Saddam Hussein is running a successful public-relations campaign. He has already been given a clean bill of health by most media outlets over WMDs, allowing those who opposed the war of liberation to fancifully claim that Saddam was innocent. Now, as he scuttles around the countryside of the Sunni triangle, evading U.S. and British special forces, he will be pleased to hear he has convinced the New York Times that he wanted peace while the U.S. was determined to wage war. Saddam, it would appear, was a dove.
Saddam’s supposed peace offer travelled a circuitous route. According to the New York Times
, Saddam sent out feelers through Hassan al-Obeidi, the head of foreign operations for the Iraqi Intelligence Service, who contacted a Lebanese American, Imad El Hage, who happened to have a friend in the Pentagon, Michael Maalouf. At one point El Hage met Richard Perle, a Pentagon adviser and former Reagan administration official (Perle is also on the board of advisers of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, where I work). If the New York Times
story is to be believed, then Saddam offered everything but the kitchen sink in a desperate attempt to stave off the impending U.S. and British invasion that brought about his downfall.
Among the supposed “concessions” that Saddam proposed were:
allowing U.S. experts to search for WMDs including “2,000 FBI agents to look wherever they wanted”;
the surrender of Abdul Rahman Yasin, who is suspected of involvement in the February 26, 1993 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center;
assistance in fighting terrorism;
support for any U.S.-sponsored Arab-Israeli peace plan;
priority rights for the U.S. in the development of the Iraqi oil sector.
After learning that the U.S. was determined that he leave power, Saddam apparently raised the prospect of elections within two years. The New York Times editorial page has generously called these proposals as “an offer that might have provided a way to avoid the war.”
If all of this sounds familiar, that is because it is. Before Saddam receives the Nobel Peace Prize, so he can look Yasser Arafat in the eye, it might be worth looking at the terms of the so-called “peaceful solution” that the New York Times believes was “a realistic possibility.”
The last-minute offer of talks, the sudden appearance of possible concessions that were previously unthinkable, were favorite tunes in the Baathist repertoire. None of the offers mattered and not just because there was no guarantee that Saddam would follow through. The Iraqi proposals were an attempt to delay and to distract.
Had these covert overtures managed to delay the U.S. and British invasion, then that would have been a significant gain for Saddam. Once the U.S. had swallowed the bait and agreed to discuss the fine points, he would have spun out the negotiations because he knew that it was impossible politically and military for the U.S. to maintain a quarter million troops in Kuwait indefinitely. The later the war began, the more difficult the fighting conditions for the Americans and Britons given the heat of the Iraqi summer and its effect on soldiers wearing chemical-weapons suits. Any postponement of liberation would also have meant more Iraqi victims of Saddam, such as the men executed in early April and whose barely buried but decomposing corpses were found by U.S. troops outside of the notorious Abu Ghraib prison.
Even putting aside delay and a cursory glance at the distractions reveals that Saddam was up to no good. Allowing U.S. officials to scour Iraq for WMDs was meaningless, because the legal obligation was always on Iraq to surrender its weapons, not for others to find them. Saddam had consistently made the same offer to the U.N. Each and every single time that he was asked to hand over his weapons, he had the same breezy response: Come and look for yourselves.
The U.N. had demanded in 1991 that Iraq verifiably disarm. That requirement was never met because Saddam transformed giving up the poisons and programmes that he had used without compunction into a game of hide and seek. The U.N. inspectors were never supposed to be detectives, bloodhounds sniffing out WMDs and deadly research. Rather, the U.N. was there to inspect sites that were to be declared by the Iraqis and any other sites that were believed to be of interest.
Saddam’s offer to allow in 2,000 FBI agents was simply a more fanciful version of the game he had played with the U.N. for 12 years. As the Iraqis well knew, FBI agents are not trained to search for WMDs. What the FBI does it to investigate crimes, but you can be sure that Saddam would not have pointed them to the mass graves that probably contain the remains of around 300,000 Iraqis.
As for Saddam’s sudden willingness this March 2003 to participate in counterterrorism and to hand over Abdul Rahman Yasin, this was evidence not of a change of heart but of an absence of irony. The Iraqi regime had always denied that Yasin was in the country, but the truth was that Baghdad had long been a guesthouse for terrorist fugitives, including Muhammad (“Abu”) Abbas and Sabri al-Banna (“Abu Nidal”). Could it be that Saddam had looked at the FBI website and was tempted by the $25 million reward? As we know now, after U.S. soldiers found a stash of $670 million in Baghdad this April, Saddam preferred U.S. dollars to Iraqi dinars.
The possibility of elections was interesting given that Saddam had just been reelected in October 2002. Perhaps Saddam felt that his election victory, with 100 percent of the vote, was unconvincing. After all, despite being the only candidate, his share of the vote had only risen by a fraction from the 99.96 percent of the poll with which he had won the 1995 presidential elections.
The more you look at the Saddam “peace plan,” the less there is. Even the New York Times editorial writers, battling against their own credulity, are forced to concede that it was unclear “whether the offer was genuine.” What was genuine was the Iraqi dictator’s fear at finally being up against a man like George W. Bush, a leader willing to make Saddam face consequences of his long career of crime.
–Andrew Apostolou is director of research at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute created after 9/11 and focusing on terrorism.