My Encounter with Saddam


As one of only a very few western journalists who have actually met Saddam Hussein, I wish I could share some profound insights about the man which would explain why removing him from power right now is not only necessary but also a matter of some urgency. Unfortunately I cannot because in my opinion there is no justification–moral or otherwise–for the Bush administration’s apparently unstoppable march to war. (Although on almost any given day you are still likely to hear someone as high up in the ranks as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld or national security adviser Condoleezza Rice say almost as an aside that war is in fact “not inevitable.”) Is such language double-speak or just some kind of twisted yet wishful thinking? The fact that it could be either — or both — only reinforces what many ordinary Americans have come to suspect, which is that even at this late date the Bush administration still has no clear game plan whatsoever for dealing with Iraq.

My own brief encounter with Saddam Hussein took place during the spring of 1985. The Iran-Iraq war, which had been going on by then for nearly five years, was in a “lull” at the time, or so people said. While I was in Iraq, however, the situation abruptly changed, with the onset of a frightening new phase in the conflict which became known as the “war of the cities.” Mysterious booms and explosions became all too common, even in the middle of the Iraqi capital.

I had gone to Iraq to attend an international women’s conference, which was being sponsored by the Iraqi Women’s Federation. (The image of Iraqi women as progressive and westernized — which indeed in many ways they were and still are — fit well at the time with the ostensibly secular, anti-Islamic state Saddam wanted to present.)

One day during the conference we were told rather unexpectedly that our group would be going to hear the president deliver a speech before the country’s puppet National Assembly. Oh, sure, I said to myself. The moment I arrived in Iraq I had put in the standard interview requests both for Saddam and for his wife Sajida, who generally kept a very low profile, but I didn’t expect (and hadn’t received) anything more than the usual wall of silence from the presidential offices.

Skeptical though I was, I had little choice but to go along with “the program” since doing your own thing is almost never an option in Iraq. On arriving at the parliament building, we were ushered through a series of vast reception rooms filled with gorgeous Persian carpets. Even after going through several metal detectors and other security procedures, I still doubted whether I would actually see the Iraqi leader in person since even back then his plans changed frequently and without warning.

To my surprise, I eventually found myself sitting in the public gallery overlooking the assembly floor. I was still in a state of disbelief when suddenly Saddam appeared on the stage below. Without a moment’s hesitation, he strode to the lecturn and began delivering a rapid-fire, obviously impassioned address. I remember being struck by his obvious physical stamina, a characteristic few today would doubt the man possesses. For some reason, Castro came to mind, even though it is Stalin who is usually considered Saddam’s idol.

Every time he paused for breath a gaggle of young women in green army fatigues, also seated in the gallery, would jump to their feet and begin clapping and chanting. Saddam’s cheerleaders, I couldn’t help thinking. “Two, four, six, eight, who do we appreciate?” For some reason incongruous memories of my own days as a high school cheerleader popped into my head, and I found myself suppressing a nervous giggle.

After Saddam finished his fiery speech, which seemed to go on for hours, again to my surprise I was permitted, even encouraged, to go downstairs and onto the floor of the parliament, where nothing short of utter pandemonium had broken out. The ecstatic legislators–all of whom had been approved by the Baath party and screened by the security services before their election–were swarming around Saddam, cheering and shouting his name. Before I knew what was happening, I found myself being swept along by the crowd until I was right under Saddam’s mustachioed nose. I had heard somewhere that he understood — and even spoke — more English than he would admit to knowing. Figuring I had nothing to lose, I shouted a question over the din about how Iraq was doing in the war. This seemed safe enough since it was beginning to look like Iraq was gaining the upper hand in the seemingly interminable conflict with its neighbor — thanks largely to U.S. satellite intelligence and other support. Saddam smiled but said nothing, looking down at me benevolently, as if I were a worrisome but slightly amusing child.

Eventually I extricated myself from the rapturous crowd only to find that my encounter with Saddam wasn’t over. I soon learned that whether I wanted to or not I would be having my picture taken with the Iraqi leader in the reception area just outside the parliamentary chamber . Since such photographs are often used for propaganda purposes in the Third World, I knew that posing with Saddam might imply that I approved of his regime. Not surprisingly, I had little choice in the matter and of course felt rather used. (Several years later, during the Gulf War, I couldn’t help identifying with the little British boy Stuart Lockwood, one of Saddam’s human shields, who was forced to appear on television with the Iraqi dictator.)

The next day a red leather folder with gold embossed Arabic writing arrived at my hotel. Inside were several identical eight-by-ten color photographs. Sure enough, there we were–me in my mid-calf length black skirt and pink polyester blouse, looking tiny next to Saddam, who was wearing the ordinary olive green army uniform he seemed to favor back then for most public occasions. Two other women were in the picture with us. One was an elderly British travel writer, who was also attending the women’s conference, while the other was Manal Younis, who was president at the time of the Iraqi Women’s Federation. It would be a couple of more years or so before Saddam would begin using doubles for some public appearances, and in any case he probably wouldn’t have used one on this occasion, since at such close range both the legislators and Mrs. Younis, who knew Saddam well, would almost certainly have recognized an imposter. Today, however, the problem of Saddam’s numerous doubles and of knowing whether “the real Saddam” has indeed been killed or captured no doubt poses a genuine, although rarely discussed, challenge for the Bush administration when it comes to attempting to remove him.

My encounter with the Iraqi dictator did absolutely nothing to turn me into any sort of Saddam Hussein apologist. Still, I would argue that the moral and human cost of attempting to remove him from power at this particular moment is nearly as objectionable as the very regime our government wishes to eradicate.

Not long after September 11, the Indian writer Arundhati Roy wrote that Osama bin Laden was “sculpted from the spare rib of a world laid waste by American foreign policy.” I would argue that Saddam Hussein is yet another creation of this same policy–a policy which invariably has unbridled support for Israel as its centerpiece.

I don’t think it was a coincidence that I was invited to Iraq only four months after the U.S. and Iraq had resumed full diplomatic relations. As it turned out, however, the “honeymoon” I came in on turned out to be a shortlived one. In fact, unbeknownst to me, and presumably to Saddam, the seeds of the Iran-Contra scandal were already being planted while I was in Iraq. (I am certainly glad I wasn’t visiting the country a year or so later when Saddam discovered the duplicitous Israeli-American arms-for-hostages scheme.)

Clearly America’s Israel-centered policies have been costly over the years in terms of developing any sort of reasonable relationship with Iraq. In fact, Iraq broke off all diplomatic relations with the U.S. for seventeen years to protest American support for Israel during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. This long break in diplomatic relations no doubt contributed to our chronic lack of reliable intelligence from inside Iraq, a deficiency which persists even today and which some say has led to an over-reliance by the U.S. on potentially self-serving Israeli intelligence. Still, for better or worse, and despite the State Department’s oft-expressed reservations about the Reagan administration’s attempts to work with and even to “rehabilitate” Saddam, the resumption of U.S.-Iraqi relations went ahead in December, 1984, although it was common knowledge at the time that Iraq had been using chemical weapons against Iranian troops for more than a year.

In addition to a chronically unbalanced U.S. foreign policy, another rarely heard argument which may explain in part the predicament we currently find ourselves in is that over the years Israel’s behavior may have aggravated certain aspects of Saddam’s behavior. For example, the Iraqi leader openly cited Israel’s 1967 takeover of the Golan Heights in particular as justification for his invasion of Kuwait. Saddam’s argument was that if Israel is allowed to ignore with impunity some sixty UN resolutions calling for it to withdraw from the occupied territories, then why shouldn’t he ignore the UN resolutions passed against his regime? And as far as weapons of mass destruction are concerned, Saddam would no doubt argue that his effort to amass a nuclear arsenal is strongly motivated by the fact that Israel is thought to possess between two and three hundred nuclear and thermonuclear weapons. He might also point out that Iraq has been a signatory of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty since 1968 while Israel is not and never has been.

Indeed, the central question remains: Why Iraq and why now? For the past several months reports coming primarily out of Europe have suggested that Israel is pressing for a U.S. assault on Iraq as “cover” for a planned expulsion of Palestinians from the West Bank and Jerusalem.

While on fact-finding missions to the region in August and again in October, I posed the question of whether expulsion was likely–or even possible — to virtually everyone I met — Israeli and Palestinian alike. Many recoiled from such a scenario, although few dismissed it out of hand. Others seemed to be in denial that this might be a possibility, even though signs and graffiti saying things like “transfer = security +peace” are clearly in evidence nowadays both in Israel and in the territories.

In response to the idea that Israel might be pressuring the United States to attack Iraq as a way of “solving” the Palestinian problem, Gershon Baskin, Jewish co-director of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information in Jerusalem appeared not so much disingenuous as caught in a time warp when he said, “Israel is a tiny country. It can’t force the United States do anything.”

Still, one thing most Israelis and Palestinians seem to agree on is that the current situation in the occupied territories cannot continue indefinitely. Although in many ways invisible — at least as far as American television news coverage is concerned — the Israeli army’s increasingly permanent system of draconian checkpoints and curfews in virtually every major West Bank city and town is creating an unprecedented pressure cooker of Palestinian anger and frustration.

Another theory is that Israeli pressure for a U.S. war against Iraq springs in part from Israel’s jealousy of an Arab state which has long been seen as having great economic and cultural potential. (A similar explanation was put forth as a reason for Israel’s 1982 war on Lebanon.) Proponents of this idea argue that Israel has always had nothing less than zero tolerance for the emergence of any regional rival which might try to woo away its American benefactor. Indeed, if Israel’s concerns really are the impetus behind the plan to wage war against Iraq — and certainly the pro-Israel cabal in Washington vociferously champions this course of action — then at least theoretically the goal might ultimately be for Israel to embrace the entire region from the Euphrates to Israel proper, including Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. (Some rabbinical authorities go so far as to interpret the lands belonging to the Jewish state as including part of Iraq –as well as Kuwait and even a chunk of Saudi Arabia!) Taking this hypothesis a step further, if Israel were to gain at least indirect control not only of Iraq but of at least some of the Iraqi oil then what an Israeli settler told me about his dream of his country someday becoming financially independent of the United States starts to make sense and even to seem realistic.

In fact, on close examination, the “new order” in Iraq — and throughout the Middle East — that the Bush administration and the pro-Israel pundits are clamoring for sounds rather ominously like the “new order” Sharon and other Israeli right-wingers once dreamed of establishing on a smaller scale in Lebanon. That dream was of course never realized: Israel’s 1982 invasion of its neighbor to the north, which resulted in the deaths of thousands of Lebanese and Palestinian civilians, failed miserably in its attempt to install a government sympathetic to Israeli interests. The current effort to effect a “regime change” in Iraq is obviously a much more ambitious scheme than was Israel’s Lebanon war. (The strange argument Israel-firsters might be putting forward could go something like “we failed at Lebanon so let’s try something even bigger.”) Still, in the absence of a negotiated Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, history suggests an American-led attack on Iraq will have consequences which will be at least as disastrous as those produced by Israel’s Lebanon adventure.

PEGGY THOMSON is an American journalist who worked in London for twelve years for a number of news organizations, including the London-based magazine Middle East International. She has also reported from the Middle East for newspapers and radio. She can be reached at: