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Breakfast with Frost
Patrick Cockburn
Patrick Cockburn
BBC BREAKFAST WITH FROST INTERVIEW: HUSSEIN AL-SHAHRISTANI, IRAQI REFUGE COUNCIL & PATRICK COCKBURN, BIOGRAPHER SADDAM HUSSEIN FEBRUARY 9th, 2003

Please note "BBC Breakfast with Frost" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used

DAVID FROST: Saddam Hussein, hardly ever seen in public or on television these days, inside or outside his own country and we don't know when it's a double anyway, but so his interview with Tony Benn last week was a rare chance for people to observe the Iraqi president. What sort of a man is he, how strong is his grip on power and what will happen to him and his country if the threat of military action goes ahead? Hussein Al-Shahristani is an Iraqi dissident, now living in Britain, with first hand knowledge of ... of Saddam Hussein, and Patrick Cockburn has written a biography of him and visited Iraq many times - how many times Patrick?

PATRICK COCKBURN: Oh, several dozen times.

DAVID FROST: Several dozen times. So you are both expert in your different ways, Hussein let's start with you. What sort of a man, we were discussing - I remember discussing with George Bush senior whether this man was crazy or crazy like a fox. How would you describe him, assess him?

HUSSEIN AL-SHAHRISTANI: I would say he's a very ruthless, cold-blooded person with no principles. He is of average intelligence, he acts as he knows all, he is very ... sensitive to any person who may have better scientific background or military rank than him - he has been known to be very insultive to them. He tries to show to people who are close to him that he can read their minds, there is nothing they can hide from him. He has been known to say he can look into your eye and know if you are loyalist or a traitor, and actually people have been taken away and never to be seen again because he looked in their eyes.

DAVID FROST: And what was your experience of him?

HUSSEIN AL-SHAHRISTANI: My experience him was at the atomic energy commission when I was chief scientific advisor. He wanted to redirect our research from peaceful applications to military applications. I reminded him that we could not do that because Iraq had signed the non-proliferation treaty and we had international obligations to work in peaceful fields. He just told me that mind your own scientific work and leave politics to us and then he ... to say something, something else. But when you come to implementing it you have to surprise yourself and your enemies by yet going a third route.

DAVID FROST: Were you - did he imprison you?

HUSSEIN AL-SHAHRISTANI: Yes, he ordered my imprisonment in 1979 as soon as he became president, and I was kept in solitary confinement for ten years.

DAVID FROST: And how did you get out?

HUSSEIN AL-SHAHRISTANI: During the Desert Storm operations I managed to free myself from the prison, took part in the uprising of 1991 and then had to flee along with more than one million Iraqis across the world.

DAVID FROST: Patrick, is this a familiar pattern that you experienced of people treated in the way that Hussein was?

PATRICK COCKBURN: Yes it is. I mean that people have always been understandably nervous about opposing Saddam on anything like this, or even when they are close to the top giving contrary advice, such as the moment that Saddam decided to invade the whole of Kuwait. I know that people in the inner ruling circle drew their breaths in, thought this is a really bad idea, but they didn't quite dare say it directly, implied it.

DAVID FROST: And apparently King Fayed called King Hussein and said have you heard that idiot hasn't stopped where we agreed, so that he went on into Kuwait with disastrous consequences.

PATRICK COCKBURN: Oh yes. A lot of people thought it's going to be a limited invasion - I mean in Iraq and outside - because that's what one thought we could get away with, but the idea that he'd take the whole of Kuwait came as a big surprise to everybody, including people around him.

DAVID FROST: When people are talking now, as they are, about the morale of Iraqi troops and they'll fight from street to street in Baghdad, and all of that. Do you think there is that sort of morale for Saddam in Iraq?

PATRICK COCKBURN: No I don't think so. I mean the Iraqi, Iraqis in general know the last quarter century has been miserable for them. The Iraqi army also knows that it will lose, ... the disparity of power is too great. And also it's just very difficult to do in Iraq. Baghdad is a great spread-out city, it doesn't look like Stalingrad or Bosnia, you know, with concrete canyons, the classic idea of street warfare, it would be really difficult to do that in Baghdad. So I think he will, Saddam will ... down in greater Baghdad, because that's where most of the population is.

DAVID FROST: And what do you think the reaction of the people of Iraq will be - I mean will they, Patrick doubts that they will fight vigorously, that they, in a sense, will welcome the potential departure. Are we - is that right or are we deluding ourselves?

HUSSEIN AL-SHAHRISTANI: No, no I agree with Patrick. The Iraqis except for a very small minority, the core ba'athists, would welcome any effort to get rid of Saddam. For them the arch enemy is really Saddam and his regime, and they will be very happy to see the weapons of mass destruction being removed because after all those weapons have been used against the Iraqi people themselves before they have been used against anybody else. So the Iraqis will not defend Saddam except for the small core of the ba'athists. Based on our contacts with people inside Iraq, it seems that Saddam has decided to fight his battle in Baghdad only, so I don't think the rest of the country will show any resistance or sympathy to the regime - if they can be assured that their independence, territorial integrity, and the will of the Iraqi people is going to be respected in what follows. And on that they have not been always hearing the right voices, if you like.

DAVID FROST: And looking at the voices they've been hearing, what about the effort so far that the West has made, our dossiers, Colin Powell's dossier, and so on - do you think we've done a good job of getting that message across, or could you have done a better job?

PATRICK COCKBURN: Well it's rather a strange job, I mean Saddam should not be difficult to demonise, but some of the documents coming out are, some are astonishingly poor, and not just the one that emerged here last week but the week before the White House put out a document which was quoting stuff from Pakistani and Bangladeshi newspapers as evidence of Saddam's wrongdoing. There's no suggestion he had any connection with these, but it was as though it had been written by somebody who thought that anything said in a Muslim or an Arab state must be orchestrated by Saddam. Pretty, very sort of amateur a lot of this stuff coming out.

DAVID FROST: Well thank you both very much for that portrait - we'll talk to Charles Kennedy in a moment, but thank you both very much for that portrait you've given us there.

INTERVIEW ENDS


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