What were Saddam Hussein and his aides in the Baathist leadership thinking and doing in March and April 2003 as the US-led coalition forces pushed their way through Iraq and raced towards Baghdad?
The answer, depicted in this fascinating eyewitness account based on dozens of interviews is surprisingly simple: the dictator and his acolytes watched a great deal of television and, lied to each other about what was really happening. The narrative provided by the interviews is further strengthened with material from the literally millions of official Iraqi documents seized by the coalition after the fall of Baghdad.
According to this account, Saddam Hussein wrote the script of his doom by making two assumptions that proved wrong.
The first was that the United States, the only power capable of changing his regime by force would never do so. The second was that even if the Americans did launch an attack on Iraq, his Russian, French and other” friends” would immediately use the United Nations to force a ceasefire and allow him to survive in the context of yet another stalemate.
Part of Saddam’s delusions was of his own making. Over the years, he had persuaded himself that by relying on his “sixth sense” he could read the mind of any adversary at any given time. He told his entourage: Do not worry! I understand the Americans! I read them like a book!
However, to blame Saddam alone for his delusions would be unfair. Everyone in his entourage did their best to encourage the dictator’s fantasies, and none questioned his judgement. Worse still several foreign powers, notably Russia and France also joined the game of fooling Saddam into believing they would save him just in time. Even as the drama was heading for a crescendo in the spring of 2003, the Iraqi ambassador in Moscow sent a top-secret report quoting senior Russian intelligence sources as saying that they were sure the US would not invade. Did the ambassador invent the report? Or was he duped by former KGB officers who had been bribed by Iraq for decades?
The French also played a role in encouraging Saddam in his defiance by pretending that the threat of using their veto in the United Nations’ Security Council would make it impossible for the US and its allies to start a pre-emptive war.
Tareq Aziz, a veteran associate of Saddam and one of the interviewees, speaks with bitterness about both France and Russia that, he claims, had no regard for Iraq’s interests and were concerned only about making money in Iraq’s captive market.
Aziz is quoted in these terms: “France and Russia did not help Iraq; they helped themselves… We had attempted to win favour with the French and the Russians through oil and other contacts… The French are dubious; they are Westerners. They knew that the post sanction contracts will go to the US companies, and they would lose millions… Russia continued to support us in the Security Council but for the same reasons as the French.”
To Saddam, the American threat, although experienced by his military every day for more than 13 years, after the liberation of Kuwait, remained a chimera to the very end. The dictator had not heard Carl von Clausewitz’s celebrated dictum that: “War is not waged against an abstract enemy, but against a real one who must always be kept in mind.”
Even once the Americans had reached the outskirts of Baghdad, Saddam was more worried about an internal revolt than the foreign invasion. It was for that reason that he had instructed his forces to avoid all meaningful engagement with the coalition. One or two Iraqi generals, who tried to ignore those orders in order to fight the Americans were reprimanded, and removed from the frontline. Saddam buried his best fighter aircrafts and tanks and ordered his best units to take their weapons to safe places rather than stand and fight the coalition. As always, he was thinking of what would happen after the Americans have left. Only this time the Americans had come to change his regime and stay until the Iraqis create a different system altogether.
Many of the senior Iraqi military leaders interviewed claim that the leadership never developed anything resembling a coherent strategy to deal with the invasion. Saddam could suddenly change his mind about agreed plans and even his favourite son, Qussay, would not dare press him for consistency.
Even such senior officers as the Defence Minister, the Commanders of the Republican Guard, the regime’s elite force, and the Chief of Staff never found out what they were supposed to do until the very end. Some of the most damning accounts of what happened comes from General Abid Hamid Mahmoud Al-Takriti Saddam’s military secretary who was regarded as the despot’s closest aide. However, when interviewed by a team of American and Iraqi de-briefers for this book, the general sang like a canary and damned his former benefactor in a language fit for a fishwife.
Another surprise interviewee was General Ali Hassan al-Majid, alias ” Chemical Ali), a cousin of Saddam, who also chose to bite the hand that had fed him for son long.
It is difficult to know what part of the narrative provided by the interviewees was prompted by their desire to curry favour with the coalition in the hope of escaping a harsher punishment. It is clear from some of the narrative that the interviewees came out with what they thought the Americans would like to hear. Nevertheless, there is enough of a common thread in all the interviews to indicate the chaos created by Saddam’s autocratic, erratic and ultimately cowardly style of rule. For years Saddam had lied to his entourage and been lied to by them in return. The two had then formed a chorus that told lies to the Iraqi people who repaid the compliment by lying to the regime. (In his last ‘ election’, for example, Saddam won with more than 100 per cent of the votes!)
In one or two interviews, one could hear a voice of honest patriotism. That voice belongs to those Iraqi officers who, although part of a despicable regime, had kept a corner of their hearts for Iraq. The fact that such individuals existed, and were ready to fight and die for Iraq despite the heaviest possible odds, is a confirmation of the view that the concept of ” Uruqah” (Iraqiness) is not pure fantasy.
The first in a series of books based on interviews with former Iraqi leaders, this volume suffers from a number of structural weaknesses. It fails to develop a polyphonic narrative by focusing on specific issues at any given time. It also devotes too much space to relatively minor matters while flying over major issues with a few paragraphs. There are also numerous cases of the erroneous transliteration of Iraqi proper and place names; something that more rigorous editing might have prevented.
While this book makes for a fascinating read, and is welcome, it also raises the issue of what happened to the tonnes of documents seized by the coalition after the fall of the Baathist regime. US officials claim that the documents are being kept out of sight for technical reasons having to do with translation and classification. That claim, however, is unconvincing, not to say disingenuous. The fact that the Americans are sitting on the documents has generated a rumour industry inside and outside Iraq with occasional “targeted leaks” against personalities supposedly in Saddam’s pay.
The proper way to go about this is to hand all the seized documents to the Iraqi government, which now enjoys full electoral legitimacy with the understanding that the material be made available to journalists, academics and researchers. No document should be removed from Iraq without the express permission of the Iraqi authorities.
It is important to know how the Baathist regime worked, what kind of networks it had built inside and outside Iraq, who it bribed, and how it squandered hundreds of billions of dollars of Iraqi and other Arab money over three decades. The release of the documents would allow for the trial of the Baathist regime to begin in the court of history just as its leaders are on trial in the courts of new Iraq.