David Palkki is the deputy director of the Conflict Records Research Center (CCRC) at the National Defense University in Washington D.C. He was the co-editor, along with Kevin Woods and Mark Stout of the recently released The Saddam Tapes. The book was based upon hundreds of captured tapes of Saddam and his inner circle discussing foreign and domestic issues from the 1970s to the 2000s. The first part of the interview covered Saddam’s foreign policy. The second half delves into how Saddam treated Shiites and Kurds, Islamism, weapons of mass destruction, the United Nations inspections, and the defection of his son-in-law Hussein Kamal in 1998. Overall, what The Saddam Tapes revealed was a dictator who spoke his mind both privately and publicly. Rather than a mad man, Saddam held wide-ranging discussions with his top advisors. The problem was he often miscalculated foreign affairs, but was much better at controlling his own people within Iraq.
1. After the 1991 Gulf War, Saddam faced a Shiite and Kurdish uprising. How did he feel about this turn of events?
He described the uprising as the “page of treason and treachery.”
2. One interesting conversation included in the book was of an Iraqi official saying that the Iranian opposition group Mujahedeen e-Khalq (MEK) fought Tehran’s forces in Jalawla, Diyala province. Did you read anything else about their involvement in this period, because there are many Iraqis who think that the group was used to help put down the Shiite revolt?
I haven’t seen anything else on the MEK during this period, and hope to find more.
3. During the 1980s and 1990s Islamism had a rebirth in the region. What kind of challenges did that pose for Saddam who stood atop a secular, Baathist government?
Iran branded the Iraqi regime atheistic, and tried to delegitimize it on this basis. Saddam took steps to emphasize the importance of Islam to the regime, including adding the phrase “God is Great” to the Iraqi flag in 1991, building mosques, claiming to have descended from the prophet Mohammed, and so forth. Amatzia Baram, one great Iraq scholar, describes Saddam as becoming a “born again Muslim.” For more on this, click here.
4. Could you get any insight into what Saddam felt personally about religion and Islam?
He consistently indicated in captured recordings that he was a believer, and would cite the Quran and Hadith, but I’m sure this debate will continue.
|Saddam kissing a Quran at the Samarra shrine in Salahaddin. In the mid-1990s Saddam turned towards Islam to help prop up his regime and co-opt the growth of Islamism within Iraq and the region (Reuters)|
5. Do you think Saddam was ever successful in containing or co-opting the Islamists that were growing within Iraq itself?
To some degree, though not to the degree that he would have liked.
6. A really interesting point that I got from the book was the role of sectarianism under Saddam. It appeared that he really wanted to be a nationalist leader of his country, and stressed that all of its people were Iraqis first, and was reluctant to refer to a group by its sect or ethnicity. Can you give some examples of this?
The best evidence is what you don’t see in the recordings and other captured records – references to Shiites, Kurds, and Sunnis. The rareness of such references has surprised many scholars who’ve worked with the captured records.
7. In turn, some have claimed that Saddam was obviously a sectarian leader because of what he did to the Shiites and Kurds. Others have said that he actually was most interested in keeping his immediate family in power, and then his extended family, which was based upon tribal ties and the Tikrit region of Salahaddin. Did the Iraqi tapes give any insight into which of these views was more realistic?
Different people will certainly take different lessons and insights from the tapes. For Saddam, maintaining power was of paramount importance, and he relied on family and tribe to do this. His policies certainly tended to favor Sunnis. However, the Shiites and Kurds had risen up in arms against his regime, and Kurdish rebels had allied with Iran in times of war. From Saddam’s perspective, he crushed the Shiite uprising and used chemical weapons against Kurds, because they were traitors to Iraq, and not for reasons related to ethnicity.
|Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor under construction in 1979, which was part of Saddam's covert plan to build a nuclear device (Wikimedia)|
8. Another big issue covered in the book was Iraq’s WMD policies. In the 1970s, before he was running the country, Saddam was put in charge of Iraq’s nuclear program. What did he see as the advantage of Iraq acquiring such weapons?
He thought they could be used to deter attacks and nuclear blackmail by Israel and the United States. He believed that possessing nuclear weapons would bring prestige. He frequently told his inner circle that Israeli nuclear weapons prevented Iraq from liberating the occupied Palestinian territories, but that once Iraq had nuclear weapons, it would liberate these lands in a bloody war of attrition. Hal Brands and I have written more on this here and here.
9. Iraq obviously never acquired the bomb, but it was able to build a robust chemical and biological weapons arsenal, which was used during the Iran-Iraq War. What did Saddam think about using these weapons during the conflict?
Iraq saw use of chemical weapons as effective and necessary under certain conditions.
10. Saddam then decided to use WMD on the Kurds. How were they supposed to help in this internal conflict?
By creating terror, softening up resistance, and so forth.
11. After the Gulf War, Iraq came under United Nations sanctions and weapons inspections. Did the tapes say what happened to Iraq’s WMD stockpiles?
I have seen no evidence in the tapes that casts doubt on the Duelfer Report’s finding that Iraq destroyed the vast bulk of its chemical weapons in 1991.
|U.N. weapons inspectors in Iraq in 1991 (U.N.)|
12. With no actual WMD left, Iraq still ended up arguing with the inspectors. Why did Iraq take such a confrontational approach when it desperately wanted sanctions lifted, which was directly connected to the weapons searches?
There were a variety of reasons, including concerns that the inspectors were collecting intelligence that could undermine regime security, pride and desire not to suffer perceived humiliations of being compelled to allow inspectors and to disarm, and perhaps desire to create “deterrence by doubt” by leaving Iran, Israel, or others uncertain whether Iraq had truly disarmed.
13. The inspectors seemed to realize that Iraq didn’t have any large stockpiles left, but wanted to know about its suppliers, its equipment, and its paperwork. What kind of problems did Iraq have with these demands?
The Iraqis had unilaterally destroyed WMD-related paperwork, making it hard for them to produce complete and convincing evidence. They also didn’t want to draw unwanted attention to the activities of former suppliers, for fear that the suppliers would not assist them in future acquisition activities in a post-sanctions period, and out of concern that countries friendly to Iraq such as Russia would be angered by such revelations. Some equipment was dual-use, which also created problems.
|Saddam greeting Russian diplomat Nikoli Kartouzov in 1998. Saddam hoped that friendly countries like Russia would help end the United Nations sanctions imposed in 1990 (Reuters)|
14. With the inspections and sanctions dragging on for years, Iraq seemed to take a three pronged approach to undermine them. First, they went to their friends like the French and Soviets. What did Baghdad want these countries to do for them at the United Nations?
It wanted France and Russia to speak out on Iraq’s behalf, to call for an immediate end to the sanctions and inspections, and other such measures. It wanted them to ignore the sanctions, to sell weapons to Iraq, to purchase Iraqi oil, and to otherwise be supportive of Iraq.
15. The second approach was using bribes. Who was that aimed at?
UN inspectors, UN Oil-for-Food officials, key politicians in a variety of countries, and others.
16. Finally, in 1995 Saddam moved several Republican Guard divisions to the Kuwait border. What was that plan, and how did it work out?
It appears from captured audio files that the plan was never to invade Kuwait; rather, the plan was to create a crisis that Saddam believed would serve to undermine support for the UN sanctions.
17. Ultimately, Saddam and his inner circle came to lose faith in the inspection process. What did they think the inspectors were really after in Iraq?
They thought that U.S. and U.K. inspectors wouldn’t take yes for an answer, and were looking for any excuse they could find to extend the economic sanctions. Saddam suspected that inspectors were collecting intelligence to share with the CIA, and other intelligence agencies, and that they would plant WMD materials at inspection sites and then claim to have found evidence that Iraq was violating its obligations.
18. Was that why Iraq ended up stopping its cooperation with the U.N. in 1998?
This was certainly a big part of it.
19. Hussein Kamal who was Saddam’s son-in-law had a major role in this entire drama. Could you give a little background as to who Kamal was, and what position he played in the regime.
Hussein Kamal had overseen Saddam’s WMD programs, and he and his brother were intimately familiar with the inner workings of the regime.
|The defection of Saddam's son-in-law Hussein Kamal (far left) in 1988 caused chaos within the Iraqi regime (Reuters)|
20. Kamal ended up defecting to Jordan in 1998, which seemed to cause chaos within the Iraqi government. Why were they so concerned when he left?
It showed that someone who’d been at the very heart of the regime had defected, and Saddam had not suspected it. Saddam had trusted him, and had been burned.
21. What kind of affect did his defection have upon the inner workings of the regime?
It made Saddam even more distrustful.
22. Kamal ended up telling the U.N. inspectors that Iraq had destroyed all of its WMD, but that Iraq had also worked on several programs like nuclear weapons it had not revealed. What did Iraq end up doing about Kamal’s revelations?
It “discovered” a large amount of WMD-related documents, which it said Hussein Kamal had been concealing from the regime, and turned these over to UN inspectors.
23. Amazingly, Kamal ended up returning to Iraq. Why did he end up doing something that looked so obviously suicidal?
It seems that he had had a brain tumor that had been operated on in Jordan prior to his defection, and that the operation may have led to depression and suicidal behavior. He may have thought Saddam would forgive him, and he was quickly wearing out his welcome in Jordan.
24. The end of the book had some interesting conclusions about how Saddam operated. What can you say about how Saddam conducted meetings, and used his advisors?
The meetings were generally fairly unstructured. At times, Saddam would do most or even virtually all of the talking. In other meetings, Saddam’s advisers would expound on topics at length. Advisers generally seem to have told Saddam what they thought he wanted to hear, but not always. Nizar Hamdoon, a senior Iraqi diplomat, once wrote Saddam a scathing letter in which he called on him to democratize, cooperate with UN inspectors, and respect human rights. Saddam’s written response to this letter, and a translation of it, is available to scholars at the Conflict Records Research Center. Such boldness was very rare.
25. Does this fit the “mad man” image that the West created of Saddam during the Gulf War and the lead up to the 2003 invasion?
Saddam wasn’t insane. He was very risk acceptant, and often perceived things idiosyncratically, but he wasn’t crazy.
26. The final conclusion was about what Saddam said publicly, and what Iraq’s actual policy was. Can you explain that point?
Saddam’s general worldview came out pretty clearly in his public rhetoric. In terms of how he saw the world, his public discourse differed little from his private rhetoric.
27. Finally, are there any other major lessons you came away with from putting this book together?
I think your previous questions have done a great job of covering the main lessons.
Woods, Kevin, Palkki, David, and Stout, Mark, The Saddam Tapes, Cambridge, New York, Melbourne, Madrid, Cape Town, Singapore, Sao Paulo, Delhi, Tokyo, Mexico City: Cambridge University Press, 2011