New details about Saddam Hussein, gleaned from the CIA

Iraq's dictator developed an aversion to using telephones and a penchant for writing novels as he sparred with the UN.

Saddam Hussein opened the meeting by complaining about collars. The neckline of a suit designed for use in an upcoming ceremony was too high, the Iraqi dictator told assembled senior officials. It should be lowered, just a little, so the underlying shirt would be visible without being too obvious.

Then he segued into more important matters.

"I want to make sure that - close the door please - the germ and chemical warheads ... are available [to those concerned], so that in case we ordered an attack, they can do it without missing any of their targets?" Mr. Hussein asked.

This conversation, recorded on a 15-minute audiotape obtained by the CIA's Iraq Survey Group, probably took place during the second week of January 1991. US officials say it is evidence of the keen interest Hussein took in weapons of mass destruction - although he never did order use of WMDs against US forces in the Gulf War.

But it is also evidence of something broader: the nature of Saddam Hussein himself. Today, as they sift through the detritus of a dictatorship deposed, intelligence analysts are piecing together a much fuller picture of the man who made Iraq his fiefdom, and of how he constructed and controlled his government.

This is both a historical and a judicial exercise. At his coming trial the new Iraqi government will likely portray him as not so much a cartoonish tyrant as a detail-oriented executive, a strongman personally responsible for the evils and excesses of his regime. And the world may see what Hussein's FBI interrogator already knows: In person he is tough, querulous, and compelling.

"This is a very cagey guy," said a US official with access to Hussein's debriefing transcripts at a recent meeting with reporters.

New details about Hussein's work habits, ego, underlings, and goals have become public in recent weeks with the release of the report by Charles Duelfer on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. While the work focuses on the fate of Hussein's chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons programs, buried in its 1,000+ pages are revelations about the man himself, many apparently derived from interviews with captured Iraqi officials.

Hussein, for instance, apparently developed an aversion to telephones following the Gulf War. By his own account, he used a phone only twice in the past 14 years, for fear of being pinpointed for US attack.

Even the highest regime officials said they gave up trying to phone Hussein long ago, and often had difficulty finding him, even in times of crisis. Fear of assassination made him inaccessible.

"Sometimes it would take three days to get in touch with Saddam," ex-Vice President Taha Yasin Ramadan al-Jizrawi told the Iraq Survey Group.

Yet until the last years of his regime Hussein dominated Iraqi institutions, and ruled by personal fiat, according to the CIA. He would ponder key decisions, such as whether to invade Kuwait, for months - yet share his thoughts with few others.

He had a high opinion of himself, after all. He believed he was the inheritor of the tradition of such great Iraqi leaders as Hammurabi. Bricks used in the reconstruction of the ancient city of Babylon were molded with the phrase "Made in the era of Saddam Hussein."

He was opposed to personal corruption - perhaps because he used money as a reward to manipulate his regime's top ranks. He tried to use it to manipulate his way out of UN sanctions, too. Hussein personally approved the list of foreigners and foreign firms eligible for secret oil allocations as part of the UN oil-for-food program.

Hussein claimed to meet regularly with the Iraqi people, to learn their concerns; woman are particularly good sources of information about operations within government ministries, he told interrogators.

Aides learned not to confront him with bad news, or controversial suggestions, even if he requested unvarnished advice. In 1982, Hussein asked his ministers for creative ideas about ending the Iran-Iraq War, and his health minister took the bold step of suggesting that Hussein temporarily resign, and then resume power following a peace treaty.

Hussein ordered the man executed, and his dismembered body delivered to his wife, former Deputy Prime Minister Abd-al-Tawab Abdallah Al Mullah Huwaysh told US interrogators.

A deprived and violent village childhood shaped Hussein, according to the Duelfer report. As Iraq's economy unravelled under UN sanctions in the mid-1990s, Hussein turned more and more to his relatives and fellow natives of Tikrit, undermining existing government hierarchies.

"The last three years with Saddam bothered me the most. There were too many relatives in sensitive jobs," former Vice President Ramadan told US interrogators.

From 1998 onward, senior officials noted a change in Hussein's demeanor. Formerly a workaholic, the dictator appeared less and less prepared for meetings. He appeared preoccupied with other concerns, such as the novels he was writing at the time.

Tariq Aziz, one of Hussein's highest-ranking aides for years, told the US that Hussein badly misjudged the effect of Sept. 11. He was too slow to realize that the Bush administration seriously intended to invade. Then, he was overconfident in the ability of his military to slow the US advance.

"He thought that you would only use your Air Force," Aziz told a US debriefer.

One of the biggest mysteries surrounding Hussein's behavior remains why he continued to posture as if he retained stocks of WMD, when in fact he apparently got rid of them under pressure from UN weapons inspectors.

Ironically, the pre-invasion intensity of the Bush administration's insistence that Iraq retained such weapons led at least one high Iraqi official to suspect that Bush was right.

Following Bush's speech to the UN General Assembly on Sept. 12, 2002, ex-Deputy Prime Minister Huywaysh began to wonder whether Hussein had in fact retained chemical or biological weapons.

"Huywaysh could not understand why the United States would challenge Iraq in such stark and threatening terms, unless it had irrefutable information," says the Duelfer report.

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