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Author Andrew Cockburn on in-depth look at Saddam Hussein

January 16, 2001
9 p.m. EST
Book Photo: Out of the Ashes

(CNN) -- Ten years ago, the United States led a multinational coalition to drive Iraqi president Saddam Hussein's army out of Kuwait, which Iraq had invaded almost six months earlier. After six weeks of bombing and four days of ground fighting, the Iraqi military was overwhelmed and retreated home.

Andrew Cockburn is the co-author of "Out of the Ashes: The Resurrection of Saddam Hussein" and several other books on defense and international affairs.

CNN Moderator: Saddam Hussein al-Tikriti came of political age during a time of upheaval for Iraq. King Faisal II was assassinated in the revolution of 1958. The leader of that assassination, Brigadier Abdul Karim Kassem, was himself overthrown and killed in 1963. Saddam was involved in two successful coups that helped bring his Baath Party to power. How did these events affect Saddam Hussein and his view of how and when to use power?

Andrew Cockburn: As you say, Saddam grew up in a very rough period. His first employment was an assassin, and his first notable public act was trying to kill the then-leader of Iraq, Gen. Kassem. He was in exile at the time of the 1963 coup and then returned to Iraq to take part in the new revolutionary government. As you said, he also took part in the 1968 coup that brought his party to power permanently.

What these events taught Saddam is that politics are violent, that you have to be tougher and more ruthless than your opponent and that you should show no mercy in imposing your political will on others. In other words, what the kind of politics that Saddam adopted as a result of his experiences and upbringing, which was tough, was that politics is a brutal game and he's continued in that manner ever since.

CNN Moderator: What role does Saddam Hussein's fatalism play in his wielding of power?

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Andrew Cockburn: He's a gambler. He rolls the dice at times, takes a very big gamble, and seems to sit back and wait to see what fate has decided for him. Let me give you two examples. In 1980, he suddenly attacked Iran and launched an invasion of Iran, which had just had its own revolution. He thought Iran was weak. In fact, what he'd done was launch a terrible war that lasted for eight years with a million casualties on either side.

A second example was in August 1990 when he invaded Kuwait -- again, as a gamble. He thought it was a good gamble. From his point of view, he thought he might be allowed to keep Kuwait and thus dominate the whole of the Middle Eastern oilfields. In fact, as we know, it was a very bad bet indeed, since the United States was not prepared to tolerate his control of Middle Eastern oil and, therefore, the world price of oil.

I should add a third example, which was when it was clear that his bluff had been called, and the United States was refusing to negotiate with him after the Gulf War, and it became clear that George Bush and his allies were going to attack. Saddam adopted, indeed, a fatalistic attitude, sort of saying, "OK, let the chips falls where they may," and sat back to await events.

He didn't take any great precautions to save his army in Kuwait; he hadn't even prepared very well for the war in Baghdad. For example, his government had not stockpiled gasoline, so that when the United States blew up his oil refineries on the first night of the war, Iraq had next to no gasoline reserves left. And that was probably the most crippling blow that Iraq suffered, at least on the home front, from the bombing campaign in the whole war.

Question from the chat room: When you say, "showing no mercy," does that mean to non-Muslim nations or all nations to Saddam?

Andrew Cockburn: Well, Saddam really thinks in regional terms; his long-term goal has been to be -- or to become -- the dominant power in the Middle East. He has pursued this goal for the last 20 years or so, and I do not think he has given it up. So, to answer the question, I think he has in mind showing no mercy to his neighbors in the Middle East.

I hope he is not so crazy as to attempt to use a weapon of mass destruction, for example, in this country or in western Europe. After all, when the United States and, in effect, Europe went to war with him, he did not, as far as we know, attempt to retaliate through terror tactics in the United States or in Europe.

So, I think that his idea of showing no mercy is first and foremost, of course, applied to his own population, whom he has murdered and gassed and otherwise punished with great severity. And then, also, of course, he has inflicted great punishment on his neighbor, Iran.

Question from the chat room: Does Saddam care anything at all about his own people?

Andrew Cockburn: He is a clever politician and he has been careful to retain political support inside Iraq, at least from some sections of the population. I should explain, if you didn't know already, that Iraq is basically divided into three separate groups. There are the Kurds in the north, who are a non-Arab people, though they are Muslims; then there are the people in the center who are Sunni Muslims; and in the south, there is the largest group, the Shia Muslims. His support comes primarily from the Sunni heartland of Iraq; he himself is a Sunni. It is the Shia and the Kurds who have primarily felt the more severe side of his character.

I'm sure he does care what people think of him; he is careful to at least maintain some political support among the key groups, such as people from his own hometown of Tikrit. Having said that, the disasters he has inflicted on the people of Iraq as a whole suggest that he does not put their welfare above all else.

CNN Moderator: What mistakes did the United States and the coalition make that has enabled Saddam Hussein to retain his hold on power in Iraq?

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Andrew Cockburn: If they wanted to get rid of Saddam, they should've done it when they had their best opportunity, which was right after the Gulf War when most of Iraq was in revolt against him. And it was not necessary, I think, for the Allies to have actually invaded Iraq itself -- to have gone all the way to Baghdad. They could simply have signaled their support for the rebellion. But instead, they signaled that they did not support the rebellion. Once Saddam understood that, that the Americans wanted the rebellion to fail, he was confident enough to crush it in the south at least, and in the north, with his customary lack of mercy. That was the biggest mistake that the Allies made.

I think the second biggest mistake was to think that they could starve Saddam into submission through the use of U.N. sanctions. The notion appears to have been that the people of Iraq would find a way out by overthrowing Saddam if they suffered from sanctions, which meant lack of food. Of course, Saddam himself did not suffer the effects of sanctions, nor did the people on whom he depends to maintain his power, the security services and certain key parts of the military.

The sanctions regime has helped Saddam politically by convincing the people of Iraq that the Allies do not care about them. Iraqis think that the Allies want to keep Saddam in power. Those are the two main mistakes.

Question from the chat room: Mr. Cockburn, who do you think the Iraqi torch will pass to when Saddam passes away? Who does he favor to succeed him? I've heard that he may not look for it in his son Uday -- given his reputation for being recklessly violent in the past.

Andrew Cockburn: That is true. The more likely successor from within the family is Saddam's second son, Qusay, who is as brutal as his brother or his father, but in a less emotional way than his brother.

Uday, the first son, is basically a psychopath and not very smart, at least politically, whereas Qusay has the reputation of being as politically astute as his father and has been given more and more responsibility in recent years. However, it is not clear that even Qusay, should his father die, would be able to command the loyalty of the key elements in the regime in the same way his father has done.

We should not forget that Saddam has a certain charisma, which has its own powerful effect in maintaining his control of Iraq, so it is very hard to predict what would happen should Saddam leave us.

Question from the chat room: Mr. Cockburn, do you believe our Iraqi policy is a failure?

Andrew Cockburn: If we believe what we are told, Iraqi policy is, of course, it's a failure. We're told policy is to remove Saddam from power; he's still there. We were told policy was to force him to admit all the facts about his nuclear and chemical and biological weapons, but apparently we're also told that there is much we still do not know about those programs, so that is a failure.

We've been told that policy is to make Iraq more of a peaceful country, not threatening its neighbors. Just last week, Uday, the son, once again announced that Kuwait belongs to Iraq, so we're not doing well there either.

We were told that it is our policy not to punish the people of Iraq; with sanctions, we've punished the people of Iraq very severely indeed.

CNN Moderator: How have the Sunni Muslims, who are only 20 percent of the Iraqi population, come to control so much of the Iraqi military and government?

Andrew Cockburn: That's a good question. The Sunni have traditionally ruled Iraq, ever since the days when the British controlled the country and appointed a Sunni king under them. The Shia, unfortunately for them, have never been able to unite strongly enough to take political control, even though they are the majority of the population.

The Kurds have fought on and off for many years for their own independence, but they've always depended on outside help in these struggles, and they have always been betrayed by their outside allies. It is very difficult once a group that is comparatively cohesive, such as Saddam and his supporters from Tikrit and in the Sunni population at large, once they've got control of power, military and security services, and other state repression, it's hard to overthrow a group like that. The Shia almost did it in 1991 and probably would have succeeded, had they not been, at least as they see it, betrayed by the United States.

CNN Moderator: In your book, you mention that the Iraqi people "were resigned to the inevitability of defeat." Why did they feel this way?

Andrew Cockburn: Because they are not stupid; they could see that if you had 28 countries led by the greatest military power on earth, the United States, poised to attack them, there was not much chance of an Iraqi victory, so they were quite realistic about that.

The Iraqis are quite well-informed. As I said in my book, they listen to the BBC, Voice of America and other international news broadcasts from outside. They are quite well-informed and quite astute in analyzing the news. I've always been impressed, even in remote parts of Iraq, how informed they are and how well they understand what is going on.

Question from the chat room: Weren't Saudi Arabia and other Sunni nations afraid of the Shi'ite population of Iraq, that they may join Iran, the other Shi'ite nation? This would create a true powerhouse in the Middle East, with a huge potential of military and economic power. Could this be a reason why we held back from deposing Saddam?

Andrew Cockburn: We, the United States, certainly made that assumption, and in fact, Saddam very cleverly played up those fears by various means, by exaggerating the extent of Iranian involvement in the Shia rebellion. But, in fact, it seems that the Saudi regime and other Arab countries were not as frightened by this possibility as the U.S. policy makers appeared to have been.

After all, the Shia in Iraq fought for Saddam for eight years against the Iranian Shia in the Iran-Iraq War. I have been told by many people close to the Saudi regime that 10 years ago, the Saudis were not nearly so frightened by the Shia in Iraq as the Bush regime here in Washington was.

CNN Moderator: Thank you for joining us today, Andrew Cockburn.

Andrew Cockburn: Good-bye. Nice chatting with you.

Andrew Cockburn joined the Gulf War chat room via telephone from Washington, D.C. provided a typist. The above is an edited transcript of the interview, which took place on Tuesday, January 16, 2001.

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