leading it and it was secret and the contact bases were in Tehran. And the minute the Shah said 'stop' in 1975, the contacts were all stopped.

When you went to Washington for those first meetings, were you optimistic?

We were happy about it really. Because it was a breakthrough. We thought maybe gradually with time, it will be better and expand more. And maybe because America came in, it must be an improvement. But America came in because the Shah told them to do so. And we are sure of that because, in 1975, we had the setback with the Algiers agreement between the Shah of Iran and Saddam Hussein. And they stopped helping us. The American contacts were so abruptly cut, you can never imagine. ... When the Shah said 'stop.' everything was stopped. That was not a nice way for a great power to deal with people like us.

And there is your story about the telegram that Henry Kissinger sent, after the contacts were stopped...

In March 1975, we were in Tehran with Barzani, we were a delegation. I was with him also. We came to Tehran the 28th of February to see the Shah. We were hearing some rumors about an agreement between Iran and Iraq and the Iranians told us, wait here, Shah has a visit in Algiers and when he comes back, he will see you. And he went there and signed the deal [with Iraq]. When we heard the deal from the radio, Barzani didn't believe it. Didn't believe we would be the victim, because he said United States is in the picture this time--it is different. Although he didn't believe in Iran, he thought if America is in it, so things must be different.

I think they [U.S.] strengthened this man and his regime.  They like this regime to be around.  Maybe they wanted to change Saddam in person, if possible, but not the regime. But the next day we heard that things were real different and everything was cut. Then Barzani--he was in shock, really--he wrote a telegraph to Kissinger ... saying, 'look this has happened to us, at least deal with this from a humanitarian point of view--we have a quarter of a million of refugees in Iran and it's a disaster. People are not happy to go back to Saddam Hussein.'

... The answer of Kissinger to it was that well, this is politics. There are no moral values in politics. And usually when two sides agree on something which is important, maybe a third side would suffer or whatever it is, and I am sorry to say this is not human rights, this is not a moral issue, this is politics.

And we were very much disappointed. I think maybe part of the thing was because we were a bit short-sighted in evaluating American policy. We didn't have much experience. And Barzani personally was very much disappointed and after that he went to America. He was you know ill. And then he died there also. Even when he went there, till he died, they didn't see him and they didn't care about it really.

Can you talk about your personal dealings with Saddam Hussein in 1970, negotiating the agreement. On a personal level, how would you describe him? And what were those negotiations actually like for you personally?

Well, I was leading the Kurdish delegation then, and he was leading the Iraqi delegation. At that time he was vice-president and dealing with the Kurdish file; usually they always put the Kurdish file to the vice-president to deal with it. And we had months of negotiations with Saddam. I saw him many many times, then, at that time. I think he's a clever tactician, or he was at least at that time. ... And he made a lot of tactics with the communists. Because he wanted to reach Soviet Union, he made pact with Soviet Union. And then, he just changed his policy. And then he made the front with the communists, against the Kurds.

Also for the Kurds, he knew that he couldn't end the movement through fighting, so he was thinking of trying to have a deal with the Kurds in a way that make the Kurds support his policies. And if he couldn't succeed in that, then he will try to fight the Kurds. Because at that time he had the pact with Soviet Union. They were giving a lot of arms to the Soviets, and the Soviets told us very frankly in 1973 when the last delegation came to see us, say if you have a war with Iraq, we will support Iraq all through it. Donít do that and try to be you know, co-operative. And I mean, theyíre, able to crush the Kurdish movement through cooperation with Soviet Union. Then he decided that he has no objection to making big concessions to Iran, to agree with Iran to encircle and destroy the Kurdish movement. ...

So all the tactics with the Soviet Union, with us, against us, with Iran, against Iraq--Saddam never had strategy for the Kurds except to either crush the Kurdish movement or contain it and make it support him as a leader. I view him as a clever man.

When you are sitting in a room with him, what is he like? Is he charismatic? Is he shy? What is your impression?

Well, he attracts attention. And he has a personality which sometimes deceives some people at the beginning because whatever points you put in, he agrees immediately. But he has something at the back of his mind. He has an end result. He wants to reach something so he agrees to this point that went so quickly and you think he is a very flexible and positive. But there's a plan behind it. You don't know what it is. So he has always a double policy really. One thing on the table, one thing under the table, so. And our experience with him, experience of all Iraqis,is that he could never be trusted, And whatever he says one thing, whatever he does is another thing. And he is a real killer. He is a very cruel man, a dangerous man. He has used chemical weapons, biological weapons.

You also have seen what he studied, his books. Can you give us an insight into his mind, into his thinking?

We have seen him many times and I have seen his library. And he had a lot of books about Stalin and the Stalin system and he liked it. And he actually liked the way Stalin was dealing, was making policies-- he was following the same tactic.

I mean, some people say Saddam is like Hitler. Much different, I think. Hitler fought people outside his country but Stalin--how he behaved in his own country against his own people and the opposition--there are a lot of similarities with Saddam.

What was it like for you, when you walked into that study and you saw these Stalin books?

I was amazed. And when we asked him about communism, reading all those books, he says 'But even Stalin, was he a Communist? Stalin used communist party as a tool to stay in power. To govern the country, to defend his country. And we have other tools.'

'It's not a matter of an ideology,' he says. 'A statesman usually uses an ideology here and there to stay in power, to govern the country.' So that is why he thought that Stalin was more a nationalist than a communist.

... At that time, in the 1970s, people were not much against Stalin as now. The Soviet Union was still there, the leftist ideas were in the area, but later on when he started killing people through poisoning, killings, chemical weapons, everything. ... You remember, [Saddam] was trying to deport the whole Kurdish people to the South. He did half of it. Then came the war with Kuwait and then the war with Iran. He couldn't finish it. And Stalin did the same. Stalin deported the whole Chechen people from one area to many areas. We saw gradually that we are dealing with a man, who's quite dangerous.

Did he give you an impression that he'd actually collected books on Stalin, and was actually studying his methods?

He didn't say 'I'm studying his method.' But he was fond of him as a good leader, a big, important leader. He wanted [to study] Second World War, and so forth. And he really looked to be imitating Stalin's ways of action.

... And he was benefiting at the same time from the Soviet bloc for his security plans against his own people. [For example] when he made this very evil plan to kill Barzani on the twenty ninth of September 1971. I was in the room with Barzani. He had the whole planning and training and everything help from East Germany. Because Saddam was the first country to recognize East Germany after the communist bloc and they were helping him, in security terms, which was very dangerous to Kurds and the Iraqi people.

Could you tell us that story, briefly, about Saddam's assassination attempt on Barzani?

There was some religious delegation who had come to see Barzani. ...

After several minutes, Barzani came in and sat there ... And they said 'we have come here to listen to you to see what you think.' And they brought offers of religious book for him as a present.

And he started to say thank you, when the man opposite him exploded. I mean, he became pieces, you know, in the room, and four people were killed in the same explosion. Two on his left side. Two on his right side. And somebody on the right side. Barzani was severely wounded, but was safe. Both of us. At that time the coffee man who was putting tea for that man who exploded, so apparently he has something, we saw later, he has a belt around his tummy, and they have told him this is a recorder... Apparently two drivers were outside the building. They had two cars. Security officers. It seems very devoted ones. They explo, I mean they put, you know what you call it electronic or something on the recorder there, and it exploded you know And the whole room was dark. Full of powder and the smoke, and we came out, when we came out we went in front of the door, the two drivers saw us. And they point and say look heís still alive, at Barzani. And they throw a hand grenade. This explosion of the grenade took place in front of us. One was killed, fourteen were wounded. I was safe, Bazani just had small rounded parts in his body which are not dangerous, which we took out later.

Jumping forward some years, the next contact you had with the U.S. was in the 1980s. You yourself were subject to the Iraqi chemical attack on the Kurds. And after that, there was the beginning of a small opening in America, with Congress. What kind of a response did you get then in Washington, after Saddam Hussein's chemical attack?

In 1986 I went to Washington as a representative of Kurdish movement. Couldn't see anybody. They had good relations with Saddam then. Saddam was at war with Khomeini and the U.S. thought the danger is Khomeini and they were supporting Saddam therefore.

... And of course in 1988, when I went again as a representative of the Kurdistan Front, which was the Front which was from the all Kurdish groups at that time, we had had chemical weapons attack in 1987-88, and I was myself a victim of chemical weapon. We didn't die, of course, but we had suffering. Even now my throat has some problem.

... We came to Washington and we tried to see anybody in State Department,or at the Iraqi desk, or at the human rights desk. To talk to them about our sufferings, especially the chemical weapons because it is prohibited internationally. So Saddam is doing something which is violating all international laws so they should at least stand for the international laws, if they don't stand for the Kurds.

And I remember I had some help also from Jonathan Randolph, from Jim Hoagland, from William Safire, from David Ottoway. These are great journalists in America. And they helped us really. And they also contacted the State Department for someone to see me. They promised me that they will see me first.

... And then after twenty four hours official phoned me in Washington. Saying well, 'look, I will see you, but you have to remember two points. One, we are not with violence, so if you want to change regime with violence, we will not support you. Second, we are not for the partition of Iraq. So you have to know that you are with Iraq unity.' And I told him on the phone, I said 'look, we have to use violence because the regime is killing us anyway, but still I haven't come here to ask you to support me for the violence. I am just coming here to talk about the suffering of Kurdish people, the chemical weapons, etc. a humanitarian plight for us. And secondly, we have asked for autonomy within Iraq. We haven't asked for partition, so it's okay, I could meet your conditions and come and see you.' He says okay.

After another twenty four hours he phoned me again. He says "look we have this Kurdish thing with Mr Schultz who was the Secretary of State. And I am sorry to tell you I cannot see you. Because in our policy on this, it may complicate things. We are trying to talk to Iraq through diplomatic channels about your issue, but if we see you, it might be counter-productive, for them it may be provocative.'

The explanation was nonsense. And I said okay if you don't see me then let the Iraqi desk come and see me. He say well this policy goes for all of us. I say well there are human-right section. You have a human-right section in your state department. And this is human-rights issue. We have been killed. I have been nearly killed myself and I want to come and tell the story. Won't you listen to people like us?

They contacted the head of human rights section in the State Department and they talked to him about the whole story. And he said 'well I will let you know.' He was positive himself. Then apparently when consulting again, with Mr. Schultz, that's when they said no. ... And nobody saw us. And I stayed there three months trying to see somebody. And they never saw anybody.

Francois Mitterand, then the French president, and some other world leaders asked for a summit in Paris, in January 1989, on prohibiting chemical weapons, and the main issue was Saddam. And we went there, to the Kurdish Institute in Paris. We tried just to talk to somebody in the conference about chemical weapons. Who are the victims? We are the victims, so listen to us. And we brought some of the people who were burned by chemical weapons and nobody allowed us in or listened to us. And the final result of the conference was not at all about Iraq. Nobody talked about Iraq at all. It was about Libya. As Libya is going to have chemical weapon factory. And they completely acquitted Saddam, and America had a big hand in that conference to acquit Saddam. And I have seen that personally.

After the Gulf War, the balance of power changed and suddenly America began trying to work with the Kurds. How would you describe that relationship in the 1990s? Do you think there was skepticism on the part of the Kurdish parties which America supported?

In general the Kurdish parties have had skepticism towards America. From 1946 ... then in 1975, when they have the setback and the U.S. supported Saddam, and so on. In 1988 as I told you, they didn't care about our issue. And later on they were co-operating with Turkey, with Iran, with Arabs. And of course all the while Kurds were becoming the victims.

In 1991 things changed, of course, and Saddam was becoming a danger to them [the U.S.]. So they started having a bit different position towards the Kurds. Also, because Kurds were an important element--they were the only armed strong opposition which

they have there on the ground. And they could challenge the government more than any other opposition in Iraq so they had to deal with it.

After the war I was again in Washington as a head of a Kurdish delegation led by Kurdistan Front. We were going there to see State Department again. Same old story. Something happened in-between, which was not so good, and it was a mistake, I think from the Kurdish side. They went into negotiation with Saddam while we were in America waiting for State Department to see us. The whole delegation was in Baghdad, Talabani and the others were ... kissing Saddam... It was a blot on our mission. And I think it was a mistake.

... We went to State Department again. This time we were received of course. And they told us, 'now look we have no policy to interfere in your country.' We told them, 'but people are by the millions running to the frontier, this is not a matter of policy, it is humanitarian tragedy. You have to do something about it. Six hundred thousand are staying on the frontier of Turkey.' And at that time it was snow and winter, people are dying, children are dying.

They say, 'no we can't interfere this is an old story you have with the Iraqis.' And we said, 'but, President Bush said in one of his speeches--we ask the Iraqi people to rise up and change their regime.' But you didn't let us change the leader, because you allowed him to use armed helicopters. So now we are his victims. He is running after us. We are running because people are afraid of chemical weapons again. And they said no--'this is an internal conflict.'

We went back to the hotel, disappointed with these people, and I told Mr. David Mark--'look, I have been in this building and in this room, 25 ago in 1966. And I am very sorry that there is still no change in American policy after 25 years.' And then in the evening we heard that President Bush ordered 8,000 marines to go to Iraq, Kurdistan, to bring back the refugees and create camps for them. Apparently it was because the Turkish president phoned Bush. He said, 'there are six hundred thousand Iraqi Kurds on my frontier. I am not ready to allow these people in. My Kurds are safe and we have no problem. We don't want these people to come into my country, because they will disturb the whole Kurdish situation. So please take them back to their country. If you don't, I will do it with my army.'

So George Bush had to do it. Because they didn't want the Turkish army to come in because of Arabs and whatever. And that's why it was done. They then created the safe haven and they started helping those refugees.

Final question. If you look at the whole history of the U.S. relationship with Iraq and with Saddam in particular and the Ba'ath Party, how would you sum it up?

I think they strengthened this man and his regime. They like this regime to be around. Maybe they wanted to change Saddam in person, if possible, but not the regime. ... They are not on good terms with Syria. And America doesn't like Iraq and Syria to be on good terms. And, they are not on good terms with Iran also. So they don't like Iran, Iraq, Syria, to be on good terms because there is a danger that they may make a front and Israel wouldn't like it, and so on.

That's why I think they like this regime to stay on. And they always threaten the world countries with Saddam and his regime--they have sold their arms to the Gulf States. And I don't know why the Gulf States need arms. Against who? The factories are working for them, the U.S., just because they're afraid. They say they [Iraq] threatens Kuwait and the others. So I think American policy is that they like this regime to stay on, but definitely, they are fed up with the person of Saddam who is difficult to deal with him.

They would like to change Saddam. Of course they have a hope of that. But I don't think they have any plan to change Saddam. I think they have a hope. They want to encircle him economically--which is more, dangerous to Iraqi people. And they have suffered more from the regime. And they want to put pressure on him here and there by the Kurds, by Iraqi opposition. Hoping that some day, somebody within Saddam's circle could kill him.

... Now Saddam is there in Baghdad. He has seventy-five thousand Republican Guards. And a lot of other security forces around him. Nobody could reach him easily. ... We have always asked the American government to indict this man. Put him before a trial. He is a criminal of war. ... And their best evidence for that would be to dig the very huge mass graves in Iraq. The infamous graves in which hundred and ninety thousand Kurds were buried alive. They buried them in very big holes. And biological weapons were used on these poor people before killing them. That's what everybody says. And then we have told the Americans, whhen you dig it, then nobody would defend Saddam. Neither Russia, nor France or anybody. And they told us, 'well look, how could you do that? Because this is a sovereign state and we cannot go there unless we have permission from the Iraqi government.'

Secondly, they are not ready to bring even one of their soldiers into Iraq or to be wounded. So they won't do a military operation. Thirdly, they are not ready to put up an Iraqi government from opposition.

... How they will change Saddam? It's just a dream you know. I don't think they have any plan to change him really. They hope to do that, but how they don't know. That's why when the Iraqi opposition visits the U.S., they always go there with some hope, but they come back without anything. Because Madeleine Albright told the last delegation when they went there--'look, we want to get rid of this man, but we cannot tell you when and how.'

...Even the different U.S. political parties haven't yet agreed on a common plan what to do. I think they had a golden opportunity to remove Saddam during the war. They had another opportunity to remove him in the uprising after the war, and they didn't. And now it's more complicated. They say they have been trying to remove Castro for forty years and they can't. ... They can't remove Khadaffi, it's not so easy. Opportunities come, but they don't seize it. That is my point of view.

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

NEXT ON FRONTLINE

Solitary NationApril 22nd

FRONTLINE on

ShopPBS