Interview with Saad al-Bazzaz: An Insider's View of Iraq
by Daniel Pipes and Tonya Buzby
GOING TO WAR
Middle East Quarterly: Who knew of the decision to invade Kuwait before it took place?
Saad Al Bazzaz: At first, only Saddam and three other individuals. Then another two were informed, making six in all who knew before August 1. On the first of August, another six or eight people learned of the plans.
The first three, who learned about the military plan in the middle of July, were Saddam's son-in-law, Husayn Kamil, his cousin, 'Ali Hasan Majid, and the commander of the Republican Guard, Iyad Feutayyih ar-Rawi. Forty-eight hours later, they were joined by the head of the Iraqi military intelligence, Sabir ad-Duri, and the chief of staff, Husayn Rashid at-Tikriti.
MEQ: You haven't mention the defense minister.
Bazzaz: No, he heard the news from the radio, like anyone else. He was totally out of the picture.
MEQ: What finally pushed Saddam to invade Kuwait?
Bazzaz: In large part, he did it out of anger. When Deputy Prime Minister Sa'dun Hammadi, Saddam's representative, came back from talks with the Kuwaitis in June 1990, he felt that the emir of Kuwait hadn't been deferential enough. He told Saddam that "the emir didn't respect me, and by that he didn't respect you for I was representing you." That was enough for Saddam to opt for the military alternative. So those people who turn to the disasters for such silly reasons, they base their policy on conspiracy theories.
MEQ: Might Saddam invade Kuwait again?
Bazzaz: Sure. As long as he survives, he must do so.
Bazzaz: First, he feels that he left a job incomplete; he has to correct the mistakes made in 1990. Second, he has to get revenge. He told us in very closed meetings that he feels that Kuwait is already "returned" to Iraq because it was under Iraqi rule for six months. "I don't care who is ruling Kuwait today," he says, "I feel that Kuwait has already returned to Iraq." He will try again to get Kuwait back, whatever the price, as soon as he is strong enough to win.
MEQ: Why did Saddam develop nuclear weapons?
Bazzaz: Because of Israel. The plan was put into effect before [Ayatollah Ruhollah] Khomeini came to power and the conflict with Iran began. The Iraqi nuclear reactor was started in the late fifties -- a very small reactor for peaceful research, given by the Soviets to 'Abd al-Karim Qasim. Saddam found he had teams of people with knowledge in this field, so he built on that base. He knows that he can't have political respect in the region without having an upper hand in armaments. Israel has the upper hand, not because of its large population, not because of its geographic extent, but because of the nuclear weapons it's supposed to have. Thus Saddam built nuclear weapons.
MEQ: But Israel won all its wars without nuclear weapons.
Bazzaz: As long as you let the other side know that you have weapons, you'll be stronger without using them than someone who announces he'll use them or actually does so. This marks a difference between the Israelis and Saddam: The Israelis have the weapons, but don't announce it. In contrast, Saddam announced the weapons even before he had finished building them, boasting that Iraq is fourth or fifth in the world in terms of weapons of mass destruction.
MEQ: Was Saddam serious when he threatened to burn half of Israel?
Bazzaz: He was capable to do something, but not that. Technically, he was capable of transporting weapons to Israel, via long-run aircraft and missiles, but not of destroying half the country. But yes, he was serious.
MEQ: But burning means what?
Bazzaz: Saddam had received letters from [Yasir] Arafat, some sources in Paris and Moscow, and others to the effect that the Israelis would attack him; he was really scared. That's why he appeared and said, in effect, "I will respond harshly," because it was a great humiliation for him to see Iraq or the Iraqi nuclear reactor be attacked again, as happened in 1981. He announced his reaction.
That announcement, it's very interesting to note, was ready twenty-four hours before it was put on the air. He recorded it on April 1, 1990, at a meeting of Iraqi officers but released it only on April 2. That means he had a day to think about the contents. That shows that he realized how crucial and dangerous that announcement would be.
MEQ: Why then didn't he use weapons of mass destruction during the Kuwait war?
Bazzaz: Because Tariq 'Aziz told him that James Baker indicated in Geneva [on January 9, 1991] that Iraq would be punished for using chemical or nuclear weapons, that it would be wiped away by the same weapons a minute after. An Arab leader also warned Saddam and urged him not to use them.
MEQ: Then why did he use SCUDs against Israel?
Bazzaz: He used them as a political means to bring the Israelis in the picture and so to show how the conflict with Israel was connected to the Kuwait question.
MEQ: Has Saddam sponsored terrorism in the West since February 1991?
Bazzaz: No. Even before August 2, 1990, he decided on a position not to be involved in terrorism activities in the West.
MEQ: Before the invasion?
Bazzaz: Yes. Then, between August 2 and the outbreak of war in January 1991, he called on all those organizations involved in violence abroad to do something for him. But most of them went to the Western governments and passed to them the information from Baghdad, promising not to do anything for Saddam. And they have not.
MEQ: Can you name some of those organizations?
Bazzaz: Don't get me in trouble with some Palestinians! Well, one I can mention is Abu'l-'Abbas of the Palestine Liberation Front. Saddam asked him to do something but he told others that he would not let himself be used by Saddam. The few incidents of terrorism -- in Athens, I think, also in the Philippines and Turkey -- were carried out by Iraqis.
MEQ: By Iraqi citizens?
Bazzaz: No, by Iraqi planners.
MEQ: What about the World Trade Center?
Bazzaz: I don't have any information, but I really don't see much of a connection. I feel he was not involved; this is a feeling. But Saddam would be happy if you connected him to it, because he could then offer the United States information, and that could serve as a bridge to restore himself with the Americans.
Iraqi intelligence is still capable to attack in a number of countries, such as the Czech republic, Tunisia, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, Cyprus, Turkey, Yemen, Pakistan, and all the new republics of Central Asia. It still has underground movements there.
MEQ: Underground movements in Eastern Europe?
Bazzaz: Of course. Before the invasion, they used to cooperate with those states.
MEQ: Does Saddam Husayn care about his reputation in the West?
Bazzaz: He is very keen to know how the West looks at him, but he approaches this differently from how you might expect. He doesn't care if you describe him as a ruthless man, a butcher, a murderer. He doesn't care if you talk about the people who have been assassinated or killed inside Iraq; not once, by the way, has he denied an execution in Iraq. Those descriptions don't upset Saddam. Rather, he will be upset if he feels the West sees him as weak and heading a weak regime.
Basically, he doesn't care what you say about him outside Iraq, for he has cut the country off from the outside world. He promotes himself within Iraq as a strong man and a ruthless man.
MEQ: What about the comparison President Bush made between him and Hitler?
Bazzaz: He doesn't mind it at all; in fact, Saddam Husayn doesn't hate Hitler.
MEQ: Presumably, Saddam watches very closely how the Iraqi media covers him.
Bazzaz: Absolutely. He follows coverage of himself in individual programs, plays, or songs on television. He is extremely sensitive about television, seeing it as the most important communication device to build his image among the Iraqis. Only after that did he take interest in the radio and printed press.
MEQ: In your time, about how much time did Saddam Husayn spend on television every day, an hour or more?
Bazzaz: Every day, but the amount of time varied. Sometimes he did not appear except in prerecorded songs or other clips connected to him. Sometimes he'd be on for two minutes, when receiving a delegation or an envoy; the news would simply report that the president today received a foreign minister. And sometimes he would be on for four hours, even more, if he had a long meeting, with the people or with Iraqi officers, such as he used to do during the Iraq-Iran War.
MEQ: Does Saddam have any beliefs, or is he a nihilist?
Bazzaz: Saddam believes that he is a messenger, a person akin to the prophets.
MEQ: He's a nabi, a prophet?
Bazzaz: No, not a prophet; he feels himself akin to those who are very similar to prophets. He feels that God takes care of him. He is under the care of God. He has his own way to understand Islam.
MEQ: So he's a believer?
Bazzaz: In his way, he believes in Islam.
MEQ: But he is a believer, a mu'min?
Bazzaz: He has his own way, which doesn't require prayer, mosques, or religious men, whether Sunni or Shi'a. He sometimes feels cut off from the world and goes to a village, an unknown place, and says, "Now I will establish my own connection to God."
MEQ: He is a deist, then?
Bazzaz: He does believe in God, but in a different way from the usual. Saddam Husayn believes he enjoys divine protection, a protection direct from God that keeps him from the many dangers arrayed against him. Because he survived so many dangers, so many wars, he is convinced that God looks over him. But this does not mean that he honors established religion or its practitioners. He considers them all to be liars and swindlers. It is said he prays, though not in a mosque. In fact, he's never prayed in a mosque since he took power. If you asked me, he would say that God protects him more than those who go to the mosque.
MEQ: You wrote a book in 1992, The Gulf War and the One After, in which you criticized Saddam Husayn and the Iraqi leadership for being "overly influenced by conspiracy theories." Please elaborate.
Bazzaz: The Saddam attitude is part of a mentality that appeared in the 1960s in Iraq, Syria, and Egypt. People believed that if they walked on the sidewalk, and a hole appeared in it, the West was responsible. If the weather was bad, foreign enemies were to blame. This explains the exaggeration about plots against the Ba'th Party and Saddam Husayn.
Second, they are very sensitive about dealing with the world, especially the West. They suspect those Iraqis who have a Western education; in fact, anybody that spends time in the West is under a cloud.
Nor is all the plotting done in Washington, Paris, and Rome. Suspicion is also directed against colleagues on the Revolutionary Command Council. Many people have been executed for "having something in their heart," as Saddam puts it.
This suspicion has to do with village origins. In a village, you can kill and still live. In a village, so long as you don't have a fixed residence, but live in a tent, you don't need to establish social relations with neighbors; you don't have neighbors. You are free to do whatever you want. In the cities, as long as you have a fixed base, you've got neighbors who live with you shoulder-to-shoulder. In that case, you have to be careful and maintain peaceful relations with them. You cannot speak with a loud voice because you will spoil things not just for yourself but for your son and your grandson. When villagers come to the city and get involved with politics, they worsen the social relations.
MEQ: Saddam was not born to power but by the time he was forty years old, he dominated the country. He was brilliant in Iraqi politics -- until making it to the top in 1979. Then he made terrible mistakes, most especially the Iranian and Kuwaiti wars. It is difficult to understand how a politician so accomplished in domestic politics then makes an unending sequence of mistakes internationally. How do you explain this?
Bazzaz: Saddam does not know international politics. His knowledge of the world is meager. That's not because he hasn't visited the West (though he has been to France and Cuba, twice to Belgrade, and many times to Moscow); you can understand the world without traveling, merely by studying and being broad-minded.
Saddam's problem is different. He feels insecure dealing with others and has no desire to be connected to the outside world. He does not trust even his close and loyal people who run foreign policy, including Tariq 'Aziz himself. Saddam will use him so long as Tariq 'Aziz is someone acceptable in a place like France, but that does not mean that Saddam trusts Tariq 'Aziz. He needs Tariq, but does not trust him.
MEQ: The problem, then, is that Saddam ignores everyone's advice.
Bazzaz: No. The minute he feels that he needs something, he asks. He does not wait for your advice. The minute he needs you, he asks you, "What's your advice?" For example, he does that many times with Tariq 'Aziz.
MEQ: Since the war, is there debate between those who are in favor of working with the United Nations and those who are not?
Bazzaz: Yes. From their different positions, Tariq 'Aziz, 'Udayy Saddam Husayn, and Husayn Kamil separately have each talked about the possibility of future relations with the United States. They are trying to fulfill Saddam's desire to restore relations with the United States.
MEQ: Saddam, then, seeks good relations with the United States?
Bazzaz: Yes, he would like to restore relations. But he does not understand how policy is made here. In 1990, for example, he thought that by proving himself to be the strongest ruler in the region, Washington would accept him. Saddam lost the United States in the minute he was in the closed relations with Washington.
MEQ: We hear a lot these days about Saddam's son 'Udayy. Is he as powerful as people say?
Bazzaz: 'Udayy is very influential, and nobody can control him, but he does not pose a direct danger to Saddam. As long as his father is alive, 'Udayy will not be number one. But 'Udayy has the desire to be number one should something happen to his father.
MEQ: His father doesn't feel any need to control him?
Bazzaz: No. His father is very happy with 'Udayy. Saddam doesn't look at the picture as you and I do. He doesn't care about reputation or image. Forget it. He cares about strength, about the capacity to operate the Iraqi state machine. 'Udayy gives the impression that he, better than anybody else, can run ministries, give them instructions, and push them. So Saddam is not upset with 'Udayy, nor has he been in the past.
MEQ: What about Saddam's younger son, Qusayy? What is his standing?
Bazzaz: Qusayy's relations with his father are far more even, and so better than those with 'Udayy. Qusayy is very trusted by his father because he is quiet and he every day follows his father's orders. He is much more reliable.
MEQ: What is the significance of Saddam Husayn's two daughters' leaving Iraq?
Bazzaz: That constituted the biggest defeat in Saddam's whole political life. He does not feel he was defeated during the Gulf War, nor by the uprising in fourteen cities in the south and the north of Iraq. But seeing his two daughters defect to Jordan was a terrible humiliation. As a sign of this blow, Saddam ignored this topic when publicly responding to the defections.
MEQ: Worse than the sons-in-law's leaving?
Bazzaz: Of course. This is far more sensitive. Sons-in-law are not sons, they are not from the closest family circle. They are just two more Iraqi politicians who defected; their case can be treated in political terms. But the daughters cannot be handled politically.
MEQ: The daughters must have known what damage they were doing. Why did they do it?
Bazzaz: They basically followed their husbands; and they were unhappy with their eldest brother, 'Udayy.
MEQ: What is the attitude of Iraqis toward their life? How has totalitarian rule and economic devastation affected them?
Bazzaz: The worst thing is how Iraq lost any sense of domestic security. Criminal activity is rampant, you can't feel secure, you don't know your future prospects. You can't send your children to school because you lack the money to feed them; instead, you send them to low-class work. The ordinary fabric of society has collapsed.
MEQ: What next? Can the Iraqi people endure for much longer, or will they erupt?
Bazzaz: I do not expect an uprising, but Iraqis will accept any saviour, no matter who he is, what he looks like, whatever his program. They desperately wait for someone, anyone. This is a potential disaster, for it could give an unknown officer the chance to lead Iraq into the next calamity.
MEQ: Change, then, will not come from the bottom, but from the military?
Bazzaz: Yes, or more broadly, from the establishment -- the army, the security services, the family, the Ba'th Party.
MEQ: In May, you said that "Iraq needs an alternative which is an institution, not an individual."1 What kind of institution do you envision?
Bazzaz: Iraq needs institutions and traditions to prevent another dictator from taking over. We need a constitution, an elected parliament for the whole country. We need peaceful relations with neighbors. That doesn't mean we should be weak, especially in the face of Iranian strength, but we must be a strong and a peaceful country.
MEQ: Peaceful relations with Kuwait too?
Bazzaz: Of course.
MEQ: What is the Iraqi attitude toward the United States? Are Americans blamed for the disaster?
Bazzaz: The majority of Iraqis feel that there was no need for Iraq to confront the United States. Nobody asked Iraq to fight the United States, just like nobody asked it to liberate Palestine. At the same time, nobody welcomes planes to bomb his town. But anger over that is minor compared to anger about getting into the wrong battle at the wrong time with the wrong enemy.
MEQ: You don't sense hatred toward the United States?
Bazzaz: No, Iraqis see their future being connected to the United States, complete with good relations.
MEQ: How did you go from being a journalist to the head of a daily newspaper, Al-Jumhuriya?
Bazzaz: I was an author even before Saddam Husayn came to power. I had a professional background as a journalist and author. During the Iraq-Iran War, I was so loyal to the Iraqi state, you could say that I fought the Iranians with all the force I had. And I would do the same in the future, were circumstances the same. Because I found myself on the same side as the regime, I was appointed editor-in-chief.
MEQ: What is it like to work as a journalist in Saddam's Iraq? Are there any freedoms?
Bazzaz: Forget something called "freedom." I will tell you a story. I went to Saddam Husayn in 1989, when I was general director of the Iraqi Broadcasting and Television establishment. I asked him about the new constitution, and what it says about freedom of the press. He said, "Saad, you are clever enough to know that this is not your business." I got the point; even in the time after the war with Iran, we were not going to have the freedoms of which we had dreamed.
MEQ: How did you know what to write or edit? Were you given orders, or did you develop an instinct for it?
Bazzaz: You're supposed to know the general framework, and within that you can do as you see fit. If an event takes place, you are authorized to follow it as you choose -- unless you have a specific order from Saddam or one of his close assistants. These included his secretary, the head of his bodyguard, or (in nonvital cases) the minister of information or the head of the presidential office.
MEQ: Did you ever make a mistake?
Bazzaz: Many. In 1989, when I was at the Iraqi television, a Kuwaiti singer sang about Saddam, so we broadcast it over and over again. It was good music and it praised Saddam. But the Presidential Palace went crazy. I couldn't figure out why. The Kuwaiti singer was one of Saddam's supporters. Then I learned that the singer recorded the tune drunk, and that he called Saddam "the father of 'Udayy, the father of 'Ali." None of us Iraqis knew at that time that Saddam had a son by the name of 'Ali. I didn't know that Saddam was married, or was supposed to be married, to a second wife and had a son by her called 'Ali.
We had difficult days, especially when Husayn Kamil would give us an order and we assumed it came from Saddam, but it did not. He once ordered us to announce about the development of an Iraqi AWACS aircraft, and we did. We even released a video film about the aircraft. Later we found out that Husayn Kamil did not have permission from Saddam to announce this aircraft. So we were in between Saddam and his son-in-law, and you could imagine how unpleasant our position was.
MEQ: Why did you leave Iraq?
Bazzaz: By August 2, 1990, I found that I did not belong to this regime anymore. Our problem was not that the Kuwaitis were an innocent people attacked by a ruthless man. Rather, I found myself separated from those people who took Iraq to disaster by making incorrect and unwise decisions. We had fought enough during the Iraq-Iran War, we needed peace. There was no reason for us to be involved in battle against another Arab state and through it the whole world.
MEQ: You decided to leave on the second of August?
Bazzaz: Even before that. I sent seven requests to be allowed to resign from the television and broadcasting establishment, and later from Al-Jumhuriya. It was even mentioned in the Iraqi media after I fled the country that I had had arguments with the Iraqi minister of information. For the first few weeks after I left they tried hard to get me back. Then they published parts of my letters to the minister.
Bazzaz: Yes. The problem started at the end of the Iraq-Iran War. We were looking for a different direction from Saddam. We were dreaming of enjoying a peaceful time to rebuild our society, rehabilitating our injured, both mental and physical cases -- and he was planning to take us to another disaster.
MEQ: Can you tell us anything about the circumstances of your leaving Iraq?
Bazzaz: Not much. I asked for a vacation, to follow the publication of a book of mine outside Iraq, The Gulf War and the One After, and I just stayed away. I left smoothly and for two years, during my stay in Jordan, I kept silent.
MEQ: How have you found the experience of adapting to life outside Iraq?
Bazzaz: You know, it is not new for me. I lived outside Iraq for at least six years, studying and working in Great Britain. But I, like all Iraqis, dream of returning to Iraq.
MEQ: Do you have a role in an organization of the Iraqi opposition?
Bazzaz: No. I work as an individual, as a writer.
MEQ: You spent several weeks in Amman recently talking with Husayn Kamil, and we noticed a report in Al-Hayat saying that you have become his spokesman. Is that true?
Bazzaz: Of course not, and I strongly denied that report. I am not working for Husayn Kamil, nor will I do so in the future. I went to Amman to talk to the man and hear from him and get his answers to dozens of questions. I went as a historian to talk to a person involved in making decisions. I collected information that will appear in my next book.
MEQ: Do you feel you are in danger?
Bazzaz: Yes. I don't want to exaggerate the dangers, as some people do, to increase my importance politically. I, like every Iraqi who has differences with this regime, must accept that I could be wiped out.
1 Al-Majalla (London), May 28, 1995
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