Only Hussein Had Full Picture

Times Staff Writers

Shortly before the U.S. bombing and invasion of Iraq last year, Saddam Hussein gathered his top generals together to share what came to them as astonishing news: The weapons that the United States was launching a war to remove did not exist.

“There was plenty of surprise when Saddam said, ‘Sorry guys, we don’t have any’ ” weapons of mass destruction to use against the invading forces, a senior U.S. intelligence official said.

The unexpected peek inside Hussein’s inner circle in the days and weeks before the regime was toppled comes in a report by the CIA’s Iraq Survey Group released Wednesday, as well as from Senate testimony Wednesday by Charles A. Duelfer, head of the survey group, and from a briefing for reporters by an official familiar with the interrogations of Hussein and his aides.


The new accounts contradict many U.S. assumptions about relations between Hussein and his senior aides, as well as American views on what Hussein was doing and how he saw the outside world before the invasion.

For example, many in the U.S. intelligence community had believed that Hussein’s sycophantic generals kept him in the dark about the state of Iraq’s chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs -- that is, that the dictator was misled by associates who told him what he wanted to hear.

Far from being misinformed, the report says, Hussein was micromanaging Iraq’s weapons policy himself and kept even his most loyal aides from gaining a clear picture of what was going on -- and, more important, not going on -- with the program.

“Saddam’s centrality to the regime’s political structure meant that he was the hub of Iraqi WMD policy and intent,” the report concluded.

His paranoia and his fascination with science and technology “meant that control of WMD development and its deployment was never far from his touch,” it said.

Although the interrogation reports may shed new light on Hussein’s role, they also raise a question: If Hussein understood that he had no stockpiles of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons, why did he limit the activities of the United Nations inside Iraq, violate U.N. Security Council resolutions and defy the outside world from the end of the Persian Gulf War in 1991 until his regime was toppled in 2003?


Hussein often denied U.S. assertions that he possessed banned weapons in defiance of U.N. resolutions, but for years he also persisted in making cryptic public statements to perpetuate the myth that he actually did have them. The Iraq Survey Group believes that he continued making those statements long after he had secretly ordered the destruction of his stockpiles.

Based on the interrogations, it appears that Hussein underestimated how seriously the United States took the weapons issue, and he believed it was vital to his own survival that the outside world -- especially Iran -- think he still had them.

It was a strategy, Hussein has told his FBI interrogators during the last 10 months, that was aimed primarily at bluffing Iraq’s neighbor to the east.

“The Iranian threat was very, very, palpable to him, and he didn’t want to be second to Iran, and he felt he had to deter them. So he wanted to create the impression that he had more than he did,” Duelfer, the Iraq Survey Group head, told members of the Senate on Wednesday.

And, the man known for colossal miscalculations made perhaps his greatest strategic blunder by refusing to believe that President Bush would make good on threats to forcibly remove him from power.

“He kept trying to bargain or barter, and he had not realized the nature of the ground shift in the international community,” Duelfer said. “That was Saddam’s intelligence failure.”

Captured in December hiding in a hole in northern Iraq, Hussein is imprisoned at Camp Cropper, a U.S.-run facility at Baghdad’s fortified airport. He spends much of his days writing, reading and tending to a solitary tree inside a walled courtyard on the camp grounds.

Yet despite reports that Hussein is delusional and often engrossed in romance novels, the senior U.S. official said he had shown himself in recent interrogations by an FBI agent to be lucid and even capable of appearing charismatic.

Before the interrogations began, Duelfer tried to determine what incentive U.S. officials could offer the ex-dictator to get him to cooperate. In the end, they decided to appeal to Hussein’s vanity.

“The only thing we could offer was an opportunity to help shape his legacy,” the official recalled. They asked Hussein whether he wanted “to be remembered by what these characters are saying about you” -- referring to other captured Baathist officials who were talking to U.S. interrogators.

According to the report, Hussein told interrogators that two experiences in particular convinced him that Iraq’s possession -- or at least perceived possession -- of banned weapons assured his survival.

During the late 1980s, when Iraq appeared to be losing its war against Iran, Hussein’s outnumbered army managed to stave off fast-moving Iranian forces by firing more than 100,000 munitions containing mustard gas and other lethal blister agents and nerve gases. The chemical attacks caused as many as 80,000 Iranian casualties, according to U.N. reports, and ultimately led to a cease-fire.

Second, Hussein and his aides were convinced that their chemical and biological weapons saved the Baath Party regime after a U.S.-led military coalition forced Iraqi troops out of Kuwait in 1991. U.S. and allied troops halted their advance deep in southern Iraq, and Hussein and his regime unexpectedly were allowed to remain in power.

At the time, aides to then-President George H.W. Bush thought the reason Hussein had not used illicit weapons against the coalition was that Washington had delivered a clear warning that it would respond with overwhelming force, implying a nuclear attack if necessary.

Yet Hussein and his aides apparently read U.S. thinking differently. As they described it to interrogators, they thought Washington left him in power because U.S. officials knew of his orders to load and disperse his nerve gases and germ agents, and his orders that the weapons were to be used if U.S. troops entered Baghdad.

In the years after the Gulf War, the senior official said, Hussein became convinced that Washington would decide it was in its interest to deal with his regime because Iraq was large, secular, educated and had oil. That view may have been reinforced by the fact that during much of the Reagan administration, Washington supported Hussein as a counterweight to Iran.

The alliance became strained, however, and was ruptured when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990.

“He believed that ultimately the U.S. would come to deal with Baghdad,” the official said. “The mistake he made was thinking he would still be in Baghdad.”

The official predicted that Hussein would be “very compelling” when he was finally brought to trial in Baghdad for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

“He’s looking forward to the stage, the theater, that the trial will offer him,” he said. “Don’t expect someone bug-eyed ... or waving his arms.”

The Iraq Survey Group report also reveals a passion that Hussein had for certain aspects of Western culture, and how he personally related to certain fictional characters, such as Santiago in Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea.”

In the story, the fisherman Santiago hooks a marlin that drags his boat out to sea. When the marlin dies, Santiago fights an ultimately futile battle with sharks that tear into the fish and reduce it to a skeleton.

“Saddam tended to characterize, in a very Hemingway-esque way, his life as a relentless struggle against overwhelming odds, but carried out with courage, perseverance and dignity,” the report concludes.

“Much like Santiago, ultimately left with only the marlin’s skeleton as the trophy of his success, to Saddam even a hollow victory was by his reckoning a real one.”