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Patrick Cockburn on Saddam

 

(Transcript of an interview on the Australian Broadcasting Company’s Lateline.)

TONY JONES: Patrick Cockburn, analysts were quite divided on which way the Parliament would go.

Did you expect this result?

PATRICK COCKBURN, AUTHOR: It’s not very surprising.

It’s a rubberstamp Parliament.

Saddam will want to portray himself as a moderate and while he’ll like to have in the background the voice of the Iraqi people showing intransigence towards the US, so it’s a bit of theatre and it’s not very surprising theatre either.

TONY JONES: It’s no more complicated than that?

The Parliament simply is a rubberstamp is it, because they certainly were expressing their views strongly enough.

PATRICK COCKBURN: Oh, yes.

Always bear in mind that ordinary Iraqis may not like Saddam, but they don’t like the US either.

They blame the US and its allies for sanctions which has ruined Iraq, ruined the economy.

Many of them have had to leave the country.

So there’s a deep feeling of resentment about what’s happening to them.

You talk to Iraqis privately, they always say, “We’re the victims, but there’s very little we can do about it.”

So people in the Parliament expressing anger at what’s been done to them in the past and what is likely to happen to them in the future are expressing very real emotions.

But the final decision will be taken by Saddam himself.

TONY JONES: There was one possible signal that a backdown may occur.

Saddam’s eldest son, Uday, urged the Parliament to vote in favour of the UN resolution.

What did you make of that?

PATRICK COCKBURN: It shows the way Saddam is thinking himself, that he doesn’t have any choice but to go along with the UN on this one.

And Uday wouldn’t have done anything without his father’s agreement.

So that’s a very direct pointer to which way Saddam is thinking.

What he really wants to do is draw this out as long as possible.

He knows he can’t stand off an invasion but, if he can delay and delay and delay, maybe eventually things will get better for him.

TONY JONES: Incidentally, does Uday have any influence at all in Baghdad these days?

He was heavily out of favour with his father come years ago — indeed, some speculated his father was behind the failed assassination attempt on him.

PATRICK COCKBURN: It seems to have crossed Uday’s mind that his father might have been behind it, but I really don’t think so.

I think there were other people behind that assassination.

And if his father wanted Uday out of the way, he wouldn’t have to employ assassins to get rid of him.

But Uday remains in the inner circle.

He isn’t the heir apparent he used to be but he was badly wounded in this assassination attempt.

He has a terrible personal reputation for violence, murders and sexual escapades.

But he’s still one of the inner circle around Saddam.

TONY JONES: The first UN deadline at least is this Friday and, as you say, Saddam Hussein tends to use up every deadline more or less until the last minute, delaying and delaying.

Do you suspect in this case he’s actually going to come forth as something of a peace-maker and, ultimately, agree to the UN demands, at least at this first level?

PATRICK COCKBURN: Oh, yes, I think he’s got no choice on this one and he knows it.

All members of the Security Council voted for this.

He’ll have to go along with this.

But he’ll do so expressing regret, saying it’s an invasion of Iraqi sovereignty.

But I really don’t think he’s got any choice on this one, and he knows it.

TONY JONES: Is that absolutely certain?, I mean, there must be some degree of uncertainty, given his strong statements over such a long period of time, that he could just in the end turn around and say,

“My hands are tied.

“The Parliament has said the UN resolution is unacceptable and I’m not going to accept it.”

PATRICK COCKBURN: I suppose there’s a slim possibility.

Saddam has made extraordinary miscalculations in the past when he invaded Iran in 1980 and invaded Kuwait in 1990 and didn’t withdraw.

I suppose you could say he’s made these mistakes before and he might make it again.

In the long-term, Washington seems to be counting on him making a mistake.

The fact that Uday wrote this letter, the fact that he doesn’t have any alternative, the fact that all the Arab states are urging him to accept this, I think he will go along with it.

TONY JONES: I was wondering whether he might try the brinkmanship he’s tried in the past, see if he can draw out big differences in the Security Council by quibbling at the edges, by saying, “There’s certain things I can and can’t do, my Parliament has pointed that out.”

Put the onus back into the Security Council.

PATRICK COCKBURN: Yes, he might try that.

But this is a far more dangerous game than it was earlier in the ’90s when he could make concessions and then after a bit say, “No, there can’t be an inspection of this or that,” or putting forward obstacles.

He knows that the US is looking for exactly that, some moment when he won’t go along with it, and that might be the trigger for an invasion.

And that, above all, is what he wants to avoid.

TONY JONES: The invasion, of course, can’t begin without a protracted period of bombing.

And, as we’ve seen in the past, there are usually occasions during that process when it’s possible for concessions to be made for him to go again to the UN and say, “OK, I’m going to change my mind now.”

It may be unlikely from your opinion that that is a path he could follow, isn’t it?

PATRICK COCKBURN: It’s possible he might think like that.

But it would be very unwise for him to do it because once the invasion starts, then I don’t think it can be thrown into reverse.

Once the bombing starts, once troops start appearing, foreign troops start appearing in Iraq, I don’t think it will be reversible.

So it would be very unwise if he did anything except go along with everything that the UN wants it to do at the moment.

TONY JONES: One common assessment that you read about Saddam Hussein is that he’s most dangerous when backed into a corner.

He’s now as far back into a corner as you can get virtually, isn’t he?

PATRICK COCKBURN: Yes, he’s got very little room to manoeuvre and he wants people to feel that he may lash out at the last moment.

And this is perfectly possible that he will.

But Iraq is not a strong country.

And one of the things that is noticeable about Iraq is that Saddam wants to present himself as the great and powerful leader of a powerful country and those abroad who want to demonise him – that he’s like Stalin or Hitler.

Iraq is a poor country. The villages are made of mud brick.

There aren’t the resources to stand against the US and the rest of the world.

TONY JONES: You’ve written yourself that Saddam has an exaggerated view of his own role in history.

Is it just possible that he might have cast himself in the role of the great Arab martyr, that he may actually be prepared to go all the way this time and to die for it?

PATRICK COCKBURN: Yeah, that a very interesting question, and it’s one that lots of his neighbours and Iraqis are wondering, whether there’s going to be a final episode that he pictures himself as dying in the ruins of Baghdad.

Of course for the 5 million people who live in Baghdad that’s real bad news.

But I don’t know.

I mean, he probably will fight it out to the end.

But it, the government, might begin to disintegrate and this is what the US wants, they want to see if they can fragment the army, ferment mutinies once the invasion has started.

And once the bombing has started, and they’ve made it very clear that they’re going to start with the palaces, target the inner security apparatus, not the bridges and power stations, but for the elements of the regime that are most important to Saddam.

TONY JONES: What is your assessment, then, of what’s going to happen?

We now have several deadlines to pass.

We have the one at the end of this week and one in 30 days time in which the demands are greater and then we have a further deadline once the weapons inspectors are in place.

What do you think is going to happen through this process?

Do you think inevitably this is going to end with war?

PATRICK COCKBURN: I think it’s extremely likely.

I don’t quite want to use the word ‘inevitable’ because now the US has the support of the Security Council, it will be more difficult for the US, with the total support of the Security Council, to suddenly take unilateral action.

But there’s such a powerful faction in Washington that wants to go to war anyway that’s waiting for Saddam to make a mistake or something that can be be portrayed as not going along with what the Security Council as decreed.

It’s very difficult to see Saddam being there in a year’s time.

TONY JONES: One final question. We saw in the last Gulf War that, with some exceptions, his troops were not really prepared to fight for him — at least most of his troops.

What do you think will happen this time?

PATRICK COCKBURN: I think at the inner core, people around him might fight.

The army, as a whole, will probably fragment, there probably will be mutinies.

It may look like Afghanistan at moments, senior commanders may go over to the other side, declare a neutrality and also probably there’s some very heavy money going around, as there was in Afghanistan, to persuade them not to fight.

But in Iraq, Saddam is an expert at stopping military coups, that’s the one thing he really knows about.

If you’re an army commander somewhere in Iraq and you get your timing of your mutiny just 10 minutes wrong, you might end up at the end of a rope, whatever happens to Saddam in the long-term.

So there will be a lot of nervous army officers wondering which way to jump, when to jump and what their fate is going to be.

 

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Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

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