The Survival of Saddam
an interview with said k. aburish
the kurds


At the previous meeting in 1979, before he took power from Bakr, he also went to Amman and possibly met some CIA agents.

Saddam took several trips to Jordan and Saudi Arabia immediately before the war with Iran. The trips had two purposes: to get these countries' support -- and indirectly, to get the support of the West because these countries are solidly pro-West -- and also to back him in his plans to replace Bakr who was still then president and could do something to intercept Saddam's plans. That was really the period of developing the classic alliance of convenience between Saddam and the West. They were talking to each other through intermediaries, but major intermediaries. We're talking about kings and presidents.

It's protection for Saddam to have biological/chemical weapons, because, if surrounded in Baghdad, he will threaten to use them.  He's capable of that ...sort of a Samson complex--if you push me too hard, I'll bring the house down, on myself and everyone. So he had the guarantee that he would succeed in his efforts. His removal of Bakr needed a guarantee that no one would act against him. He removed Bakr rather unceremoniously and made himself president. And he reshaped the Ba'ath Party in no time at all by executing half of the command of the party. And then he went to war with Iran, thinking it is going to last a few weeks. Iran will see that the West is helping me, and they will not fight for long.

Well, the man on the other side thought differently. Khomeini was a religious fanatic and he was not about to surrender. He was willing to sacrifice hundreds of thousands of people and Saddam was entrapped because the West -- which never really liked him -- developed these alliances of convenience. But liking Saddam was something else. After all Saddam's really not terribly likeable. And in the final analysis, the West had him where they wanted him. He was pre-occupied in a war with Iran. Both countries were bleeding to death, economically and otherwise, and both countries took their eyes off the rest of the Gulf which is what interested the West in terms of the flow and price of oil.

Talk about his decision to invade Iran. He had just made himself president. It was his first big step on the world stage. And so far, he's been a master of control and power within Iraq. Talk about his decision to go to war with Iran.

The invasion of Iran was a huge gamble by Saddam Hussein. He was seriously concerned that Iraq would disintegrate from within, that certain elements of the Shia community would side with Khomeini -- and they were already causing trouble. They were practically an uprising in Najjaf. He had to execute the leader of the Shias. But Khomeini wouldn't stop. Khomeini was calling for his overthrow. So, it was really in a way one of the few wars of principle in the 20th century. One man was saying religion is supreme -- that was Khomeini. And Saddam Hussein was saying the nation-state is supreme. And Saddam Hussein was proven right.

The cost was horrendous. Both countries were bled to death. And a friend of mine interviewed Saddam Hussein and he said in the interview -- it was during the war with Iran -- that if the superpowers wanted this war to stop, they would stop it. He became aware that he was in a trap. There is a great deal to show that the United States wanted both sides weakened. They didn't like Khomeini. They didn't like Saddam. They sold stuff to Saddam, they sold stuff to Khomeini secretly. They supplied information to both sides at different stages of the game. They didn't want either side to lose and they didn't want either side to win. And that is what happened.

In the early 1980s -- a time when Saddam thought the war with Iran would soon be over -- this is a time when you, again, had a personal involvement with the regime. How did you become involved again, and what was your assignment? Why did you accept?

Well, in the case of my involvement with Iraq in the early 1980s, Iraq came to me and asked me to help them after the original group I worked with was out of the picture. I accepted for a very simple reason, for the same reason the United States supported him against Iran -- I thought he was the lesser evil. When it came to him and Khomeini, I wanted Saddam to come out ahead or to win. There are several reasons. I am an Arab, one. And the second one, I do not believe in religious movements. I was afraid that the Khomeini movement might prevail and take over the Middle East. And it was, if you wish, an alliance of convenience between me and Saddam. I was not taken with Saddam, but I wanted Khomeini to lose, and that is why I accepted to work with him.

And I worked in a capacity of helping him in his relations with the United States on two levels. One, creating a certain image for him in the United States by sending certain members of the press to Iraq to see him. And he was available and willing. And the second, by laying the ground for greater economic cooperation and things like opening an office for an American bank in Baghdad. It was image building. It was smoothing the way, because the two countries didn't have diplomatic relations between them. And I'd like to think it was successful. However it didn't last long, because I did walk out after his first use of chemical weapons.

There were rumors that Saddam was using chemical weapons. When they were eventually verified and it was proven that he was using chemical weapons against both Iran and the Kurds in the north, it was a matter of conscience. I could no longer be associated with him, and I walked out, and I walked out with [them] owing me more money than I'll ever be worth. And I will never get. But that was a personal decision I had to make, and I made it.

And to what extent did you regret your involvement with the regime, not just this time, but also back in the 1970s?

Well, people who support dictators always come round to regretting it, unfortunately. In the 1970s, we supported him because the Arabs were defeated and humiliated in 1967, and we wanted one Arab country to move ahead and be strong, economically and militarily. And we saw Iraq as that one country. That's why we supported him. We were not blind to what he was.

The scale tipped in other directions. He became more dictatorial with time. He eliminated more people with time. And he stopped delivering the benefits to the Iraqi people with time. This sounds like a German talking about aiding and abetting the, rise of Hitler -- it is pretty much the same -- or somebody helping Stalin get there. But, in my case, it was better late than never and I walked out.

But, we had no one to look to. There was a vacuum in Arab leadership, particularly after Nasser died. There was no Arab leader that my generation could look to. And suddenly there was this fellow in Iraq in a very serious way. He represented potential. And we loved the idea of him being there, because we looked at Egypt, it wasn't working. We looked at Saudi Arabia, they were in another century. We looked at Arab countries, they are not capable of anything. Iraq had the potential. Suddenly had a man at the helm who could realise that potential. And that was Saddam Hussein. And believe me, he came very close, let's make no mistake about that. Saddam Hussein came very close to realizing the potential of Iraq and dragging it into the 20th century.

At times it seemed the U.S. was giving Saddam mixed signals in the 1980s. Tell us the story of Saddam's meeting with a consultant and how Saddam was trying to understand the U.S. What does it reveal about his perceptions of America.

Saddam Hussein is a learner. He used to read a great deal and he used to listen to people a great deal. He never told them when he was taking something away from what they were saying. But he did, and in this case, he summoned a Lebanese journalist to talk to him about the workings of the U.S. governmental system -- checks and balances, if you wish. And the Lebanese journalist was taken aback by his question -- "Explain to me the system of checks and balances of the United States." He tried his best to explain it to him. And the meeting went on for over an hour. And Saddam listened very attentively. At the end of it he said, "If power is divided in America, who do we deal with then?" And the man, afraid like everybody who sees Saddam, looked at him and said, "Mr. President, I don't think you have any choice. You have to deal with the executive branch." At which point, Saddam supposedly shook his head from side to side and he said, "But they lie to me all the time." This is an example of the misgivings Saddam Hussein had about the United States.

There was a love-hate relationship between the two. He loved American technology -- Saddam is enamored with technology anyway -- and he decided very early in his career that certain types of technology could only be supplied by the United States of America. So in a way, he related to the United States, he had affection for the United States and what the United States could provide. Simultaneously he never trusted them politically. He told many journalists who saw him that America's policy towards the Middle East is shortsighted, because there are more Arabs than Israelis, the Arabs were wealthier, and America should throw its lot with the Arabs. This is where Saddam Hussein, the uneducated man, comes into play. Because a really savvy politician would know better, would know that the United States could not change its policy towards the Middle East. But Saddam didn't know that. He's still bright, but there are holes in his education which show when people talk to him.

After the end of the Iran-Iraq war, Saddam is trying to figure out what the U.S. policy is, or, how there seemed to be different policies from the Congress and from the executive branch. What was Saddam's view of the box he was in and what was going on?

We don't know how much money Saddam Hussein owed after the war with Iran ended. Estimates ranged between $65 billion and $100 billion. It was a great deal of money. He told the Iraqi people that he won the war. And the Iraqi people wanted the fruits of victory and he couldn't deliver. He counted on the Arab countries -- Saudi Arabia and Kuwait -- to help him out. They didn't help him out. And suddenly on top of that, there was a change in U.S. policy. Instead of supporting him, providing him with greater credit, there was criticism about his human rights policies which were always atrocious, but it was more vociferous than it was before. They were talking about supporting the Kurds. There was talk about investigating what had happened in the past.

All of a sudden the custom and excise people throughout Europe became extra clever and were discovering shipments of all types of things to Iraq -- the bits for the supergun, the triggers. Superguns were discovered all over the place as a matter of fact in about five different countries.

And Saddam felt beleaguered. He didn't feel this was accidental. He felt that the West knew that he was weak, and this was an opportunity to weaken him further or get rid of him. He told this to Yasser Arafat; he told him there is a conspiracy against Iraq and he told this to Mubarak. He believed in the conspiracy theory, so in his own mind what he was fighting was a conspiracy.

The ideal thing for Saddam to do, and what I personally believe he wanted to do, was to go to war with Israel, briefly, for about a week, two weeks. Get pounded, but embarrass the rest of Arab states into giving him loads of money to tide him over this financial problem. All of a sudden Kuwait, as far as Saddam is concerned, gets in the way. How did Kuwait get in the way? Saddam's only income was from oil and Kuwait was pumping over its OPEC quota and the price of oil was collapsing. Every time the price of oil fell by one dollar, Iraq lost a billion dollars in income. And Saddam decided Kuwait couldn't possibly be doing this on its own. No way. Kuwait didn't need the money. Its own income was enough if it had investment in the West which was producing income. Why is Kuwait doing this?

And because of his previous involvement in 1963 when Kuwait was used as a post by the CIA to help the Ba'ath Party overthrow Kassem, Saddam decided Kuwait is being used again to change the Iraqi government. This time against me, last time I was on the other side. This time they are using it against me. And instead of directing his efforts into starting a war with Israel, he invaded Kuwait. And once again, like all intelligent people without education, when they make a mistake, they make them really big.

Did he expect the U.S. to respond?

No, he did not expect the United States to respond to his invasion of Kuwait the way it did. He personally analyzed the situation, had that famous meeting with American Ambassador April Glaspie in Baghdad. And he believed the United States gave him a green light to occupy Kuwait. Well, that shows Saddam's lack of education because there was no way the United States was going to allow Saddam Hussein to control the flow and price of oil in the Middle East. Impossible. And there is evidence that people within his inner circle told him not to do it and he did it. He thought he would bargain.

This is where, again, you see Saddam for what he is. Saddam is making an A-bomb, but Saddam comes from the small village of Al Awja. When you talk about Saddam being schizophrenic or having a split personality, it is not necessarily physiological, it is sociological. One foot is in the 17th century in Al Awja, and the other foot is in the 20th century making an A-bomb. He invaded Kuwait and thought, "Good I have Kuwait, I'm going to bargain with the United States." Well the United States made its position clear. There is no bargaining about the withdrawal from Kuwait, fella, you get out of Kuwait. No conditions. No rewards. Nothing. That he couldn't understand. And he was caught.

After the Gulf War, there were the upprisings in the south, and in the north and the U.S. didn't act. What do you think he thought of the U.S. decision not to support the rebellion? Do you think he respected that?

I think Saddam and the United States very often have a commonality which bonds them together and that is simply this: That without Saddam Hussein, Iraq would disintegrate into several countries and make more trouble for the rest of the Middle East. I know no Iraqi who believes that -- whether Sunni, Shia or Kurd. The American administration believes that however, and Saddam Hussein believes that. When the rebellion started against Saddam in 1991, that danger loomed. The United States helped Saddam crush that rebellion. They didn't only stand by, on occasions they stopped the rebels from reaching arms depots to arm themselves. On other occasions, American planes flew over Saddam's helicopters while they were shooting the rebels. On a third occasion, they gave his Republican Guards safe passage through American lines to reach a certain rebel position.

The American administration was afraid that Iraq will disintegrate. They had no plan for what might follow Saddam Hussein. And certainly President Bush was explicit on that subject, saying he did not want to be mired in Iraqi internal affairs -- until he was forced into getting into Iraq by television and the pictures of the poor Kurds. And so that rebellion failed.

This bond between Saddam Hussein and the United States exists to this day. They are the two parties that believe Saddam Hussein's disappearance would cause huge problems. In the case of the United States, there are huge problems that we want to solve before we think seriously of moving him. In the case of Saddam Hussein, he keeps this issue alive, saying, "You need me, you know." Again, the case of the lesser evil as it was when he fought Khomeini.

And yet throughout the 1990s, we have seen several attempts by the U.S. to change the regime. And the U.S. was left with the situation where they had demonized this man to such an extent it was a political embarrassment to have him survive. How effective have U.S. actions to remove Saddam in the 1990s been?

America's actions against Saddam Hussein since the Gulf War in terms of removing him have been very weak indeed. Among other things Saddam had eliminated so many people in Iraq, probably by accident he eliminated all the CIA agents operating under ethnic cover. He probably didn't know they were CIA agents. I don't think there have been any really serious attempts by the United States of America to remove Saddam. I think there have been some attempts by people who are cooperating with the United States to remove Saddam. That is a completely different matter. Because they take two completely different forms.

The United States had two opportunities. One, in 1991, they could have helped the rebels and removed him, and they refused to do that. And one, in 1995, when the Kurds rose and with other elements opposed to Saddam, defeated a whole Iraqi division and the Iraqi army was going to disintegrate practically and the United States withheld support. The United States is caught in this position of not having a plan for what follows Saddam.

And as one of the leaders of the Iraqi opposition said, they want Saddamism without Saddam. They have demonized Saddam the person, but they're not necessarily opposed to the regime. They have never been the champions of human rights in the Middle East. Once Saddam used chemical weapons against the Kurds in Halabja, the U.S. War College issued a 40-some page report saying it wasn't Saddam's chemicals that killed the people of Halabja, it was Iranian chemicals that killed the people of Halabja. I can't believe myself that the U.S. War College issued that report without the sanction of people higher up in the U.S. government.

After the Gulf War and the Iran-Iraq War, how did Saddam manage to keep control inside the country? And what does it tell us about the effectiveness of the system that he set up back in the early 1970s?

Saddam's control of Iraq is not difficult to understand. He has a very, very elaborate security apparatus -- about six elements. Internal security intelligence, special presidential security, you name it, he has it. It probably costs the government more money than anything else in the country. He had created an army within the general Iraqi army, the Republican Guard. The Republican Guard is not a professional army, it's an ideological army, which owes its allegiance to Saddam himself.

So, you have the security systems, you have the army, you have members of his family in key positions in both systems, and in the rest of the country. And you have whatever remains of the Ba'ath Party in the country, which is still beholden to him. When you multiply the numbers of people who work directly for Saddam Hussein by six or seven, the number of people who depend on them -- I mean families in the Middle East are large as we know -- then you have a constituency of somewhere between 20 to 30 percent of the population of Iraq. You can run a country through these numbers very easily. This is not a difficult proposition. But if you're talking about security in terms of doing anything against him, he has taken huge steps to guarantee that nothing could possibly happen against him.

Generals are not left in the same position for a long time. Security people are not left in the same position for a long time. Fathers spy on sons. Members of the family are under an obligation to spy on other members of the family. Students spy on teachers. It is persuasive, it is suffocating. An Iraqi opposition personality told me that no meeting involving more than three people can take place in Iraq without Saddam Hussein knowing about it. This is how tight it is within the country.

Yet he himself now is moving around and--

He is moving around considerably. He never sleeps in the same place. You never know where he is having his dinner because dinner is prepared in five or six different places. He has doubles who stand in for him on occasions. There are two or three people who know of his movements and it is his sons and one other guy who is his secretary. He has a food taster. You know this business of Saddam always wearing hats? They are all bullet proof, they are lined with Kevlar inside, just in case there is a sniper in a building who is about to shoot him. Even the straw hat that he wears occasionally is lined with Kevlar. And, he looks more sturdy than he is, he looks rounder than he is, because he is wearing a bulletproof vest.

But that's if you got to him. The business of getting to him is almost impossible. You have to go through so many things and so many stages. People who see Saddam Hussein nowadays have to be X-rayed, because he's always afraid that they've swallowed some kind of explosive that will detonate and take him with them.

So what does the future hold? Where do we go from here?

I think where we go from here is to make a deal directly with the Iraqi people. The only salvation for Iraq and for Western policy towards Iraq is to make a direct deal with the Iraqi people, openly. To tell the people who guarantee Saddam's continuance that they would not suffer if there is a change in the regime. To tell the Iraqi people that they would have more to eat and more medicine. To tell the Sunnis that they would not suffer under the Shias. To ask the neighbors not to interfere in Iraq. To give them an incentive to get rid of the man. So far, neither the small organizations under Saddam nor the Iraqi people in general have been offered an incentive to change him. So far U.S. policy depends on various opposition groups which contain many honorable men, but who have absolutely no following within the country. As a matter of fact, I saw a picture of them standing with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and I tried to do a mental calculation of how many followers within Iraq they have -- there were about 12 of them. And I decided that they could muster up about 5,000 people all together.

Do you think he was surprised that America allowed him to survive?

I think he was very surprised that America allowed him to survive, because it is something that is strange to his nature. He would not have allowed his enemy to survive, and he expects everybody to behave the way he behaves. So this was a great big present that was most unexpected. But the moment he grabbed it, he started planning for the future.

How did he plan for the future?

Well, first, he had to re-establish internal control within the country. The second thing is to say that what happened is done, and let us start all over again. What he didn't realize is that the U.N. resolutions that were enacted didn't allow him to start all over again that fast, and that the resolutions may be subject to interpretation that would cripple him economically and politically for the foreseeable future.

... Talk a bit about the way he crushed that 1991 rebellion after the Gulf War. Once he knew that he had the freedom to do it, he was brutal.

He crushed the rebellion totally and completely. He was extremely successful in crushing the rebellion in 1991. And, except for Kurdistan, he eliminated the sources of the rebellion. In Kurdistan, he thought he would do a deal, since he couldn't get away with crushing the leadership of the Kurdish people. But in other places, in the Shia south, he completely crushed the rebellion. He eliminated all elements that were involved in the rebellion. He moved the center of power completely, putting it in the hands of the Republican Guard -- immediately and directly under his own control. So this was another transfer of power. He himself, was now responsible for every single move that affected the security of the Iraqi state.

There are security centers throughout Iraq. The people heading these security centers distributed tapes of executions, of people disappearing, of people being demoted, of people being humiliated. They showed the tapes to the population to frighten the people. They were telling the people, "This is what would happen to you if you oppose Saddam."

Right after the war, the Bush administration started the policy of containment, and of keeping the sanctions. Saddam didn't expect this. He thought that he would be brought back in.

Saddam Hussein did not expect the sanctions to last as long as they have. The U.N. resolutions containing the articles of the sanctions are, by nature, a little vague, and subject to interpretation. He interpreted them in the way most favorable way to him. The United States and the U.K. interpreted them the opposite way, with France, China, and Russia in the middle. He thought they would come in, inspect the country, find what they find, destroy it, and then they would get out, and everything would be done and finished. The United States kept saying, no, there is more, we have to find it, where did you get it, who gave it to you, how did they give it to you? Of course, this extended it. In a way, it was actually changing the guidelines. There is nothing in the resolutions, for example, about some of the searches. Some of them were an affront to Iraqi dignity -- there's no doubt about it -- going into his palaces, and inspecting the place where he himself lived. That was something completely new to him.

Why would he have allowed the inspectors in at all?

He allowed the United Nations inspectors in because he thought this was going to be short-lived: "I can satisfy them, I can fool them, I can present them with a great deal." They'd go home happy, saying they'd discovered everything there is to discover in Iraq. He had no idea that they would look for the sources of this material. And when they started looking, it became staggeringly obvious to them that there is more to the program than they had originally thought. For example, in the most dramatic example, before the inspection started, everybody thought Saddam was five or six years from making an atomic bomb. After the inspections started, the United Nations discovered he was only six months away from making an atomic bomb.

How would he fool them?

Well, it's a huge country. He planned bunkers and laboratories, and attached them to schools and to innocent organizations all over the country. The scientists and engineers working for him did not operate from one single spot. They had 300-400 places from which they operated. The labs needed for chemical and biological warfare are very small, and you can hide them. They can be part of a university's labs. The safety equipment needed can expose the lab, because you have to have a great deal of it. But the labs themselves are easy to hide. The equipment itself is not that bulky, or that expensive. As long as you have people underground who are willing to make chemical and biological weapons, you'd be able to make them.

We talked about the beginning of official opposition in the Iraqi National Congress, the INC, around 1992 and 1993, when they had their first and second meetings. What was Saddam's feeling about this opposition? Did he take it seriously at that time?

At the very beginning, he took the opposition seriously. He thought that, with the U.S. backing, the opposition would act as a magnet for people within his regimes, and would truly undermine him. But the opposition failed to do that. The opposition was made up of the wrong people, people who had not been to Iraq for a long time, so they didn't know the people inside. They did not want to contact the people inside, or rely on the people inside Iraq to change Saddam's regime, because the people inside would be competition for leadership against them. They wanted to do it themselves. This was very selfish, and it backfired. In time, he stopped fearing the opposition, because the opposition proved to be ineffectual. They were not able to organize, and they were quarrelling among themselves. There was considerable corruption among the ranks of the opposition and Saddam said, "This is wonderful. With enemies like this, I can sleep comfortably."

I want to talk about the INC attack of 1995. Did they have some success, or did you see that as a direct threat?

The 1995 attacks of the INC were initially very successful. Many Iraqi soldiers surrendered to them, and indeed it was a major challenge to Saddam, but he is wily. He divided the ranks of the opposition, and it fell apart. They were not defeated on the battlefield; they just couldn't continue. This was a great coup for Saddam, and, of course, this will help him in the future, because no Iraqi soldier is going to defect to a side that cannot maintain an attack against Saddam. Why would I defect to a group of losers, who can't agree among themselves as to what should be done? Initially, it stood a chance of attracting more and more Iraqi soldiers, and of undoing the whole regime, but they couldn't maintain it.

You must have known that the U.S. did not agree to support that invasion. ... What do you think that told them about American intentions?

Saddam reads America's intentions better than America reads Saddam's intentions. Saddam knows that America does not want a fragmented, divided Iraq. Therefore, in the final analysis, America will opt for him. There was a chance that this attack from the north would create a divided Iraq, or a civil war in the country, because it was made up mostly of Kurdish and Shia elements. Saddam knew the United States would come to his rescue, and not support the attack. He didn't know how they would do it. The way they did it was rather callous. They really undermined the opposition, not in terms of the attack itself, but on a long-term basis. They embarrassed the opposition, and made them look like fools. They initiated something they could not continue, or finalize.

Shortly after, he suffered a personal blow when his two sons-in-law left. Why did they leave, and what do you think that meant to Saddam?

photo of Hussein Kamel, Saddam's (ex) son-in-law

Hussein Kamel, one of Saddam Hussein's (ex) sons-in-law
Saddam's sons-in-law and daughters defected to Jordan because of a family quarrel. They couldn't get along with his son. But we're talking about two important people -- one of them the head of the unconventional weapons program, and the second one was head of security -- so they had a considerable amount of information with them when they defected. That was a severe blow to Saddam, both in terms of his modern thinking, which is behind making unconventional weapons, and in terms of the tribal half of his nature. "How dare anyone from within my tribe betray me? This is my son-in-law and cousin, and he betrayed me." Of course, they gave all the information they had, both to the United Nations and the United States, and to everyone else who was willing to receive it. This was damaging, because at that moment, Iraq was about to be declared free of unconventional weapons by U.N. inspectors. All of a sudden, there is Saddam's son-in-law, Hussein Kamel, standing in front of them, saying, "I have documents that can prove that your inspection has not uncovered everything Saddam has. He has considerably more than this." They looked at it, and they were just absolutely aghast, and said, "Let's start all over again."

I've heard that really that was the lowest point.

The defection of his sons-in-law was the point that undermined Saddam the most. It was the point that eliminated any chance of the sanctions being lifted without a truly clean bill of health -- and we assume that is impossible. Saddam will always try to keep some of these weapons to protect himself. So it's a never-ending circle.

Why would he want to? What's the point?

It is protection for Saddam to have biological and chemical weapons, because, in the final analysis, if pressed, if he is surrounded in Baghdad, he will threaten to use them. He's capable of that. This is a sort of Samson complex -- if you push me too hard, I'll bring the house down, on myself and on everyone else. Washington realizes that this is a possibility. For obvious reasons, it's not talked about openly. No one in Washington wants to tell the American people that Saddam is still capable of blackmailing us. They're acting as if he is capable of blackmailing them, but they are not going to admit it openly.


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