The Survival of Saddam
an interview with Dr. Sami Abdul-Rahman
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Dr. Sami Abdul-Rahman is Deputy Prime Minister and member of the Politburo, Kurdish Democratic Party.
You've been involved with Iraqi politics for some time now. How is it that Saddam Hussein is still in power today?

His security is still very strong. He has his hands on the reigns of power in the army, and security, and the party and other instruments of government.

We're sitting here in Kurdistan and Saddam Hussein's forces are not here. You have a measure of autonomy. Is that an indication that Saddam Hussein today is weak, and some say, up against the wall?

The Iraqi central government doesn't have the same power over Kurdistan which they had.

For us, what is very important is--what comes after Saddam Hussein? We don't want to lose the rights of our people which have been gained through decades of bloodshed and tears. By our own efforts, we have been able to build an administration. We held elections. We made responsible an accountable government. The press is totally free. We even have a satellite station. So it has been done by the efforts of our people. For this to happen, hundreds of thousands of people sacrificed their lives, starting in 1961 until 1991. The final act was a big exodus of most of the population of Kurdistan to Iran and Turkey because they feared another chemical war. International public opinion came to the rescue of the Kurdish people; there was the governments and the resolution of the Security Council on saving the Kurdish people.

Can you remember the first time you met Saddam Hussein and what your personal impressions were at that time?

When first time I met him it was 1970. I had already heard that he is a rising strong man in the Ba'ath Party and the government. And that he wants to solve the Kurdish problem. He was a smart elegant young man, who talked very logically and in strong but friendly terms. So the impression all of us got about him was a very positive impression. Indeed it was the most positive impression compared with all the other members of the Ba'ath leadership.

Describe what he was like personally.

He would study the person who wanted to meet him. He would try to know beforehand what this person is visiting him for. And he would meet them in very proper way. Politely also. But also, always showing an aura of power and strength. But with no arrogance. And, as I said, he would study what are the requests to be made in this meeting? And sometimes he would make the offers before the request was mentioned. Which of course would delight the person who has come for the interview.

The impression people have of him today is of an educated thug. But what you're describing is somebody who is also intelligent, clever, a good tactician and politician. How do you reconcile the different images of Saddam?

If somebody wants to take Saddam just as a simple and straightforward person, he would make a wrong judgement. He is not only a double personality, He has several personalities. In one respect he can be very polite, he can be very nice. But certainly he is very very cruel, and crimes done against the Kurdish people and the rest of the Iraqi people under his regime, are unlike any other time in Iraqi history--which has generally been unfortunately a bloody history.

After the 1970 agreement--in which you were part of the negotiating team with the Kurds--you entered the Iraqi government as part of that agreement. At the time Saddam was vice president. What was your impression of his power at that time?

When the Ba'ath came to power, 1968, to my knowledge he first took three things into his hands. The security forces. The media. He couldn't take the army, obviously, he was a young civilian. But he controlled the Ba'ath Committee in the army. And certainly he has also his hand on the finances to spend on these instruments.

This was his first act of of taking power. In 1970 when we made the agreement he was a rising star in the Ba'ath Party but there were other strong men. Within a year and a half he removed every possible rival. So only Bakr was left, the president.

And he tried to kill General Barzani, your leader. How was it possible for you to continue serving in the Iraqi Government after that?

You are talking about the attempt on General Barzani's life on the 29th of September 1971. The team certainly was sent by the Baghdad security. And we in the leadership thought the man behind it was Saddam Hussein.

So, after...I told General Barzani I think it's very inappropriate that we go on working in a Government that has been trying to assassinate our leader. He told me privately, 'if you leave the Government there will be fighting soon. Who is with us?' And also he said publicly, I don't want to stop negotiations...

But this sad event was the end of confidence in the Ba'ath regime and in Saddam Hussein specifically. And from then on everybody I think knew, at least the K D P leadership knew, that an attack from the central government would come whether sooner or later, or rather sooner. And both sides began to look for friends and allies and I think that was the prerequisite that prepared the ground for the relationship between Mustafa Barzani and the United States.

And what do you think America wanted out of its relationship that it had with the Kurds at that time?

Many surrounding countries didn't like the Ba'ath regime. Some of them were afraid of the Ba'ath regime, including the Iranian regime under the Shah. Also the Ba'ath regime ... generally worked against the interests of the United States. So I believe America wanted from that relationship a lever inside Iraq to be able to pressure the Iraqi government.

When the Algiers agreement was signed [between the Shah of Iran and Saddam Hussein in 1975] and American support of the Kurds ended, did you feel betrayed?

It was the most cruel betrayal in our history--which is full of betrayals. Kissinger was instrumental in this betrayal. And it was totally unfair to promise the Kurdish people help and support and to give the impression that if the Iraqi government attacks we will help you--which they did at the beginning. Then in the middle of the road, to drop you.

In the 1980s, during the Iran-Iraq war, the Kurds endured terrible suffering at the hands of the Iraqi government. At that time, were you trying to make official contact with the American government? And what was the response?

We were trying, but there was no response whatsoever. I used to write memoranda in the name of the Kurdistan Front which included all the political parties who were in the fight against the regime. Writing to the United Nations and members of the Security Council. And I made one request only, please send us a fact-finding committee to see for itself. But there was no response whatsoever. And there was no response from the American government whatsoever.

How did you interpret this silence that you were getting from Washington?

We have learned through our history that governments take their interests first and foremost and not really the principles that are talked about.

At that time, what were American interests in Iraq?

Well, Iraq is an important country. It was, I think. the second country in terms of OPEC oil production. Iraq has always been a very important country, especially at that period. The Iraq-Iran war was coming on fast. The West generally supported the Iraqi government.

What's your opinion of the message that George Bush was sending at the end of the war in 1991? Did he encourage an uprising?

Well, right from the time the Iraqi forces occupied Kuwait the Western media in general and the American media in particular were calling on the Iraqi people to rise. And they were showing so many aspects of the cruelty of the Iraqi regime.

I remember I appeared on over a hundred programs during that year. And during the war also the call for the Iraqi people to rise was continuing. So it was very very disappointing when the Iraqi people rose and the Kurdish people rose. Again, unfortunately, they were let down.

Who let them down?

Well, I'm sorry to say the United States government at the time. And I remember when the fighting was going on, two million people were already on the run, and President Bush said 'I haven't given any promises to the Kurds.' And Mr Cheney, the Minister of Defence, said 'we don't know on whose side is the opposition--on ours or the government.' I heard it myself. So I was one of those who thought we have to talk to the Iraqi government, otherwise our people would perish.

But, let me say, to be fair, the United States government made up for much of this negative attitude which we saw in the middle 1970s and 1980s and even 1991, after that. The whole world was ready to help the Kurdish people. But when the United States government came in, then armies came and help came. Then the no-fly zone was declared. The safe haven was declared. So the people began returning home.

After the uprising was finished you went to Baghdad with your leadership and met Saddam again. What were your impressions of him, at that time, as compared to the man you'd last met in 1974?

Well, obviously he looked very tired, and anybody who'd gone through such a war would have been tired. He couldn't actually raise his eyelids properly. During this time, the negotiations went on for four months in the name of the Kurdistan Front. I found him far less flexible than when I used to know him in the early 1970s.

Going forward acouple of years. I want to ask about the American involvement in this region, in 1993-1994, when CIA people up were here at the same time that they were working to try to have a coup in Baghdad. What was your opinion in the months running up to that, of what was going on and what the American agenda was here? Were you optimistic or skeptical?

The I N C congress in October 1992 was the biggest Iraqi political gathering maybe in decades. But that great gathering was not for a person or a special leader. People gathered, they thought that there was an American plan for the Kurds, for a democratic, federal, pluralistic Iraq. That's why people gather. But that great energy was squandered. The United States government at the time is not blameless in squandering that great strength.

All the actions of the US agencies at that time, all the people who came to Kurdistan--we met them all. We made friendship with them. But the plans, the actions were certainly far far below the level of what they needed to achieve. Far below. And that should be a great lesson.

Do you think the Americans were really serious?

I don't know, maybe you know better. I thought they were not the plans and actions at the level of what they are talking about. And when we came to March 1995, it was like child's play. Imagine--a few hundred armed people with the Kalishnikovs taking on Iraqi army outposts, one after another, from here to Baghdad. This is unbelievable. So of course, we wouldn't take part in such little silly things.

In 1996, after the coup attempt that they had tried and failed, the CIA agents within Baghdad were arrested. Saddam comes up into Kurdish area in the north and the INC is defeated, the CIA people leave. What's your opinion of what was happening then? The fighting between the two Kurdish groups--that is awfully confusing to Americans. They don't understand why the two Kurdish groups would have been fighting at that time. What's your opinion about what happened then?

The main things going on in Kurdistan had nothing to do with what the Americans were doing secretly with the Iraqi regime. Nothing whatsoever. On 17th August the PUK made a major attack on KDP. The same night, we were celebrating the anniversary of KDP. ...

The Americans were the peacebrokers between us and PUK. We appealed to the Americans to stop this aggression, or at least to condemn it, pressure PUK to stop the fighting and to withdraw from the lands they occupied. Actually they were not prepared to do anything serious because I think the elections of the president. ...

So we asked the Iraqi government--look there is an outside aggressor. True, we have problems with you. Are you ready to help us? They said yes. So they came, actually stayed, two days or only a day and a half. And everything was over.

Chalabi attacks the Americans very strongly for not intervening...

I think he wants to cover his failure and his weakness.

After 1996, we had a period where the CIA felt burned, and didn't want to get too involved--that is my understanding. And then last year, 1998, with the Iraqi Liberation Act, we now have official U.S. government policy that wants a change of government in Iraq. How realistic do you think the Iraqi Liberation Act is as a means for changing the government in Baghdad?

I don't think it's very realistic. I think one important thing that the United States government did when they invited Mr Talabani to Washington, made peace between the two sides, and made the 17th September Washington Agreement between the KDP and PUK for peace and reconciliation--also emphasising democracy and pularism for the future Iraq. And the readiness of the United States to respect the will of the Kurdish people for federalism--I think that was a very important step. And, of course, the United States is involved openly and directly. Also, if there is any hope for an Iraqi opposition gathering, the unity of the Kurdish forces is really the mainstay for such a gathering.

So why is it unlikely that any Iraqi National Congress or any opposition group meeting is going to take place in Kurdistan? Why can't you have a meeting here in Kurdistan?

When we were in Washington the United States gave some security guarantees to Kurdistan. If a congress of the Iraqi opposition was held in a place like Salaheddine now, with a declared policy of the United States Government of its will to change the Iraqi regime, that would be open provocation to the Iraqi Government. It's really tantamount to an invitation to a fight or an invasion. That demands more open, clear-cut security guarantees. There isn't such a thing on the ground currently.

So America has yet to give a clear guarantee that they would--

--if they want such a meeting of the Iraqi opposition to take place here.

So the Iraqi Liberation Act (ILA) is an effective means, but perhaps not the only means, to remove Saddam. What other policies might America be perusing to try to remove him? Or are they in fact, as some people say, happy to see him remain in power because he serves their purpose?

I think you should ask this questions of the United States officials.

I will ask them, but what is your opinion?

Well, I don't know, because I think things have not crystallized yet totally. The will is there, the mechanisms are doubtful. This is my impressiion. I might be wrong. The will is there, but as I said the mechanisms are not. Or we don't see them, perhaps there are things that we don't know.

Knowing Saddam, not well, but knowing him over the years, what is your opinion of his grip on power? Do you think he feels secure now? Or, do you think he--as we hear--feels that he's up against the wall?

Well, certainly the regime is weakening, slowly though. But I think also certainly.

And Saddam himself?

Well, the regime equals Saddam. And Saddam equals the regime.

Can you talk about any possible congruity of interests between America and Iran with regard to changing the regime in Baghdad. Any sense that the interests of Iran and the interests of the U.S. might be somehow reconciled?

I can't tell you much about this, from what we follow and see, the United States wants a change in the Baghdad regime. The Iranian government and the Iraqi government are not on the best of terms; on the contrary, their relations are deteriorating. Also. the historical animosity of two thousand years hasn't been forgotten. And the Iraq-Iran war hasn't been forgotten.

There are many signs that the Iranian government also wants a change of regime in Baghdad. But I don't think that they are able to make a change in Iraq. The Iraqis are proud people. They would not accept being second in the Middle East. So I don't think that's possible. Perhaps the United States government would like the Iranian government to be a partner in change. But the Iranian government refuses to do that. Perhaps someone can play the role of broker to help the two governments work in tandem, I don't know. I don't say anything is impossible in politics.

Who would that broker be?

Somebody who can talk to both. But don't ask me to name anybody.

You know, we talked about negative aspects of the US government towards the Kurdish people--in the 1975 Algiers Agreement, the fact that they were silent when the chemical war went on against the Kurdish people. And at the beginning of the uprising they were quiet--said 'we haven't given promises to the Kurds.' But as I said a bit earlier, I think the United States government has made up a lot for that loss which we suffered in the past. And the specifically since the Washington agreement when the Kurdish leader was invited there and was met at the highest level. ... I must say on behalf of my party and on behalf of the Kurdish people, we are grateful to the American government, to the Congress and to the great American people.

Security guarantees. What do you think the response would be of the American government if Saddam Hussein were to cross over the frontlines and come up here with his troops or with a bomb?

They have said publicly that they will respond. But the time and place will be of their own choosing.

What does that mean?

Well that is, that's why when it comes to some serious matter like holding an INC Congress or an Iraqi position congress in Kurdistan, people think that more security guarantees are needed. Not something of time and place of their choosing. But something immediate and to the level of the acts that are going on.

Personally, do you want Saddam Hussein to leave power?

For the American government, maybe that's fine. For us what is very important is--what comes after Saddam Hussein? Because now with the presence of Saddam Hussein, under present conditions, we are running our own affairs. We have freedom, we have democracy, we have pluralism. Even the living conditions of our people are better than much of our history.

It's not because the Iraqi government is so generous towards the Kurdish people. But if there is a change of government we don't want to lose the rights of our people which have been gained through decades of bloodshed and tears. So what is important is-- what comes after him? A democratic federal regime? Well, I think everybody would welcome it.

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