This is FRONTLINE's old website. The content here may be outdated or no longer functioning.

Browse over 300 documentaries
on our current website.

Watch Now
The Survival of Saddam
an interview with james akins
the kurds

James Akins was an attache at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, 1963-1965, and later became the U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia.
Why is Saddam Hussein still sitting in office in Baghdad?

The same way that most dictators stay in power--he has complete control of the security apparatus. He is totally ruthless. He is surrounded by people who have a great interest in the survival of the regime, such as the Republican Guard, and members of the Ba'ath Party. They know that if he's overthrown, they're going to be hanged too. I don't think there's any mystery about why he survives.

It's difficult for those who don't understand that regime to comprehend its ruthlessness. You've seen it develop over the years. How methodical has he been in developing a security apparatus to keep control?

It's extraordinarily effective. He's been working on it for a very long time. Initially, he had people from his own village. He has a lot of members of his own family. They are people that he still trusts, according to all reports. But he's been absolutely ruthless in dealing with opposition, from the Shias in the south, and perhaps even more so for the Kurds in the north. Right after the war, when Saddam was defeated, we made a number of extraordinary mistakes. We didn't demand that Saddam come and sign the capitulation agreement himself. We allowed his lieutenants to do that, so they took the blame for the defeat.

 I've talked to Iraqis and they say--you can't be sure that you saw Saddam.  There are a lot of doubles who look very much like him and quite frequently  interviews are conducted  not  by Saddam himself but  by a double. We then allowed them to use helicopters, because the bridges were all destroyed. It seemed like a reasonable request. The only way they could get across the rivers was helicopters. At the end of the war, when the collapse took place, there was a general uprising in both the north and the south. The Kurds occupied Kirkuk, which they basically consider to be their capital. The Shias, rose in the south, and then the Iraqi government started tentatively moving against them with military force. And there was no American reaction. Then they moved more, and there was no American reaction. And then they started the general slaughter in the south, which was horrible, and in the north, which was just as bad.

But Saddam had showed his ruthlessness before that. During the Iraq-Iran war, he decided that the Kurds were giving some support in the north because they bordered on Iran. Kurdistan encompasses Iraq, Iran, Turkey and parts of Syria. So the Kurds have always moved across these borders, which are quite artificial. Saddam moved into Iraqi Kurdistan, and destroyed all the villages in the north that were within a radius of 20 kilometers of the Iranian border. All were ruthlessly destroyed.

About 300,000 people were moved out. The Iraqi story was that they were moved into model villages in the south. I was in Iraq around that time, and I asked to see some of these model villages. I was assured that I would be able to, and of course, I never saw them, for the simple reason that these villages don't exist. Three hundred thousand Kurds were indeed moved out of the north. But they're in graves now.

In the early years, what was your view and that of the U.S. government toward the Ba'ath Party?

The Ba'ath Party was founded in the late 1940s or so. It seemed to me, and to a lot of others in the State Department, that it was the white hope for the Arabs. It was democratic, it was secular, it was socialist. Once they came to power in Iraq after the 1963 revolution, they did not implement the principles of the Party. . . . The Ba'ath Party showed that it wasn't democratic. It betrayed its own principles, and it became a dictatorial party, which it remains today. It controls two states, Syria and Iraq--not that the leaders of the two countries have much good to say about each other.

In the late 1950s and the early 1960s, in the period before the coup, how concerned was the U.S. about Soviet influence?

After the revolution in 1958, it wasn't exactly clear what the new government would be. Would it be Arab nationalist, or would it be leftist, or would it be Iraqi nationalist? Nobody knew very much about Kassem, who became the dictator. The world's assumption was that it was going to be Arab nationalist. . . . Certainly Kassem couldn't be pro-American, because the old regime was too close to be associated with us, and no regime could be pro-American--rather like the regime in Iran after the overthrow of the Shah. It had to be initially anti-American.

So Kassem obviously turned to the Soviet Union for support. The communists were given a lot of power. It's an overstatement to say that this was a communist regime--it wasn't. But the communists certainly had a lot of influence in the country. The Soviet Union had a lot of influence. There were a lot of delegations who came from every communist country to Baghdad--artistic, cultural, political, economic, and so on. But we were frightened that Iraq might ultimately move all the way into the Soviet orbit, and I suppose that was a possibility. You can never prove that it would not have happened if Kassem had continued. They started sending students to the Soviet Union for study, which they had never done before. I actually recommended that we subsidize the scholarships to the Soviet Union, because the Iraqis who went to the Soviet Union came back fervently anti-Russian, and particularly anti-communist. It wasn't viewed as serious, and I suppose it wasn't, but it would not have been a bad idea. Frequently, the students who came back from the United States were not terribly pro-American, and a lot of these communists had studied in America. They were dark-skinned. They went to Texas, and they ran into racial problems. People thought that they were black, and therefore they were discriminated against. But those who went to the Soviet Union had the same racial problems, and they did not like the treatment they were given by the Russians. They certainly didn't like the communist system.

So the danger of Iraq going communist probably was somewhat exaggerated, but that wasn't the view in Washington. Don't misunderstand me--it wasn't an irrational view. Iraq clearly was very strongly under the influence of the Soviets, and we decided that something should be done.

After the 1963 coup, how did U.S. policy change?

It didn't change very much. The Ba'ath Party had come to control. We were very happy. They got rid of a lot of communists. A lot of them were executed, or shot. This was a great development. And things opened up in Iraq. We resumed diplomatic relations. Ultimately, we sent out an ambassador. But when did the disillusionment start? Not while I was there. I left in 1965.

Let's talk about the 1970s, when the U.S. began working with the Kurds. What was your sense of the way American handled that?

I consider this one of the more shameful stories in our diplomatic history. The Kurds came to us repeatedly. While I was there, they came to us, and the position that I took was, "You're great people. You're really awfully good, and you really should have your rights inside Iraq, and probably in other countries. But you'll never ever get any support from the United States, because we have great interests in Iran, and in Turkey. Both of them have larger Kurdish populations than you have in Iraq, and any move toward autonomy, or even worse, toward independence in Iraq would certainly upset our allies--the Shah in Iran, and the Turks. So you'll never get support from us. The only hope that you can get from us is that we will urge the governments to treat you fairly. You might aspire to some sort of cultural autonomy, but never, never, any military support."

Things changed after that. We soured on Saddam, and we did give the Kurds military support through Iran. The Turks were not involved at that time. Then, the Shah concluded his agreement with Saddam, and the attitude of Iran changed totally. They stopped hating the Kurds. The border was sealed off, and the Kurds had no outside support whatsoever. Saddam was able to move into Kurdistan and take his vengeance on the Kurds. Kissinger was asked about the morality of a policy that encouraged the people to revolt against their central government in order to obtain a minor political gain for us--and then when we achieved other goals, we would betray the people and allowed them to be slaughtered. And Kissinger replied that covert military activity is not to be confused with missionary work. It's one of the two most immoral statements made by a secretary of state in recent years. The other was by Mrs. Albright, who was asked about the morality of the sanctions program that resulted in the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children. She said that we considered that, and decided it was worthwhile. The second statement has been quoted throughout the entire Muslim world. The first statement really only concerned the Kurds.

Can you tell the story you relayed to me earlier--when you asked Mulla Mustafa about why he had trusted the Americans?

After Mulla Mustafa left Iraq, he came to the United States. He wasn't well. Cancer was diagnosed here, and I saw a lot of him when he was here. I talked to him about what had happened in the past. He knew the position that I would take, and that I had never promised anything. I asked him how he possibly could have believed Henry Kissinger, when Kissinger promised to help, and did give him some help.

And he said, "Yes, yes, we were somewhat skeptical, but we've been urging the United States for 20 years to give us support, and finally the United States was giving us support. How could I not believe the foreign minister of the United States? " He didn't write his memoirs. But there is a young Arab scholar here who went up to interview him. He talked for hours and hours, reminiscing about his experiences in Iran right after the war, and the Soviet Union and why he came back. And he said, no, he wouldn't do that, and these people should forget me. He said, "My life has been a failure. If I had had some success, then that would be different, but everything I have tried to accomplish for my people I have failed. And I don't want anybody to interview me, and I don't want to be remembered."

Do you think he felt betrayed by America?

He was betrayed by America.

During this time in the mid-1970s, what was the driving force behind U.S. policy towards Iraq? How was it evolving?

At the end of the decade, the Iranian revolution had colored our relations with Iraq. Before the Iranian revolution, we had reasonably good relations with Iraq. I used to go to Iraq regularly every January, and my wife would come with me. We had served in Iraq. We like Iraq. We have a lot of Iraqi friends. And I would stay three or four days in Baghdad. . . . My wife came back from the trip in 1990, back to Baghdad where she was staying with the ambassador. The ambassador gave a dinner for the assistant secretary for Middle Eastern affairs, who was in Baghdad at the time. There were a lot of Iraqis, and my wife knew most of them. The assistant secretary sang the praises of Saddam, "What a wonderful person he is. This is a person we can really work with. We have a fantastic relationship. We could make lots of commercial sales, agricultural material," and so on.

And when he left, the Iraqis said to my wife, "What's wrong with this man? Doesn't he have any understanding of who this man [Saddam] is? The man's a monster. How can he be coming and praising this man in such forceful terms to a bunch of Iraqis who know exactly what the man is?"

Why do you think he was doing that?

I presume he thought that Saddam was great. This man had no Middle East experience, and he thought that Saddam was great. He can make lots of sales. He could be very advantageous to us commercially. And then, we had the famous visit of the three senators which came three months later--only three months or four months before the invasion of Kuwait. And I'm sure that you've interviewed some of these senators, and if you haven't, you've had the full report of what they said to Saddam. It was a love feast.

When it came to the invasion of Kuwait, Saddam concluded that the Americans would go along with it. There were a number of other factors. Saddam knew that the Kuwaitis were disliked by everybody else in the peninsula, and the Saudis won't mind if we move into Kuwait. After all, Kuwait was originally Iraqi, and I'm just resuming sovereignty over the lost Iraqi province. Nobody's really going to worry about that. There were a lot of Iraqis who knew the fallacy of this thinking, no doubt about it. I know some of them myself. But they couldn't say anything to Saddam, because he had demonstrated vividly what happens to people who disagree with him on things that he wants to do. So all these people who knew that this was a disaster, who knew the United States could not tolerate having Kuwait's enormous oil well being attached to Iraq's enormous oil well. Iraq is only second to Saudi Arabia for oil reserves in the entire world. Add Kuwait's to that, and you have a colossus.

Furthermore, if you got away with this, the countries of the peninsula would make their accommodation with this new henchman, so it couldn't stand. But if there were Iraqis who knew that--clearly there were--they wouldn't dare say that to Saddam. They had to tell him it was a brilliant idea--"It was what Kuwait itself wanted in the old days before oil." But things have changed. And Kuwait was no longer a terribly desperately poor province. It was an enormously wealthy one. The Kuwaitis opposed it, almost to a man. The Saudis were terrified with it, and we are able to use this as the pretext to send troops into Saudi Arabia, and ultimately to destroy Iraq.

Go back to the 1970s. How did U.S. policy towards Iraq change during the Carter administration, and was there some sort of opening that was tested under Brzezinski?

I'd been in Iraq at that time. At the time of the Carter election, it seemed to me that this was the time to resume diplomatic relations. I talked to people in the White House, and I talked to Brzezinski about this. They agreed that this would be the time explore this. And so, Philip Habibe was sent to Baghdad to explore the possibility. But he was not a good choice of candidate, because the main line that he took with the Iraqis was that what you really have to do is to open talks with Israel, and the Iraqis were rather surprised at that. They thought that we'd be talking about bilateral issues, not about their relations with Israel. That set things back for quite some time, and it was quite some time before diplomatic relations were then resumed.

Do you have any sense of how the revolution in Iran changed American policy toward Iraq?

Everything changed once the Shah fell. The Shah was invulnerable. The Shah was going to last forever. You have on record all of the reports and the CIA statements that, after the revolution was well underway, that Iran without the Shah was unimaginable, and Iran is not in a revolutionary or even pre-revolutionary situation. The first cable that came from the embassy saying that the Shah was in trouble was dated in October. 1978, when anybody who would open his eyes would see that the Shah was on his last legs. There isn't any rational explanation for our stupidity in Iran. The only explanation I can come up with that's at all satisfying is psychological. The restoration of the Shah in 1953 was one of the great victories of the CIA. They didn't have very many they could talk about, but that was one of them--getting rid of the "communists" restoring the monarchy to Iran, and restoring our close relations with the Shah. The Shah was an extraordinary, seductive person and he in a sense seduced all American presidents, and most American secretaries of state. We could not imagine that he could be in trouble, that this great victory should be crumbling. Therefore we were in a period of denial until shortly before he left he country, and even after he left the country. There were people talking about the restoration of the monarchy.

The United States was very concerned about the overthrow of the Shah. This was a great blow to the United States. The power structure of the Middle East changed dramatically with the most important country in the Gulf becoming, not one of the pillars of American policy in the area, but one of the strongest opponents of America, and the entire world, because of our close association with the Shah. . . .

When disintegration started, and a report was prepared on this--the economic and political and military disintegration of the country--the army had been totally purged, and the people who were taking over were young and incompetent. The implication was that the government would not last too much longer. A copy of such a report was given to the Saudis, and the Saudis were quite impressed by it, because they were deathly afraid of the government of Iran's mullahs. What the Saudis did with this report is where this narrative breaks down somewhat.

There are a lot of people who believe that the Saudis gave a copy of this to Saddam. But no Saudis ever told me that it was given, and no Iraqi has ever told me that they got a copy of this report from the Saudis, although they could have. Whether they did or not, Saddam also reached the same conclusion on his own. There's no doubt about that. If he got confirmation of his conclusion from an American report, that would have made him even more determined to move against Iran. Saddam thought that if they are really close to disintegration, attack from me will bring about the total collapse of the country. I will be able to absorb what the Arabs have always called Irabustan into the greater Arab homeland, and Irabustan happens to be the Iranian province that has almost all of its oil. There were Iraqis at the time who saw that this would be a fatal policy for Iraq, most notably Adnan Hamdani. He was then minister of planning, and a close personal friend of mine and coincidentally, of Saddam, as well.

Adnan said at a cabinet meeting, "Well, they may be close to disintegration now, but we know what happens when a country is attacked from outside. The Soviet Union was very unpopular inside Russia, but when it was attacked by Hitler, the people rallied, not around communism, and not around the Soviet Union but around Holy Mother Russia. If Iran is attacked, people who don't like the mullahs are going to rally around the government because there's a foreign attack. If the attacker plans, as it certainly does, to dislodge the oil-producing province of the country, everybody in the country is going to fight against Iraq forever. And Iran, I point out, is three times as big as Iraq. It's a war that we can lose. It will be a disaster for Iraq."

Whereupon Saddam killed him, Adnan, by himself. Not that he had him killed-- Saddam killed Adnan himself.

By all accounts, he went to the funeral and cried at the loss of his dear friend. His wife still gets the pension of a widow of a cabinet officer. And here's another case of somebody suggesting, and not agreeing, with something that Saddam has suggested. It was during the war, when Iraq was not winning and probably was losing. The losses were terrible for Iraq. The Iranians were organized, and they were sending wave after wave of people in to the battle, who were being slaughtered. The Iranians didn't care about the losses, and the Iraqis cared more. They were much smaller. At the cabinet meeting, Saddam apparently said, according to all accounts, "Perhaps I should withdraw. Khomeini has made this a personal attack on me. He said he has no battle with Iraq, he has a battle with me, and maybe I should just withdraw. Then peace can be made with Iran."

The health minister at that point said, "We don't want you to go, of course, and if you withdraw [from power] it should be temporary. Just go to your farm and wait there, and then when things are normal, then you can come back, but that maybe should be done."

That wasn't the sequence that Saddam wanted to hear. He wanted people to say, "You can't possibly do this. You are Iraq, you cannot withdraw, and you must stay." The health minister was not killed by Saddam, but he was executed, probably after torture. God knows. In any case, his remains were delivered to his family in a bag in small pieces, and no funeral was allowed.

Now these things make an impression on cabinet people, and people who are around Saddam. When it came to talking about the invasion of Kuwait, if there were Iraqis who foresaw the consequences of such an action, and I have no doubt whatsoever that there were many, not one would dare point this out to the leader, because he would remember the minister of planning first, and then the minister of health. He doesn't want to be the third in this sequence.

In those days, you sometimes went to Baghdad. Had you met Saddam during that period?

I met him once.

What was your impression of the man? What is he like when you meet him?

He's completely surrounded by goons, all heavily armed. No metal device could be smuggled into his presence. My impression is that if he's assassinated--and that's the only way he's will be gotten rid of--it's going to be by someone that is a profile of the assassin. We all know he's going to be a Sunni, an Arab nationalist, a close associate, probably even a relative of Saddam. It's going to be somebody who has decided that, for the good of my country, most likely it would be that. Or it could be, because a close friend of his has been murdered by Saddam. The assassin is going to say, "I will kill the man, I will die myself, but I will kill him." That's the impression I got. It will take somebody of those characteristics, and I don't think there are too many around, at least not many who have access to Saddam.

How do his own people treat him? How do they act towards him?

With total diffidence, of course. Now, you can't be sure that you saw Saddam. There are a lot of doubles who look very much like him, and quite frequently these interviews are conducted not by Saddam himself but by a double. Whenever Saddam appears in public, where somebody with a high-powered long-reach rifle could be, it's always a double.

Before he invaded Kuwait, what signals were being sent by the U.S.?

Were we telling Saddam, "You're our man in the Middle East, you can do anything and we will go along?" Are we talking about anything that would allow him to reach that conclusion? I don't think so. I don't think we were deliberately doing that, but we certainly preferred Saddam to the mullahs. We were very tolerant of Saddam. There was no great outcry when the Kurdish villages were destroyed and the Kurds were all murdered. There was not really much outcry after Saddam allegedly used gas against the Kurds. Saddam could quite reasonably conclude that, with all of these signals, the testimony in the congress, people talking about the economic importance of Iraq, that he would be able to get away with what he intended to do in Kuwait. I've given some of the reasons before. April Glaspie, who was the American ambassador at the time, had never met Saddam, and she was called in to see Saddam with no notice at all. In other words, there wasn't any possibility of her getting back to Washington saying, "I'm seeing Saddam for the first time. What shall I say, what messages shall I pass?" She couldn't do that.

So she went to see Saddam. And she's been held, I think quite unfairly, as the scapegoat for our failed policy in the area. I think she is totally blameless. I have talked to a lot of my colleagues and said, "What would you have said if you were with Saddam and the subject of Kuwait came up? You would say exactly what April said, wouldn't you?" I know I would have. He talked about the border dispute with Kuwait, and she took the straight American line, which is we do not take positions on border disputes between friendly countries. That's standard. That's what you always say. You would not have said, "Mr. President, if you really are considering invading Kuwait, by God, we'll bring down the wrath of God on your palaces, and on your country, and you'll all be destroyed." She wouldn't say that, nor would I. Neither would any diplomat. Yet she's been punished for not having made that extraordinary statement. It's an absurdity. But you had to find scapegoats. And who is the scapegoat--George Bush? Baker? Metzenbaum? Dole? None are satisfactory scapegoats. April Glaspie has no constituency at all.

What was your own thinking about the Gulf war air war and the ground war?

I was opposed to the war. I thought this could have been handled in the Arab context. He certainly had to leave Kuwait, no question about that. There wasn't a single person in the entire region who thought that he should be allowed to incorporate Kuwait into his country. Prince Sultan, the Saudi defense minister, said right after the invasion that this has to be handled in the Arab context. Clearly Saddam must leave, but this also has to be handled in a brotherly Arab fashion, and Iraq needs to develop the port. There are two islands that block the entrance to the port. They are totally barren, not a single person living there, there's no oil, no resources. In the interest of their brotherhood, Kuwait could lease part of these islands to Iraq so they could develop the port. When he came out with this, I said publicly that the problem is solved--that's Saddam the face-saving device that he needs. He is going to accept it, and the problem will be finished.

Well, it didn't work out that way. There was a call at a very high level, obviously to Fahd of Saudi Arabia, who was told that he should bring his brother into line. And he did.

Which government?

Our government--a very top level. I presume it was from the president, but I'm not entirely sure. It almost certainly was from the president. In any case, they got the call, Fahd reacted, and Sultan was disciplined. He made no further public statement for years after that. And the whole Sultan statement was ignored.

Why was that call made?

Because we didn't want him to withdraw. We were already going forward preparing for a war, and we wanted to do what we ultimately did, and he would have screwed up everything. Statements had been made. I am sure that you've seen them on the record. Our nightmare in the last days was that Saddam would withdraw, and then we wouldn't be able to go forward with our grand plans to destroy Iraq and the infrastructure.

But America had been working with Saddam and Iraq through the 1980s, and . . .

That's true, but everybody wanted to forget that. Nobody wanted anybody to remember the statements that he had made about Iraq in the past that were at all friendly. Certainly the assistant secretary of the Middle East didn't. Certainly Simpson of Wyoming did not want to have his statements recorded. I suspect strongly that's why he decided he wasn't going to run for re-election, because his opposition surely would have brought out the wonderfully colorful statement that he made to Saddam about controlling the press.

So it just was a question of there being a force in place in the Gulf--that America had to use it . . .?

Iraq was clearly the most important Arab country. It had a highly intelligent, highly educated population. Illiteracy was essentially eliminated. That's one of the good things that Saddam did for the country. It had the second-largest oil reserves in the world. It had fertile land, and lots of water. Iraq had a great future ahead of her, and I think still does.

I said until a few years ago that, within ten years after the end of the Saddam regime, Iraq would be knows as the Japan of the Middle East. I don't think I should say that anymore. Too many people have left the country. The educational system has collapsed. Children have grown up in malnutrition. Their development has certainly not been normal. It's going to take longer than ten years before Iraq can be restored.

When the Gulf war began, how did your thinking change?

When the actual invasion started, all the bad things happened that I didn't want to happen. The infrastructure of the country had been destroyed. The water systems have been destroyed, and the sewage systems had been destroyed. America was viewed in the area, not only in Iraq, but throughout the area, as the new Mongol invaders. I thought that, now, we have to salvage something from this, and the only thing that we can salvage that would benefit us and the area in the long run is the removal of Saddam. So at that point, I argued that we should move toward Baghdad, it's not another Vietnam, as people said. The land is extremely flat and open. Baghdad is some 400 miles from the Persian Gulf, and it has an elevation of 80 feet. There are no big mountains in this area. Everybody in the south hates Saddam--mostly Shias. The non-Shias are popular around Basra, and Basra could have been handled extremely easily. But you march to the Shia areas, and the only thing that people would have thrown at our soldiers would have been flowers. The Kurd,s, almost to a man, hate Saddam. The Sunni Arabs, who are certainly less than 20 percent of the population of the country, are not unified behind Saddam.

So you have the overwhelming majority of the country against Saddam. If we go to the area, Saddam will be overthrown and killed, as will his henchmen. Then the country can start moving again. We didn't do that, and I suppose I know the reasons for it. The administration couldn't believe that it could be so easy--that there would be casualties. I'm not saying there would have been no casualties. There could be sharpshooters some place who would kill an American soldier, or two, or a handful of them, but the causalities would have been minor. We had a war that was almost unique in our history, with essentially no casualties. More Americans were killed by friendly fire than were killed by Iraqi opposition. Bush's polls were extraordinary--90 percent approval in our polls. No American president has ever had that. I suppose Bush decided he wasn't going to risk that, because these polls guarantee his re-election. If he moves to Baghdad, and then American body bags start coming back, these poll numbers would drop. Therefore, it's best to do nothing. I don't know if that's his thinking or not. He hasn't talked about it, really. Schwarzkopf, I thought, would say something in his book. There must have been some opposition of the government to this policy. But who is arguing in favor of moving to Baghdad? Not many that I know of.

One of the arguments is that U.S. allies in the region would have sharply opposed that. What do you think?

They certainly wouldn't have gone along with it, especially the Saudis, and thy're the only ones that really count. But what the Saudis really fear is the disintegration of Iraq. They didn't want that to happen at all, because they thought that Iraq would join Iran. I have never believed that. At the start of the Iraq-Iran war, there was some legitimate question as to how this would be. But the war lasted for ten years or so, and there were no mass Shia defections--not the army, not the soldiers themselves, and not the officers. There were no mass defections. In fact, the Shia Iraqis showed that they were primarily Arab, not primarily Shia, so the danger of that happening is quite minimal--not that the Saudis look at it that way. They are afraid that this might happen. You'll have a Shia state. Even if it's not united with Iran, it will cooperate. The Kurds, of course, would declare independence. So the Saudis were totally opposed to the disintegration of Iraq, as are most Iraqis as well. I don't think that this would have brought about the disintegration of the country. Move to Baghdad, Saddam is overthrown, somebody else will be put in power. Maybe we'll have a Shia in power, with a Kurdish vice president. This could well have happened. You can never prove that it would have happened this way--such a benign development. What did happen has been an absolute catastrophe for Iraq.

Could the U.S. have maintained its good relations with other states in the region, and still gone into Baghdad?

I think so. I don't think there's any problem. There would have been some pro-forma opposition to it, but we could go in and withdraw immediately, and nobody talks about a long American opposition. Go in until Saddam is arrested and executed along with his henchmen, and then withdraw immediately.

We're not into putting up a puppet. Whoever is in power is up to you Iraqis to decide. Do it as quickly as you can, and if you have a reasonable government, we will certainly try to work with it, and then withdraw. But a long American occupation would certainly have been a disaster, for us, and for the country. Nobody who thought that we should have moved toward Baghdad is talking in terms of a long American occupation.

Let's talk now about where U.S. policy is today. It's aiming to change things in Iraq by working with opposition groups outside the country. What's your impression of the INC as an institution?

There are a lot of very good people who are involved in it, but not one of them has a substantial following at home in Iraq. The prime leader, Chalabi, has no following, none whatsoever. He probably has more supporters in the American congress than he does in the entire country of Iraq, and he has exploited that. He gets support from us. He presumably gets funds from us, one way or the other--funds have been allocated. His English is extremely good. He's persuasive, and he's charming. He does have a history of embezzlement from a bank in Jordan, although I gather that he denies this is. But the point is: does he have any support inside Iraq? Nobody I know who knows anything about Iraq would say that he has any support at all in the country. Therefore, why should we be supporting him? Having Chalabi known as America's man certainly makes us look like fools, not only in Iraq, but in the entire area. Nobody in any surrounding country thinks that Chalabi has any hope of taking over Iraq, unless the United States occupies the country and installs him as its dictator, which we clearly are not going to do.

To what extent has U.S. credibility in the region been affected by the recent policy towards Iraq?

This is an old problem. The people of the area, in just about every country, have an extraordinary exaggeration of the power and the ability of the United States, particularly that of the CIA. The United States says repeatedly that we are the only superpower in the world. We're certainly the richest country in the world, and therefore anything we want to do, we can do. This is an article of faith. I'm not talking about the man in the street. I'm talking about leaders of the countries of the area. I don't want to mention names, but it will be difficult for me to name somebody who looks at us realistically, that there are limits to American power. Therefore, if you assume that anything the United States wants will happen, it's very easy to take the next step. The next step is inevitable. You say you want to get rid of Saddam, but that cannot be true, because if you wanted to get rid of Saddam, you would have gotten rid of Saddam a long time ago. Therefore, you want him to stay in power. If you take that premise and build on it, the reason is a real interest on the Arabian peninsula. Saddam frightens the Arabian peninsula, and as long as he is in power, we can do whatever we want throughout the GCC, the Gulf Cooperation Council, Saudi Arabia and the sub-states. That's widely believed in the area.

The sanctions had lasted for nine years. What do you think the next step should be regarding Iraq?

Most Arabs in the area think that the sanctions should be lifted, that the sanctions have in no way weakened Saddam. The sanctions have certainly hurt the Iraqi people, and there is no rational reason to continue the sanctions. The other point they make is that desperate people, really desperate people who are hungry, don't make revolutions. The people who make revolutions are people who have hope, and you've destroyed the hope of the Iraqi people through the sanctions. Lift the sanctions. Allow normal life to be renewed and then there will be some move from the army, or a group of officers, or civilians with the army against Saddam. Obviously, this is a difficult thing for the United States government to accept, given the previous position, even if it's accurate, and you can never demonstrate that it's going to work out that way. Saddam has been demonized to such an extent--not that he isn't a demon, you don't have to demonize him--but he will crow if the sanctions have lifted. He's already crowing. He says--'where is Gorbachev, where is Mitterand, where is Bush? They're all gone, and I'm still here!'

If the sanctions are lifted, he's certainly going to treat that as a great Iraqi victory, and that would be difficult for American politicians to swallow. I understand that. But if we want to get rid of him, how can we do this? Well, maybe we don't want to get rid of him. Maybe there's nothing wrong with the present situation from their perspective. Iraq is not a real important player in anything except oil supply. Iraqi oil is coming onto the market, and it can be increased. I've always assumed that any peace treaty that we have with Saddam, or with his successor, is going to make Iraq essentially a demilitarized state. I don't think I've ever talked to an Iraqi who opposes that. The idea of having Iraq with no army is immensely appealing to Iraqis, but most Arab reaction to this is that you don't want Iraq to be demilitarized. Iran is a real threat and to your interests, and you're going to want a strong Iraqi army to counter the Iranians. There are Arabs who say that in the Gulf, as well, but not Iraqis. I suppose we have to wait until Saddam dies, and if we wait for a natural death, that could be another 20 years. It wouldn't be easy to assassinate him. People don't have access to him. Although assassinating Saddam is not going to be easy, it's not impossible. There have been a couple of good signs recently. When we hear about coup attempts in Iraq, I'm never sure if this is true or not, or whether this is an Iraqi excuse to round up a bunch of suspect officers and kill them. But there was an attack on Udday, one of Saddam's sons, and the attackers have never been found. There was apparently another real coup attempt, when there was a move against some of his closest allies. They were all Sunni Arabs living in the west of the country. They were basically wiped out. So there have been cases where people have organized, to a certain extent, and have carried out some mission without it being penetrated by Saddam's intelligence. Someday, if Saddam weakens, it will be carried out

Someone told me that the coup is going to come, when he's not going to be able to hold his coffee cup without shaking it. That's going to be a sign that he is on his way out. He's no longer the strongman that he was, and then somebody will move against him. But that's a very flimsy sign to look for.

Can America do anything to speed up a coup?

I can't give any good any advice on that. I can't. If I had any good ideas, I would have said them, publicly or privately, a long time ago. I'd like to see the man out. I like Iraq. I like the Iraqis--they're great people. And they've suffered tremendously under this man. I'd like to see him go. But how can we get rid of him effectively? Not by aiding Chalabi. Maybe by arming the Kurds against him, that's conceivable. But the Iranians and the Turks would have collective heart attacks if we were to do that. And we will never do that, because of the Turks. Send in a mission to kill him? Well, we're not supposed to do that sort of thing. We have tried it at times, and we've never been very successful at it, nor, for that matter, have the Israelis. The Israelis may have some assets in Iraq, but I doubt if they are any better than ours. So I have any suggestions on how to get rid of him, but to wait. Wait.

What should we do right now?

I'm not disposed to have my government do things that are foolish, or counterproductive. There's not very much that I know of that we could do effectively to get rid of Saddam and to move Iraq forward. He is surrounded by people whose futures are tied up with his, and they'll defend him to the last, to the end. He's mortal, of course. He will die some time. He could be overthrown by a coup. There have been a few signs, not many, but a few signs, of activities that have been conducted against him, and have not been uncovered. There was apparently one coup attempt that failed, but the perpetrators were not found. And there was the attack on Udday, his son, and the people who did that have not been caught. You can assume, you can hope at least, that someday one of these attempts will be effective, and Saddam will be killed or overthrown. Or he'll get some disease and he'll die of that, or he'll die ultimately of old age. I can't really recommend much that we can do to hasten this end. If I knew anything, I would certainly be talking about it publicly and privately, and I don't. So I suppose the only thing we can do is wait until, until there's some divine intervention, if you believe in that sort of thing.

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