Saddam Hussein was questioned by the FBI during 20 formal interviews and at least five “casual conversations” over a four-month period from February to May 2004 after his capture by US troops in December 2003.
Transcripts of the interviews were released last week in response to US Freedom of Information requests. Asked about his greatest achievements, the former Iraqi leader cited social progress for ordinary Iraqis, a temporary ceasefire with the Kurds in the early 1970s, the nationaliation of Iraq’s oil in 1972, and support for the Arab side during the 1973 Middle East war with Israel.
The Saddam Hussein interviews are interesting for what they reveal and what they conceal. Probably right up to the end, Saddam was talking up the Iranian threat to Iraq, knowing that this would confirm American suspicions of Iran. The Iraqi leader would recall that a joint front against Iran had been the basis of Iraqi-American co-operation in the 1980s.
“Hussein explained that Iraq could not appear weak to its enemies, especially Iran,” records FBI special agent George Piro who interviewed him. This is the explanation the Iraqi leader presents for keeping the world guessing if he had weapons of mass destruction. In reality, the Iraqi leader made every effort to prove that he had no WMD.
The anti-Iranian theme is constant throughout, and no doubt Saddam believed it as well as saying it out of political calculation. Of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, he says: “Khomeini and Iran would have occupied all of the Arab world if it had not been for Iraq.”
But US intelligence documents about Iraqi intentions in 1980 show Saddam Hussein and other leaders launching a surprise attack on Iran because they thought it was militarily weak following the Iranian revolution of 1979. In a disastrous miscalculation they believed the war would be over soon and they would win back territorial concessions they had made to the Shah in 1975.
Saddam was astute in his assessment of internal Iraqi politics, but was catastrophically wrong in his calculations of how foreign powers would respond to his actions. This is not surprising for a man who only briefly left Iraq during his whole life. Most importantly, he wrecked his country by his two invasions: Iran in 1980 and Kuwait in 1990.
He denies that the Baath party was Sunni-dominated when it first became a force in 1958-63, though this was true by 1968. He makes the unlikely claim that he was unaware for years that his long-time lieutenant Tariq Aziz was a Christian. Asked about the Shia uprising of 1991 in southern Iraq, in which as many 150,000 people may have been killed, he says the insurgents were “thieves, rebels” and came “from Iran”. Yet thousands of bodies of Shia men, women and children have been unearthed from mass graves south of Baghdad and the few survivors leave no doubt they were killed in a mass punishment because they were Shia.
It is interesting to see Saddam deny that he was ever at the Dora farm in south Baghdad at which the US launched a missile attack at the start of the war in 2003 because of intelligence he was there. It would be interesting to know how many Iraqi civilians died because of such attacks based on dubious tips to the CIA.
Saddam Hussein’s failing was not stupidity, but arrogance and brutality and this impression is confirmed by these interviews. He was a man of intelligence who came to believe that he had semi-divine attributes.