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Sunday, 26 January, 2003, 06:33 GMT
Saddam's parallel universe
Saddam chairs cabinet meeting (Iraqi photo)
Cabinet ministers have little say on key decisions

For Saddam Hussein war against US and British forces would present enormous difficulties but, in all probability, nobody in his inner circle is telling him that.

When he took the decision to invade Kuwait - changing at a stroke the strategic shape of the world's most important energy-producing region - he consulted only three people.

Iraqi woman with portrait of Saddam
It seems part of the dictatorial condition to be surrounded by people who are too afraid to bring you bad news

One was his cousin. The other two were his sons-in-law, the husbands of his daughters.

All three of these men were members of his Tikriti tribe - the clan which has governed Iraq for more than 30 years.

And when this tight-knit group takes a decision, no-one dares to challenge them.

It seems part of the dictatorial condition to be surrounded by people who are too afraid to bring you bad news.

We know this to be true of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe. And it is true of Saddam Hussein.

Inside knowledge

We know this because two of these men - the two sons-in-law - defected in 1995.

They turned up unannounced in Jordan looking for political asylum.

Nizar al-Khazraji
The former head of Iraq's army says he was kept in the dark about Kuwait
King Hussein put the head of his private office - General Ali Shukri - in charge of them.

They told him everything - how the inner circle makes its decisions, how Saddam's two sons, Uday and Qusay, had begun to assert their claims to political power, how Saddam had never abandoned his long-standing ambition to acquire a nuclear bomb.

We know it, too, because the man who was head of Iraq's army in 1990, when the invasion took place, General Nizar al-Khazraji, fled the country a few years later and is now, in effect, under house arrest in Denmark.

He told us that he knew nothing of the plans to invade Kuwait.

He heard the news like everyone else - on the radio.

When he told Saddam Hussein a few days later that Iraq could not possibly defeat an American-led invasion attempt, he was sacked.

Dictators do not want to hear news like this. They do not listen.

Fatal truths

The then deputy head of military intelligence, Wafiq al-Sammurrai, is another of the top brass who have fled the country.

I went to see him in the little flat in Surrey which is now his home.

You will die if you tell him [that invading Kuwait is a mistake]

Wafiq al-Sammurrai
former deputy head of military intelligence
I asked him whether he had told Saddam Hussein that the invasion was a mistake.

"You can't tell him this face to face," he said.

"Nobody can tell him this. You will die if you tell him this. Everybody is afraid".

One man who did tell him to his face to get out of Kuwait was the deputy US ambassador to Iraq, Joe Wilson.

He had a meeting with Saddam four days after the invasion.

Saddam offered America a deal:

We keep Kuwait, he said, though we are not sure yet what to do with it. And if you Americans don't make a fuss, we can come to a mutually beneficial arrangement about cheap oil supplies and, in addition, we Iraqis will promise not to threaten Saudi Arabia.

Why did Saddam believe the United States would be amenable to such an offer?

It was not simply that he was surrounded by terrified yes men.

It also reflects the way he understood his relationship with the United States.

Iraq's 'special relationship'

The coup that brought the Ba'ath Party to power in 1963 was celebrated by the United States.

The CIA had a hand in it. They had funded the Ba'ath Party - of which Saddam Hussein was a young member - when it was in opposition.

US diplomat James Akins served in the Baghdad Embassy at the time.

"I knew all the Ba'ath Party leaders and I liked them," he told me.

"The CIA were definitely involved in that coup. We saw the rise of the Ba'athists as a way of replacing a pro-Soviet government with a pro-American one and you don't get that chance very often.

"Sure, some people were rounded up and shot but these were mostly communists so that didn't bother us".

This happy co-existence lasted right through the 1980s.

When the Ayatollah Khomeini seized power in Iran in 1979, America set about turning Saddam Hussein into Our Man in the Gulf Region.

Washington gave Baghdad intelligence support.

President Reagan sent a special presidential envoy to Baghdad to talk to Saddam in person.

The envoy's name was Donald Rumsfeld.

Blind eye

Everyone knew that Saddam was using chemical weapons against Iranian conscripts.

When 5,000 Kurds were gassed at Halabja in 1988, Kurdish leaders turned to America for help. Mahmoud Osman was one of them.
Kurds poisoned by Saddam
Halabja, when Saddam used weapons of mass destruction

"I couldn't get any of my friends in the State Department to return my calls," he said.

"They told me we cannot listen to you when you talk about chemical weapons because we do not want to jeopardise our relations with the Iraqis".

So this also explains why Saddam got it all so badly wrong in 1991.

America and the West had turned a blind eye to everything he had done for over a decade.

No-one dared tell him that the invasion of Kuwait would be any different.

Rule of terror

Two of those four men who took that fatal decision were in the end burned by it.

The sons-in-law who defected to Jordan stayed six months and then decided to return, apparently convinced that Saddam had forgiven them.

"I warned them," General Shukri told me, "that they would be executed within seven days of crossing the border.

"I was wrong. They were executed within two days".

This is the nature of Saddam's rule.

Even those who sit at his right hand, who help him govern the Republic of Fear, are not safe.

Those who perpetrate the fear are themselves victims of it.

'Weaned by the West'

Last week I met a major from Saddam's detested security service the Mukhabarat who had recently defected.

He told me he was ashamed of his career in the service of the dictator.

I asked him why he had not left his job.

"Listen to me," he said.

"I have a wife, a family, a boy. If I leave, he will kill him. Do you know what that means?

"Yes I am ashamed. But I am from this country.

"Not only I helped Saddam Hussein. America helped him, Britain helped him. He's your guy. He's your son."

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