International News

An Interview with Tariq Aziz

Posted: Wednesday, August 22, 2001 at 11:54 AM CT

Tariq Aziz - Since the early 1970s, he has been Saddam's conduit with the outside world, and his main advisor on foreign policy. Now Deputy Prime Minister, Aziz remains in overall charge of Iraq's foreign policy, answering only to Saddam himself.

As a young man, what was it about the Ba'ath Party that appealed to you?

Most of the young people of my generation were not satisfied with the current situation at that time--the British colonial influence on Iraq, the backwardness of our country. The Iraqi royal regime was a backward regime. Most of the politicians ruling the country belonged to the Ottoman generation; they were mostly officers in the Ottoman army. Their views and perceptions about life, about democracy, and about progress, were quite out of touch with the reality of modern times. So most of the young people were against the colonial influence. For instance, I was at primary school when the then-prime minister of Iraq signed a renewal of the old Iraqi/British agreement concerning air bases and military bases in Iraq with the then-foreign secretary of Britain, Bevin. People went to the streets, and I participated in that protest. . . .

For a young man at that time, such a government was not tolerated. We had to find an alternative. There was the communist ideology. There was the liberal system, which we read about in the books. And there was the nationalist movement -- the Arab Socialist Party. . . .

When I learned about the Arab Socialist Party, I felt from the very beginning that that's the best choice. It seeks independence and Arab unity. Even before the politicians, we were sympathizing with the Palestinian tragedy. We sympathized with any nationalist movement, and sympathized with socialism, because we belonged to the poor segment of the society and naturally sympathized with socialist ideas and practices. I read books about socialism, European socialism. Therefore, I sympathized with the Arab Socialist Party, and I joined and became an activist.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the U.S. was concerned about Soviet influence in the Middle East, and in Iraq in particular. What's your recollection of the U.S. attitude toward the Ba'ath Party in the run-up to and following the 1968 overthrow?

In the 1950s and the early 1960s, the United States did not care much about the Arab Socialist Party. They didn't think that this political group, whether in Syria or in Iraq, was going to have an important future. They were more concerned about communism, generally, all over the world and in this region. But I think that was because they don't know a lot about Iraq. The United States doesn't have a historical background in this part of the world, like the British and French. They might send experts. They have embassies reporting to them, but without genuine perception of the situation. So, they were interested in communism only. Although the Arab Socialist Party appeared after the republican revolution of 1958 as a significant force on the political scene, I don't feel that, at that time, the U.S. gave great attention.

Then, suddenly, they found the Arab Socialist Party in power in 1963. I was then editor-in-chief of the party newspaper, and we received journalists from Britain, France, and the Soviet Union. But very few American journalists came to see us. . . . It was the time of Kennedy and Johnson. There were very few relations between Iraq and the United States. There was an embassy here, and an embassy in Washington, but I don't remember any significant attention being given to our regime. Then a coup occurred against our regime. I was in Syria -- I spent more than a year in prison in Syria -- so personally, I don't have first-hand information. But we were told that there were a number of CIA agents active in the country among the politicians, among the businessmen, and officers. Maybe they were rumors or accusations. Maybe they are true. Some of them appeared to be true later, because it appeared that some of them had connections with Americans. But we didn't feel that this was hard American intervention in the country. They were not very much interested.

In the late 1970s, during the Carter administration, they floated some absurd ideas about Iraq being a pro-Soviet regime -- that there was a Soviet airbase or naval base. Two prominent journalists from Time magazine came, and I met with them. I took them to Vice President Saddam Hussein. I told him, "These people are telling me they have information that there is a Soviet base in the country." He told them to go and look for themselves whether that's true or not. They went, and found nothing, of course. So, there was very little contact between the Iraqi officials and the American officials.

By the way, before we came to power in 1967, diplomatic relations were severed. After the Israeli/Arab war, not only Iraq, but many other countries in the region, even Egypt, severed relations with the United States. We didn't even have an embassy. We had an interest section, the same as in Washington. Our diplomatic representation in Washington was actually dormant. I was then minister of information, and later on, in charge of some important activities in the party. We didn't feel American influence or concern.

Under the Nixon administration, Kissinger was foreign secretary, and before that, an advisor. The whole region, the progressive, political forces, were against what Kissinger was doing and saying, because the feeling against Israeli aggression and the U.S. was strong. . . . The whole region was leaning towards anti-American feelings. So when we came to power, that was the general feeling in the country. . . . And our relations were developing with Europe and the Soviet Union.

After Vice President Saddam Hussein nationalized oil, and oil prices rose, Iraq had quite a bit of money. One theory I've heard is that, although Iraq had a friendship treaty with the Soviet Union, as your country rapidly industrialized, there was the view that Iraq could not just rely on Soviet goods and industry and so Iraq decided to actively work with western countries, the U.S., and their technology. Is that correct?

No. In this regard, we had a clear view. First of all, we did not consider the United States as a major partner in that--not in the development plan, nor in our trade interests. But we did not boycott the United States. Sometimes we bought many goods from them. If there was a proposal from an American company to build an industrial complex here, our requirements were met. But we concentrated on our relations with France, and with Europe. That was a political decision.

Knowing that America was a great ally of Israel, we felt it might be a problem to develop special relations with the United States. But France was taking a rather impartial attitude, politically, since De Gaulle after the 1967 war. So the feeling was, let us develop relations with Europe. France reciprocated positively after the nationalization of oil. Vice President Saddam Hussein went to Paris and met with President Georges Pompidou. Pompidou told him, "This is your sovereign decision. We respect it." That meant he didn't take a hostile attitude against the oil nationalization. But the Americans, the British, and the Dutch took that position, and boycotted Iraqi oil. France's position encouraged Iraq to develop its relations with France, and whichever European country showed some impartial attitude towards the Arab-Israeli conflict, or was not against the development of the country, and who could provide us with our needs.

Also, it was intentional, because we were not communist. . . . We wanted to be friends with the Soviet Union, but we didn't want to be a part of the Soviet bloc, and we kept our independence very carefully from the Soviet Union. We wanted to enlarge our international cooperation. So we looked towards Europe.

Could you explain the vision for the country's future that then-Vice President Saddam Hussein and others in the government had in the 1970s?

During that period, development was our main obsession. President Saddam Hussein was chairman of the planning council in charge of development. He took on that responsibility since the early 1970s. I was the minister of information, and then I left that and worked in the party. He wanted us to be in that council, not only because of economic and technical discussions, but political analysis and political views about how to deal with the world. And our ambition was to turn Iraq into a very, very developed country, with industry, services, technology, and education. This has not changed. During the Iraq-Iran war, it did not change, although our circumstances became more difficult.

Now, it has not changed. We have the same obsession. We spent a lot of time discussing such matters for several years. The president meets with the ministers to discuss details of projects, companies, industries, and services. He really gives a great deal of time to do that, and we also do that. I participate very actively in the discussions. This is our dream. We would like our country to be a very developed country, and we genuinely believe that we deserve that, and believe that we can do that. We have the talent as a nation to be a developed country.

You mentioned that the president spends a lot of time on this, and has for some years. One hears accounts of his concentration, and the hours he works, and his command of details of different sectors of the economy, the government, and the military. How would you characterize him as a leader? Is he hands-on, or is he detached?

Saddam Hussein is my friend and my leader. But I have to be honest in my description of this man. Saddam Hussein is really a special leader. He cares about everything concerning the life of the people, and the development of the country. He gets interested in any minute detail when it concerns the fate of the country. For instance, he's not a military man. He's a law graduate, and a party activist. During the 1970s, he was interested in military affairs during the rebellion between 1974 and 1975. He was in charge of the committee for the north. Part of that committee's concerns was the military activities against Barzani. Beyond that, he was not in charge of the army.

But when he became president and commander-in-chief, and then the war between Iraq and Iran occurred, he was interested in details of the army business. He went to see the military units in the front. He spoke to the staff soldiers, to the low-ranking officers as well as to the generals and the high-ranking officers in the army. So he was very much interested, because he knew that this is going to affect the fate of the country--if we lose, the whole country's going to lose.

After the sanctions were imposed, he's very much concerned about the details of the economy, the welfare of the people, how people are doing this and that. So, he's a special man. He is a real patriot, and he cares about the people. He listens very well to the ideas, analysis, and information of the experts, without forgetting his leading role. He can make the right decision when he believes that this decision is necessary. But he's very patient, listening to those people who advise him. He spends hours listening to them. He listens to the ordinary citizens. He meets scores of people every week. Sometimes people go and see him just to give him an idea, or to complain about something personal or public. So he's very well aware of the welfare of the country and the situation in the country as a whole.

Was the any relation between the new threat from Khomeini's Iran and the decision of your president, Al Bakr, to change the leadership because Vice President Saddam Hussein seemed to be a better man to lead Iraq in this new threat from Iran?

No, that was a completely internal situation. President Al Bakr was our president and secretary general of the party, and we respected him, although it was a fact that the real leader of the country was Saddam Hussein. And Saddam Hussein is a patient man. He does not jump into positions. He served under the presidency of Al Bakr very, very faithfully, and honestly. But then President Al Bakr became old and ill, and he himself realized that he cannot manage this difficult business of running a country, which is getting more and more important.

.. . . He was not interested in the weekly meetings and the daily business of the government. So most of the work went to the planning council under Vice President Saddam Hussein. That was a clumsy situation, and he felt that he cannot continue, therefore, in an official meeting, he told the whole council and party leadership, "I want to leave," in a very calm and sober manner.

What course did your relations with the U.S. take after the Iran-Iraq war began, and what events lead up to the re-establishment of diplomatic relations in 1984?

In 1979, at the non-aligned summit in Havana, it was decided that Iraq would be the next venue of the summit in 1982. On our way back from Havana, I was with the president. He told me, "Tariq, we are going to be the leaders of the non-aligned, and it doesn't look well if we don't have diplomatic relations with the other superpowers. We have very good relations with the Soviet Union. We have to look pure non-aligned. We have our differences with the United States concerning the Arab-Israeli conflict. So, I would like you to start preparing carefully, without any hurry, the resumption of the relationship between us and the United States." I was not the foreign minister, but as I told you after, as deputy prime minister, I was his main advisor in foreign policy--doing some special jobs, and taking some special files following them up.

We started thinking about that. There was no hurry, because we had three years until we become the next leader of the movement. And then, the war occurred. Our analysis was that, if we do it at the beginning of the war, it will be badly interpreted. They will say that Iraq has jumped to the United States in order to face Iran, which was not true. We did not need to jump to the United States to face Iran. We were capable of taking this responsibility.

We didn't make any contacts. Until 1982, we didn't have any special contacts with the American administration. In 1982, the head of the American interest section made a request to the foreign ministry to raise the level of his contacts. He used to go and see the head of what we call the first department in the foreign ministry, which is in charge of relations with western Europe and the United States. That department's minister used to receive the American diplomat in Baghdad, listen to him, and convey whatever we wanted to discuss with the American side at that time--nothing of great importance.

When he made this request to raise his contacts, the president decided that he could come and see me whenever he wants, to talk any business with us. So I started receiving him, and discussing with him the situation in general, the region and the bilateral relations. At that time, we received, for the first time to my recollection, a significant number of staff from the American congress. They came to Baghdad on a fact-finding mission in 1982. I met with them, and we had a very long and thorough discussion about the bilateral relations, the Arab-Israeli conflict, Iran, the Gulf, etc. And then we realized that people would understand now why we will be resuming our relations with the United States. We have proved our capability of standing against Iran. More than two years have passed since the war started, so if we go now and talk to the Americans about resuming our relations, that would not be badly or wrongly interpreted.

Then-President Reagan sent an invoice to Baghdad, to those who were visiting the capitals in the region who also visited Iraq, to convey messages concerning the general situation in that region. In the fall of 1983, during the General Assembly meeting, we discussed the possibility of re-establishing our diplomatic relations. We appointed Hamdoun. We picked him. Hamdoun was the deputy minister of information. The president and I chose him to head the interest section in Washington. We sent him to Washington, and he started making contacts with the government, and with the congress. By 1984, I went to Washington and met with President Reagan, Vice President Bush and all the high-ranking American officials, and we formally re-established our relations. This had nothing to do with Iran, because it was a plan in our heads several years before that. And we thought that it's normal.

It was not our government who severed the relations with the United States, it was the previous one. Then, although sometimes we do it as we did in 1991, we severed the relations with the United States and Britain and those countries who participated in that aggression against Iraq. But we don't believe in that. It's not in our philosophy to sever diplomatic relations with countries with whom you have some differences, or even some enemies, because after all, you need to talk, even to your enemies, if you have enemies. So we did it, and it worked. It worked for a while.

How did it work, and what happened?

We didn't have great expectations from our relations with the United States. First of all, there are false perceptions and analysis that the U.S. supported Iraq in the war again Iran. It's not true. Iran was a proclaimed enemy of the United States. It was clear they wanted to hurt the United States as much as they could. We are not enemies of the United States. Of course, you have some things to talk about, to have some sort of a normal, semi-cordial relationship. We are not the enemies of the United States. There was somebody else who's our enemy, and the proclaimed enemy of the United States. So we had normal relations. We used to meet with the American secretary of state, in New York or in Washington, to exchange views, and to develop our economic trade relations. We were very active in the American public opinion. We encouraged meetings with the congressmen, and with the media. We do everywhere. It was not a special policy towards the United States.

. . . We wanted to know America, and we wanted America to know us. We received many delegations, congressional and individuals. . . . But we didn't have any fantasies about America supporting Iraq in the war against Iran. . . . And we didn't buy any arms from the United States. There was one deal in 1982. . . . He promised that he will bring 150 five-millimeter guns, and we said, we need those guns, why not. Before the shipment was loaded on the ship to bring it to Iraq, the American government stopped it. That was 1982, 1983. So we knew that America would not go too far in their support or supposed support to Iraq. Of course, they didn't want Iran to win, because that was a great threat to their interests. But they were not also enthusiastic to get Iraq to win. Kissenger was very frank in describing the American position at that time, although he was not in power. He said, "We would like both parties to lose." That was a frank and clear description of the real American position.

But nevertheless, we had normal relations. We were received very well in Washington. We had trade relations and cultural relations. Suddenly, there was a surprise to us -- because it was outrageous -- the question of Iran-contra. Before that happened, George Shultz suggested to me an operation. They had decided to create a unit in their state department called Operation Staunch. What's Operation Staunch? He said the unit is going to collect information about who is supplying Iran with arms, and we would like Iraq to cooperate with us in that, and we would use American influence in order to prevent that. We said okay, good. Because we always raised this matter with the British, with the Chinese, even with the Serbians, and even with our friends--some of them were supplying arms to Iran. So if Americans want to help in this regard, that's good.

So it was routine in our foreign ministry, whenever we got any information from the Arab sources, we sent that information to the State Department through diplomatic channels. When I'd meet with Shultz later on, we would discuss this. He always put Operation Staunch on the agenda of discussions, even just a few months or weeks before the Iran-contra scandal was known. And suddenly we heard that absurd story of MacFarland going to Iran, and you know the whole fiasco.

But we were not completely surprised. We knew from the very beginning that there was a flow of arms from Israel to Iran. Of course, there was a military relationship between Israel and the Iran regime. And you could see Israeli weaponry in the Iranian forces. . . . They don't look old--they were fresh weaponry, especially the machine guns, the Uzi machine guns, nice and shining.

But really, it was ugly for the U.S. to talk with us about Operation Staunch, and at the same time, provide American arms directly to Iran through Israel. And George Shultz knew about that. To my knowledge, from my readings, he was not supportive of that operation, but he knew about it, and nevertheless, he continued talking with me about Operation Staunch. Then Dick Murphy came to Iraq, met with the president and said, "Well, this is not the formal American policy towards Iraq and Iran." You know it was done in the White House with the knowledge of the president of the United States, etc. But we accepted this explanation from Dick Murphy. I was present in that meeting with the president. He said, "Okay, Mr. Murphy. If that's not the established policy of the United States, we would like to continue our normal relations." But we didn't have fantasies about it. . . .

After the end of the war with Iran, there was the concern that Iraq was a potential threat to stability in the region. What was behind that concern?

If you remember what Kissinger was saying during the Iraq-Iran war, you would reach the correct conclusion about it. The United Stated didn't want Iraq to win that war, but it didn't want Iraq to lose it, because Iraq losing the war was a great setback to their allies in the region. But to win the war and emerge from the war as an important force in the region was not liked by the American government or by the Israelis, who are very influential in the American administration and the Congress. But they did not discuss this matter with us--that they thought we were a threat. Why didn't they come and say frankly, "Look, Iraq, you have emerged very strong from this war. We are worried that you might use this new power you have, and attitudes and policies that might threaten our legitimate national interests." . . .

So they didn't raise this matter with us. They started the ugly moves, ugly propaganda against Iraq, mobilization against Iraq, without discussing this matter with us clearly, face-to-face. And honestly speaking, we didn't have any plans to threaten anybody at that time. We emerged from the war politically and militarily strong, but we needed a long time of peace in order to provide a better living for our people. Although our people lived well during the war, they also suffered a lot. There was a loss of life, and even some little decline in the general standard of living, some decline in the development plan, and some decline in the luxuries that the Iraqis enjoyed in the 1970s. During the war, travelling abroad and tourism was squeezed to zero because we needed the cash.

We didn't have any plans to threaten anybody, neither the United States nor the others. They could have talked to us, frankly, and we could have discussed this matter with them in a very constructive manner. I am sure of that, quite honestly. But they gradually played against us. By 1990, the American press was hostile, against us. . . . Saddam Hussein, the most dangerous man in the world, the Enemy Number One of the people. Why? Whom did Saddam Hussein threaten in the United States? There was one incident in 1987, when an American ship was attacked wrongly, and we settled that in a very cordial and beautiful manner.

So whom does Iraq and Saddam Hussein threaten in the United States, to be characterized as Public Enemy Number One? It was clear that there was an orchestrated campaign in the Congress, the press, the media and in the administration. That administration took the decision to stop the second half of the deal, and the situation which we avoided in October, after my discussion with Baker occurred in February or March of 1990, we had to buy wheat and sugar and rice, which was not available.

You mentioned the president had said to you that CIA agents were active in this country. I've not heard that before. Can you offer us any more information on the nature of that activity?

He did not give me details, and he asked me to raise this matter with James Baker. He told me if they want to follow up where I did follow up, to provide them with the information. But I know, in general terms, that the Gulf question is clear, that Americans or diplomats working in Iraq, especially belonging to the CIA, were trying to make contacts with officers. They were visiting the north, making secret meetings with a number of Kurdish tribal leaders, and even with some old pro-Americans and pro-westerners living in Iraq from the old times. And they were talking with them about why this government doesn't change, that this is not a good government. That was my knowledge about it. But as the president told me, that if James Baker asked for a follow-up, to tell him that we are ready to send people in charge of those areas to put all the information on the table.

How helpful were your Arab neighbors with your recovery? To what extent was their view and policy towards Iraq related to this change in American policy that you discussed?

I think it was 100 percent related. Let us not fool ourselves. The Arab countries who supported Iraq were protecting themselves. Their financial and political support of Iraq was not rejected by the United States government. It was okay. So there was no contradiction between their attitude towards Iraq and the American strategy in the region. At the same time, it was self-defense. Egypt, in one way or another, was in the same boat.

But after the end of the war, the Gulf stays, and Libya felt secure, so there was no matter of self-defense. Iraq emerged powerful, in the Arab world. It means that this power is going to balance in the region, so that Iran will not make the same mistake again in Israel. There is a contradiction between the American strategy and what Iraq has become. So they don't want to contradict the Americans. Therefore, the general feeling in this region was a general feeling of joy and support to Iraq, and they couldn't jump immediately to the other side. We felt that they were cautious. The Kuwaitis started to dump oil. Now, oil is a general business. Although any country could dump oil in the market, it is not a unilateral issue. All the others are concerned. The prices are getting down and down and down. It means that not only the Iraqi oil price was getting down, but the oil prices of the other countries were going down, too. Why was only Iraq to be concerned? Of course, Iraq was concerned, because that was going to impoverish us. It was going to undermine our economy. Because we came fresh from the war, we had a lot of loans to pay, and we needed some money for our people to compensate them for luxuries and even for essentials. When you lose two-thirds of your income, that is catastrophic to any economy.

Of course, they did the same, as oil is their major export. In relative terms, they lost the same amount as we were losing, but they could afford it. Why did they keep silent about it? When the Arab summit met in May, in Baghdad, by the end of the summit, the summit was about the Palestinian question, the Arab-Israeli conflict, etc. The summit was beautiful, and the results were satisfactory to us, and to the Palestinians. At the end, the president said, "I am going to raise an Iraqi issue. I didn't raise it before, because I didn't want it to be mixed with the Arab nationalist issues. Look, brothers, this is what has been happening since early this year. We are losing, and we cannot afford losing. It has touched our bones now, and this is an act of war against Iraq. If you don't mean it, please stop it. Maybe it was done by technicians, by ministers who don't have a global view of the situation. Please stop it." They did not comment. Then the president sent Dr. Hamadi, the then-deputy prime minister in charge of the economy, to say that Iraq wants a summit with Kuwait and the Emirates to discuss this matter, and settle it. They agreed, but it was not done. They consented to what Kuwait was doing, which was absurd. Kuwait wanted to raise their production, because they want to get more money. But they are not getting more money, because the price went to even less than half the previous price. It was clear it was a political act. Maybe Iran was also hurt, but Iran was not the target. The others felt that they could afford it. But Iraq could not afford it. The question of the price of oil is an international question.

The Americans don't just look at what's happening in the oil market. If they didn't have a connection with what Kuwait was doing, they would have intervened to stop this foolish Kuwaiti policy. The Americans kept quiet. I don't know whether they made financial gains out of it. I don't know, but they kept quiet. They didn't raise any objection to this policy, and actually they didn't raise any question about it. Those matters of oil business are always in the headlines. We felt there was a plan to undermine Iraq--to conspire against Iraq--because if you break the Iraqi economy at that time, it will end Iraq. The Iraqi people started blaming the military capability of Iraq for that. It is a very ugly situation when you have become militarily powerful in defending yourself against an enemy, and then you are being blamed for that because you cannot afford to feed your people. It was a very ugly warning. Politically and psychologically, it was an ugly plan. And they didn't care. Hamadi asked to go to Kuwait, and it never happened. They said, "We're busy, come later." It never happened before, that a high-ranking Iraqi official asked to go to Kuwait and then he's postponed. I used to go as an envoy or as a foreign minister. I'd be received after waiting maybe ten minutes. I'd meet with my counterpart, have lunch, and return. How could a deputy prime minister of Iraq ask for a visit, and they say maybe later, which means that they didn't want to talk about it. They didn't want to discuss this matter in a friendly, constructive manner.

Could you elaborate on the point about mixed signals sent by the U.S. during the run-up to the invasion of Kuwait? How did those influence your government's decision?

There were no mixed signals. We should not forget that the whole period before August 2 witnessed a negative American policy towards Iraq. So it would be quite foolish to think that, if we go to Kuwait, then America would like that. Because the American tendency . . . was to untie Iraq. So how could we imagine that such a step was going to be appreciated by the Americans? It looks foolish, you see, this is fiction. About the meeting with April Glaspie--it was a routine meeting. There was nothing extraordinary in it. She didn't say anything extraordinary beyond what any professional diplomat would say without previous instructions from his government. She did not ask for an audience with the president. She was summoned by the president. He telephoned me and said, "Bring the American ambassador. I want to see her." She was not prepared, because it was not morning in Washington. People in Washington were asleep, so she needed a half-hour

To contact anybody in Washington and seek instructions. So, what she said were routine, classical comments on what the president was asking her to convey to President Bush. He wanted her to carry a message to George Bush--not to receive a message through her from Washington.

Why was the decision made by your government to move into Kuwait? What did you hope to achieve, and were you surprised by the American response?

Kuwait was never in our plans during all our leadership of this country. . . But we had to do it as a defensive act. Kuwait was conspiring against us.

[Read the FRONTLINE interview with Aziz on the Gulf War, which was part of FRONTLINE's two-hour 1996 broadcast "The Gulf War"]

After the Gulf War, when there were disturbances in the south and the north of Iraq--an uprising, people called it--many people thought that the U.S. should have intervened and supported these people. Were you surprised that the U.S. decided not to get involved?

No, I think that was classical American policy. George Bush was clear in what he said. What happened after the ceasefire was a surprise to the Americans. It was not planned by the Americans, because what happened in the south was instigated by the Iranians. So there wasn't a joint plan between Washington and Teheran to do any business after the ceasefire. And if I were in the position of George Bush, I wouldn't enter this web, because he doesn't know what was happening, and who he will be fighting first. This is one aspect.

The second aspect is that George Bush decided that, in the war, he wouldn't face great loss of life. You know the debate in the Congress, in the American media, and the public opinion about the cost of the war--not the financial cost, because the financial cost was paid by our brothers in the Gulf--there was no problem except the cost of life. Most of the war was an air war. America and their allies lost 60 or 65 aircraft, and that was it. And when the ground attack occurred, actually the war was finished. We were prepared to withdraw from Kuwait, because I reached an agreement with Gorbachev the day before to withdraw from Kuwait. He would then go to the UN Security Council to reach a decision to end the war and lift the sanctions. So, psychologically and politically, we were prepared to implement the agreement I reached with Gorbachev. Immediately after I left Moscow, and was on my way back, they started the ground war. So we were in a mood to withdraw.

Therefore, there wasn't a real ground war in the Kuwaiti theatre. But when we withdrew our forces inside Iraq and they moved against us, some serious battles occurred, and in those battles, the Iraqi army fought as a professional nationalist army. They fought, and the American officers realized that they we going to face a real war, face-to-face, man-to-man, tank-to-tank--not an air war or a missile war--in such a war there will be casualties, and that's what George Bush was very sensitive to avoid. The country's terrain is different than that of Kuwait. The terrain in Kuwait is hard desert. The terrain inside Iraq is Mesopotamia--cities, heavily populated areas. That will be quite a massacre. America is very strong. We cannot compare our military capabilities to the American capabilities. There will be a great loss of life. When it comes to a great loss of life, even military superiority does not become the only decisive factor--as it happened in Vietnam, for instance.

So George Bush wanted to avoid that. First of al, he didn't know what was happening. Secondly, it was very costly to him to follow this war. Thirdly, those who joined him in the effort to drive Iraq out of Kuwait might not have joined him in his effort to come to Baghdad. These were very clear facts. So we were not surprised. And then what would he do if he drives towards Baghdad? Occupy Baghdad, run Baghdad? They were not prepared for that. That was not in the plan. Nobody, or very few people, would have joined him in that effort. To fight against the unknown--no sober military or political leader would go in a fight against the unknown.

The next year President Bush signed a finding for the CIA to work with opponents to your regime outside and inside Iraq, and the CIA began working with the INC in London. What was your government's view? What did you think was going on?

It was not a serious threat to our government, because the so-called Iraqi opposition is a fake. There are two groups that can be regarded as a real force, but with their own limitations. There's the Kurds, but traditionally the Kurds don't fight beyond their territory, and for a very simple reason. It has never been the agenda of the Kurdish leadership to change governments in Baghdad. It doesn't matter which government comes to Baghdad. Sometimes, they look at this government as better than the previous one, but that is relative. The main concern of the Kurdish leaders is to keep their own business, their own interests, to achieve their own objectives, within their own territory. So they don't go fighting outside their region. Even if the Kurds want to hurt the government as badly as they wish, they have limitations.

The second group is the pro-Iranian elements, which are a serious force, but they have been tried. We had an experience for eight years in the war against Iran. Iran was powerful. There was the great enthusiasm about the revolution. And it fell. They couldn't win. They lost. So how could they win again, even if we are facing difficult circumstances? But Iraq has not changed. If you compare their capabilities to the capabilities of those people who are sitting in London, they have more guns, and more trained people. When I read some statements made by some congressmen, I laugh, because they ask the American administration, "You are not arming the Iraqi opposition. Where is the Iraqi opposition to be armed? You are not training them. Where are they to be trained?" There is nobody to be armed and to be trained. Those who can hurt on he battlefield or in terrorist attacks in Iraq are not theirs--they are pro-Iranians. They tried their fortune, and fell. The Kurds are not going to fight beyond their territory, even if they get missiles. They are not going to fight beyond Kurdistan. So who's going to fight to be trained and armed? It's absurd.

But they can hurt. America is a powerful nation. It can hurt France, it can hurt China, it can hurt Argentina, it can hurt itself, sometimes. It can hurt everybody. But hurting is one thing, and changing governments is another. America cannot change the government in Iraq. But America is hurting the Iraqi people, and the Iraqi government as well.

In addition to the working with the opposition in the north and some in the south, America tried several coup attempts as well--some after 1995 out of Jordan, out of Oman, supposedly working with people inside. Why did these attempts fail?

Any plans like that are doomed to fail. In the history of Iraq, there were changes in government in Iraq in 1958, 1963, 1968. Neither America nor Britain had a hand in that. America doesn't have the tradition of being able to change governments in Iraq, or make coups. Maybe they succeeded in Iran in 1952, but Iran is not Iraq.

As I told you in the beginning of our conversation, America didn't have special concerns in Iraq through decades. There are very few Iraqi officers who were trained in the United States. They don't know the officers in the army. How could they manage a military coup d'etat? Whom do they know? How could they make the contacts? They can spend money on people who are working for them, in order to buy one or two soldiers or officers, but that's absurd. That's not serious. Maybe they are dead serious about changing the government. I don't know. It's up to them to say that. That's what we hear from them. But the means which they are using are doomed to fail. And they will not succeed.

In August, 1996, what evidence did you find of collaborational co-option between the American government, the CIA, and the INC?

The headquarters for those groups are in London or in Washington--I don't know where. They are spending money from the American budget. They will send a message to a soldier or to an officer: "We will give you $5,000, or $10,000, if you defect and come. " Some people would do that. They defect and go there and stay there. They are pretending that they are preparing for a change of government, and it has become a lucrative business for many individuals. So when we went in, they evaporated, they disappeared, because the city was in our hands. It's my perception that the planners in Washington, the American officials who try to do something in a country they don't know are very much influenced by the movies made in Hollywood. They think if they make a story, it might work. But, listen, Hollywood is something, and realities are another. They don't know Iraq.

How concerned is your government now about Iran's objectives towards Iraq, and the extent to which Iran is working with the Iraqi opposition based in Iran? Do you have any evidence to show that America is working in tandem or in parallel with Iran?

Iran is still a dormant threat to Iraq and to the Arab states in the region. They have not abdicated their ambitions totally. Their ideology is the same. Their capabilities are less. Sometimes, they might look or act pragmatically. But that doesn't change their real ambitions and intentions when they feel they can do it. They did it in the three islands that belong to the Emirates. They succeeded in taking the islands over, and they're giving a deaf ear to whoever talks to them. They can act in a pragmatic manner sometimes, but that doesn't change the hard facts in the region. So Iran is a threat. In Iran, there's no one center of power. It is my perception that there are several centers of power in Iran.

The Iranian leader wouldn't like to get into trouble with his neighbors. And he wouldn't trust an Iranian-American alliance against Iraq, because he knows if Iraq vanishes, they will be on the waiting list. If the United States cannot tolerate Iraq, how could it tolerate Iran? Some intelligence will lead them to such a conclusion.

But there are people in Iran's centers of power who are benefiting from this game against Iraq. There is a lot of business going on inside Iran. People are making money by reaching political positions. There is a group coordinating with the Americans through Kuwait, not directly through the authorities of Tehran, and maybe through Arabia. We feel the heat of the American propaganda. The American propaganda against Iraq is high. They try to do more harm in the border areas, and there are suspicious visits being made. We ask the Iranians, through diplomatic channels, what Ahmad Chalabi is doing in Iran. Chalabi is a declared CIA agent. If they are not coordinating with the CIA, why should they give him a visa--who he is going to meet in Tehran? He publicly met with the group linked with the American plans against Iraq. But that's not going to change the reality. They are hurting us, there is no question about it--hurting the people and the government--but they're not going to succeed in reaching their objective.

Even people in this region that don't like us don't buy those American plans. They know that it's a waste of time and money, and it doesn't reach anything serious. Even the British are trying to withdraw very slowly, without hurting the Americans, from those absurd games. The British are more experienced, and there is less hullabaloo in the British political scene than there is in the American, because in America, some congressmen would go this way or that way, and make some foolish suggestions.

What happened in Iran, in the desert [the attempted hostage rescue] was one of the most foolish episodes in the history of mankind. We puzzled about who would think that such a plan would work? Then time passed, and I went to New York. Our representative in New York, the ambassador to the United Nations, mentioned to me that he knows Cyrus Vance. We invited him to dinner at our residence, and asked Vance, how did that happen? How could a superpower like the United States think that such a plan would succeed? He said, "That's why I resigned. "I heard about it." He told me that he even told the president that this is doomed to failure. The president said that this plan has been discussed by the joint chiefs and by the Security Council. Vance was asked to postpone his resignation to the end of he operation. He agreed to postpone it, then he resigned.

I told Mr. Vance, "You don't need the chief of staff. You need second lieutenants to tell you that this is foolish. If the helicopters reached Tehran carrying the saviors as planned, they would land maybe, four, five, or ten. In that area, there are armed persons, Iranians who see American helicopters on the ground. They can shoot at them with their machine guns. If a helicopter is being shot by a machine gun, it's a lame duck. Then how could these people go to the prison and bring out the American hostages? They all will be massacred."

American officials and people in the region say that they were amazed that, at the end of the Iran-Iraq war, and then after the Gulf War, Iraq made great progress in some areas of weaponry and weapons of mass destruction--nuclear, chemical, biological. How was it that your government was able to pursue these without anybody noticing?

The war with Iran was a matter of life and death to the Iraqi nation, not only to the government of Iraq. Iran was larger than Iraq, in space and in population, and they were determine to go to the end. We had opportunities to buy weaponry from the Soviet Union, from China, from France, and other sources. But there were not enough, especially when the Iranians started attacking us by Scud missiles. There is a disadvantage in this regard. Our capital is 110 kilometers away from the borders. Scud missiles could reach 300-350 kilometers. They could easily fire a Scud missile and hit Baghdad. Tehran is 500 or more kilometers away from the Iraqi borders. We did have Scud missiles, but they don't reach Tehran. So they have an advantage against us. When they started attacking us with Scud missiles, I went to Moscow with the minister of state for military affairs, and we asked the Soviets to provide us with long-range missiles. They said they didn't have long-range missiles except those that carry nuclear warheads. There was a project between Iraq and Egypt to develop a long-range missile, and there were no results. So we had to face the fact that we have to do it ourselves. As they say, the need is the mother of invention. When you are in dire need, when your destiny is at stake, you use your ingenuity to do what you need to do. The ingenuity of the Iraqi scientists and engineers succeeded in developing the Scud missile into a long-range missile.

Then there was the work on the chemical area. In the biological area, it was not a success, although people are making a lot of fuss about it, but it was not even on the agenda. There was an initiative to do something with the help of a few fourth-rate officials or experts, and it didn't succeed. But in the chemical area, there was a success, relatively speaking. It was done by the Iraqi scientists, engineers, and technicians. But it was proven that the decisive psychological, not military, factor in settling the war was the long-range missiles. Not because of their damage they bring, because we were hit by the same missiles, and we did not lose the war. By 1988, everybody was tired of the war. It lasted a long time, and the Iranian soldiers and people believed what they were told, that victory was near. Suddenly Tehran and Tigris were hit by Iraqi missiles, so that created a great psychological setback among the Iranian soldiers. They realized that their leadership was lying to them, that Iraq was not collapsing. Iraq was making significant progress in the armaments. That led to a psychological setback that allowed us to win the the following battles. Chemical weapons didn't make any decisive change in the battlefield. They don't.

Did you believe that, at some point, working with UNSCOM would lead to an eventual lifting of the sanctions? Did you see an end in sight? And why didn't that happen?

From the very beginning, UNSCOM was created, not to do the disarmament job only, but to do other ugly things, like hurting Iraq, and prolonging the sanctions. You know the first people who were working in UNSCOM, like Butler, were really honest and real United Nations disarmament experts. They could have gone to New York to the Security Council and told them by the end of 1991, or early 1992, that the main job has been done. There might be follow-up, monitoring, etc. But the main job was to disarm Iraq. All the arms which were banned in resolution 687 were completely destroyed, either by them, or by us unilaterally, by the end of 1991.

Since the first week or month in 1992, until they withdrew from Iraq in 1998, they didn't find in Iraq a gallon of chemicals or biological weapons, or a functional missile, which means that there was nothing of the sort. All were destroyed. We obliterated the whole biological project. All the products and chemical stockpiles were destroyed by UNSCOM. It took several years to finish the job--I think it was finished sometime in1994 or 1995. But they did not report this major fact to the UN Security Council.

In March, 1992, I went to New York, attended the Security Council formal meeting, and made a suggestion. This is what we have done -- these are the facts and figures of what has been destroyed. Our judgement is that 100 percent of the job has been done. You might not agree that it is 100 percent. So let us reach a compromise about what has been achieved, and reduce the sanctions to the point that you agree with us. Let it be 20 percent, because in resolution 687, paragraph 21, they speak about reducing or lifting the sanctions--that each 60 days, the Council would meet to review their policies and practices. So the idea of reducing the sanctions is in the resolution itself. They refused that. For eight years, sanctions were not reduced. They made this plan for food, which was a distraction. It was not a reduction of sanctions.

They always keep making one allegation after the other about Iraq keeping and hiding, and they searched, they inspect, and they don't find. What does that mean? UNSCOM was not created to do the disarmament business only. It did it perfectly, and in the most intrusive manner. But UNSCOM was used as an instrument. First of all, they had to have a pretext to keep the sanctions, especially when the other members of the Council started nagging about the necessity of a change of attitude towards Iraq, and then the UNSCOM spying. We felt the spying from the very beginning.

. . . I'm not speaking about all of them, because some of them were professionals. But the leadership was in the hands of those who were specially picked by the Americans and the British to do this political job, to keep the sanctions, to create one pretext after the other for keeping the sanctions and spying on Iraq.

When UNSCOM pulled out of Iraq, the Desert Fox bombing followed, and there have been continual bombings going on. Do you believe the U.S. has a new policy that's actively trying to work towards a change in your government?

As a professional, I don't see a policy, because a policy should have an objective in the end that serves something reasonable--whether it is good or bad--but reasonable, or serious. I don't see any sense in what is being done. There is no sense in working with the so-called opposition, because one year after the other it will be a fiasco.

Secondly, as I said, America can hurt. They are hurting the people, hurting the military, hurting the government. But for what purpose? In the end, this is not going to change the government. If their policy is using the earth, the no-fly zone, and the continuous attacks to weaken the government and change it, it's not going to weaken the government politically, and it's not going to change it. Then they should also take into consideration the realities that when the Iraqi people face such dangers, there is the Iraqi ingenuity. They fail to hurt us politically. They also fail to hurt us technically. . . . Iraq is still militarily strong, as well as politically strong. So what the Americans are doing against Iraq is absurd, in my professional opinion.

You mentioned earlier that, in the 1970s, your government had a dream of development. What's the realistic possibility of that dream continuing -- given the situation we have -- what role do you see in the future for America to play in that game?

It depends what kind of relationship is going to exist between Iraq and the United States. The United States has decided to create an enemy of Iraq. But if we return to normality, as we had, relatively speaking, in the 1980's . . . You need America if you want to build a refinery, or an oil pipeline, or improve technology. And principally speaking, we have no objection to that, because, as I said from the very beginning, ideologically, we are not the enemies of the United States. We don't have an ideology that would tell us, like the Marxist-Leninist ideology, that America is the enemy. America could be an enemy and could be a friend, and could be neutral, meaning neither a friend or an enemy from our ideological point of view.

It depends what America is doing, and here, I am speaking about the administration of course, not the people. What sort of an attitude, or policy, if there is a policy, is this or the next American administration going to have toward Iraq? Then we will reciprocate in the same manner, for the very interests of our nation.

I believe, professionally speaking, that dealing with the United States is good in some areas, because the United States is a very, very developed country, and very, very rich. It has a lot of things you can buy and benefit from. Under our regime, and in the previous regimes, we used to send thousands of Iraqis to study in the United States, and we would love to continue that.

You're an American, and you have been in this country, maybe mingling with ordinary citizens. In spite of all the ugly policies of the United States against Iraq and the Iraqi people, the ordinary Iraqi individual does not hate the American people. They hate the American government, but not American individuals. And they are not reacting to Americans who are visiting Iraq in a hostile manner. You might have realized that.

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An Interview with Jalal Talabani


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