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How Not to Fight a Dictator

Saddam Hussein’s reaction to this running family crisis was to summon the surviving members around Uday’s hospital bed for a meeting at which he systematically blamed his relatives for many acts of violence and corruption that knowledgeable Iraqis had previously attributed to Saddam himself—to whom, Saddam said, they owed everything. The tape of this meeting somehow found its way to London where it was made public. The Cockburns believe this was precisely Saddam’s intention.

Why, after all these years, does this grand-guignol regime, battered by unprecedented international action as well as by self-inflicted wounds, continue to present an apparently insuperable problem to the rest of the world? Both of the books under review point out that the United States (and the United Nations) have never had a coherent strategy, an “endgame” as Ritter calls it, for dealing conclusively with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. And both books show the false assumptions, inconsistencies, misconceptions, obsessions, prejudices, and sheer willful ignorance and inattention that have so often marked Western, and especially United States, policies and actions concerning Iraq. The Cockburns give a dismaying account of these failings.

On February 15, 1991, for example, President Bush appealed to the Iraqi military and people “to take matters into their own hands and to force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside.” Not surprisingly Iraqis, especially in the predominantly Shi’ite south contiguous to the Desert Storm forces’ front line, thought they were being asked to join in the fight. But the US forces then in southern Iraq refused to support the uprising that resulted, apparently because they believed, wrongly, that Iran was behind it. (This episode recalls the rhetoric of Radio Free Europe urging satellite countries to rise up against Soviet occupation in the early 1950s, the ensuing 1956 Hungarian revolt, and the stony silence that greeted the insurgents’ desperate pleas for Western help.)

Until the recent change, in tone at least, of the positions of some of the Iranian leaders, the US policy of “dual containment” has viewed Iran and Iraq as equal pariah states, a considerable obstacle, one might think, to mustering all possible support for dealing with Saddam Hussein. There was also the fear of creating chaos in Iraq, expressed in the words of National Security Council official Richard Haass apropos of the Kurdish uprising in the north: “Our policy is to get rid of Saddam, not his regime.” In any case, by the end of March 1991, and with great brutality, Saddam Hussein had put down the southern revolt under the noses of Desert Storm forces. This was a turning point for the humiliated and defeated dictator. When we consider the subsequent fumbling attempts to foster an “internal opposition” in Iraq, the United States reaction to the 1991 Shi’ite revolt seems both a cynical betrayal of people who had believed they were allies and also a tragically missed opportunity.

Ignorance about Saddam’s regime and power seems to have led to a widely held view in Washington that sanctions would eventually bring it down. If anything they have reinforced it, while starving the Iraqi people. There was also an extraordinary ignorance about the extent of Saddam’s programs to produce weapons of mass destruction. Neither the nuclear weapons plant at al-Atheer—the Los Alamos of Iraq—nor the biological weapons facility at al-Hakam was touched by the Desert Storm bombing campaign, because nobody knew they were there. Early and unrealistic appraisals of UNSCOM’s task were doubtless based on such ignorance, and also on a misreading of Saddam Hussein’s obsession with weapons of mass destruction, which, quite apart from their possibilities as first-strike weapons, he almost certainly regards as the ultimate deterrent against his external enemies, and perhaps some internal ones as well. As William R. Polk put it in these pages, “Saddam knows that Israel has nuclear weapons, and that Iran is on the way to acquiring them…. He believes, I am sure, that he will never be secure until he has them too.”2

The CIA has, of course, had a part in the long-drawn-out drama, and much of the time the agency’s performance has alternated between farce and tragedy. A particular problem has been the CIA’s concept of the “Iraqi opposition,” which consists in part of groups of expatriates, sometimes of doubtful antecedents, competing for limited support and often engaging in internecine quarrels in the process. In northern Iraq the two main Kurdish factions actually went to war with each other in August 1996, with catastrophic consequences. One, under Jalal Talabani, sought, and got, Iranian support; and the other, under Massoud Barzani, appealed to Saddam Hussein. Moving north, the Iraqi forces rounded up the Iraqi opposition groups who were concentrated in Iraqi Kurdistan, put the CIA team with them to ignominious flight, and occupied the Kurdish capital, Arbil. Saddam Hussein then withdrew his army units, leaving behind a large network of security agents—all in all a big success for the Iraqi dictator. Some 6,500 Iraqis and Kurds who escaped were flown by Washington to Guam, and eventually to the United States. (Six of them are still detained by the Immigration and Naturalization Service in a prison in the Mojave Desert, on poorly substantiated suspicions of being Iraqi agents.)

An attempted coup against Saddam, organized in 1996 from Amman in cooperation with one of the two principal Iraqi opposition groups, Iyad Alawi’s Iraqi National Accord (INA), provides a compendium of virtually everything that can possibly go wrong in such an enterprise. As the Cockburns describe it, far too many people and groups were involved from the outset, and with US elections approaching some believed they were under pressure from the Clinton administration for an early “move” against Saddam Hussein. Alawi, obsessed with publicity, held a press conference to announce the opening of his headquarters in Amman; his highly suggestive rhetoric can only have alerted Iraqi intelligence, and he continued to court public attention.

The INA believed that, with the help of a retired Iraqi general living in Amman, it would be able to get cooperation in a coup from Iraqi officers actually serving in the Republican Guard and the Iraqi security establishment. The general’s three sons, active officers in the Republican Guard, were to provide the core of the revolt. This gave the operation special promise. Messages to Baghdad from Amman had to be entrusted to one of the professional drivers approved by Iraqi intelligence, so the CIA provided the INA with an advanced satellite system for communication with the plotters in Baghdad. Incredibly, one of the approved drivers was entrusted with carrying the equipment to Baghdad; he was intercepted and arrested by the Iraqis. In contrast to the garrulous plotters in Amman, Iraqi intelligence kept quiet about their capture of the satellite equipment. Instead, putting it to good use, they watched, waited, and listened.

When Ahmad Chalabi of the rival Iraqi National Congress (INC) learned from a source inside Iraq of the capture and use of the satellite equipment, he went to Washington to warn the CIA. The agency, however, believing that he was motivated by jealousy of the rival opposition group, rejected his warnings. The doomed operation went on. In June 1996, in The Washington Post, Alawi actually spoke of a forthcoming “secret” operation. In late June in Baghdad the arrests began—120 officers of the Republican Guard and General Security Service in the first sweep. The Cockburns estimate that in all some eight hundred people were purged, including many senior officers. Then, for the first time, Iraqi intelligence broke its silence. According to the Cockburns, a final message came through the Amman satellite terminal from the Iraqi intelligence agency, the Mukhabarat, to the CIA. “We have arrested all your people,” it reportedly said. “You might as well pack up and go home.”

The Cockburns describe a little-known group—al-Naddah, “the Awakening”—whose operating procedures differed in every way from those of the CIA and the Iraqi opposition. This was—perhaps still is—a group of dedicated young idealists and professionals strongly opposed to Saddam’s dictatorship and the damage it was doing to Iraq. They formed an underground organization of hermetically sealed cells designed to limit the damage that could result from arrests and torture of its members. Their major achievement was the nearly successful assassination, in December 1996, of Saddam’s son Uday, an effort which destroyed the aura of invincibility surrounding Saddam’s immediate family and probably did more harm to the regime than the INC and the INA combined.


The Special Commission is a temporary measure,” Saddam Hussein told his closest colleagues in 1991. “We will fool them and we will bribe them and the matter will be over in a few months.” The Cockburns heard about this statement from a high-level defector. In making so grave a miscalculation, the dictator was reckoning without at least two important factors—Rolf Ekeus, the first executive chairman of UNSCOM, and two or three top-level Iraqi defectors.

In 1991 Rolf Ekeus was the Swedish representative at the United Nations Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, a group devoted, among other things, to negotiating a worldwide ban on chemical weapons. He was a skilled Swedish diplomat whose restraint and quiet manner concealed a highly principled approach and a tough and determined character. When Iraqi warplanes dropped nerve gas and mustard gas on the Kurdish inhabitants of Halabja in northern Iraq in 1988, all governments, including Sweden, had remained shamefully silent. Ekeus informed his superiors in Stockholm that, whatever Swedish policy might be, he was going to denounce this outrage in an impending disarmament conference. According to the Cockburns, he was the only official representative of any government in the world except Iran to denounce the use of chemical weapons at Halabja. Neither Saddam Hussein nor the United States apparently realized that, in Ekeus, UNSCOM had an extraordinarily determined, independent, and skillful leader.

From the beginning Ekeus’s task was to plod forward through a repetitive sequence of Iraqi denials, concealments, partial disclosures, and further discoveries by UNSCOM, sometimes of physical evidence of weapons programs and sometimes of telltale documentation, leading to further partial Iraqi admissions of missile research, or biological or chemical warfare programs. Later on, this pattern would be punctuated by Iraqi threats of non-cooperation, countered by threats, and sometimes the reality, of United States air strikes. Occasionally the inspectors would make an unexpected breakthrough, as with the discovery, through satellite photographs, of calutrons, the huge electromagnetic isotope separators being used in Iraq’s nuclear weapons program. When the Iraqis tried to remove the vehicles carrying the calutrons, UNSCOM inspectors filmed the unmistakable shapes as they were being driven away.

Iraqi defectors made a decisive contribution to UNSCOM’s work. Wafiq al-Samarrai, the former chief of military intelligence, revealed the use of VX gas in warheads, and much about the production of anthrax and other biological warfare agents. Hussein Kamal, Saddam’s son-in-law, who briefly defected to Amman, then returned and was executed, had actually been in charge both of the weapons of mass destruction program and of the concealment system. The Iraqi authorities, whose excuses were often fanciful and sometimes fantastic, blamed tactics used to deceive UNSCOM squarely on the defector Hussein Kamal. In making his way through this hall of mirrors, Ekeus kept his temper and his sense of direction. He rightly commanded the respect of his inspectors and of almost everyone else as well. Among the people described in the two books under review, Ekeus comes closest to being a hero.

  1. 2

    See his “Iraq: A New Leaf,” The New York Review, February 18, 1999.

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