US Ambassador to Baghdad Tells Al-Hayat The Story of Her Famous Meeting With Late Iraqi President
Randa Takieddine Al-Hayat - 15/03/08//
Al Hayat: When Saddam Hussein asked you to meet with him, didn't you suspect something was getting prepared since he never met with ambassadors?
April Glaspie: He met occasionally with ambassadors; I had met him once before he brought over a group of ambassadors. I had not met with him singly, for he never even accepted credentials himself, so he did not receive any new ambassador presenting his credentials. As for my meeting with him, a week before he invaded Kuwait in 1990, the foreign ministry called me. I assumed they called me to tell me to come to talk in the Foreign Ministry to Nizar Hamdoun who was deputy to Tarek Aziz and possibly talk to Tarek himself. They just asked me to come without telling me who I was to meet. Then once I arrived to the Foreign Ministry they put me in a car I had never seen with a driver I have never met. They told him to take me somewhere and I wanted to know before where I was heading to in this car. They said you are going to the Presidency. On my way I still did not think I was going see Saddam, I thought somebody else because he did not call anybody to meet with. When I realized that it was he that I was going to see, I thought that it was not impossible that the very strong warnings that had been given to the Iraqis by me through Nizar Hamdoun and also and specially to the Iraqi ambassador in Washington by our Deputy Assistant Secretary might not have been reported to him because everybody was so terrified of him. So I said it was a good opportunity for me to repeat my instructions which were do not invade Kuwait, keep your hands off this country. When the Iraqi ambassador to Washington was summoned by the State Department, he was told not to invade Kuwait and was urged to inform Bagdad of this instruction immediately. Everybody in the Arab world was concerned, knowing the man is unpredictable. So as soon as this meeting in Washington was finished the one with the Iraqi ambassador I repeated them to Nizar Hamdoun in Bagdad and told him my President( Georges Bush) is very concerned that your President be informed immediately about the warning not to invade Kuwait . Of course, it was then useless to ask to see Saddam because he always said no. You could not see anybody in Bagdad. Michel Aflaq lived in Bagdad but no foreigner was permitted to call on him even though in Iraqi protocol at the time you would be interested to know he outranked the President of the Republic.
Al Hayat: When you saw Saddam what was your conversation with him? Were you aware of the Iraqi troops massing along the border with Kuwait? Did the satellite monitor that?
Al Hayat: Was He alone when he summoned you and you saw him?
A.G: No Tarek Aziz was there and two or three of his aides to take notes.
Al Hayat: Did he start talking directly to you?
A.G: Not quite direct, he started by telling me how very badly behaved the Kuwaitis were, referring also on the meetings in Jeddah that were held he was saying that they are unreasonable and blaming them. His whole accusation of the Kuwaitis made me concerned that the next thing he was going to say was going to take us backward 20 years when a previous Iraqi President said that Kuwait was a part of the southern wilayat of Iraq. It came to my mind that he was going to say so. So, although he had much more to say when he paused, I delivered my message.
Al Hayat: Bagdad then gave a version of your meeting with him saying you told him that the US government does not interfere in border disputes bewteen two Arab countries which he took as a green light form the Americans to attack Kuwait.
A.G: This version was invented by Tarek Aziz. After all Tarek was a master of words as a previous Minister of Information and editor of a newspaper. Obviously I did not give Saddam any such idea that we would not interfere in a border dispute what I did tell him was he must not interfere in Kuwait or anywhere else. Then we were interrupted and he got up politely; somebody came in and he said excuse me I have an important phone call. So we all sat there and waited for him to come back.. He came back and told us Egyptian President Husni Mubarak called him and said that he told Mobarak not to worry, that there will be no problem and that he will deal with it without making problems; that it will be ok. Then I said to him I take great pleasure telling my President you have assured me that there will be no problem and that was basically it.
Al Hayat: Did you tell him you were going on vacation?
A.G: He already knew of course I was going. For any foreign diplomat to leave Bagdad you had to inform the Foreign Ministry to get permission for Arab and foreign diplomats. When the Jordanian ambassador to Bagdad wanted to drive home he had to take permission from the Ministry. Saddam knew I was leaving and I was fully planning not to leave when all this concentration of troops started.
Al Hayat: What made you change and leave on vacation?
A.G: Foolish! I thought if he told me and told Mobarak and I Made sure he told mobarak what he said to us, I checked with our ambassador in Cairo on this, I thought he would not be foolish enough to do it the day he told the most powerful person in the Arab world and the Western world that he was not going to do it. I Thought I could take my mother who was ill at home and turn around and come back within five days. When saying good bye to Saddam, he said something I cannot remember precisely but it was something like you can go now, relax and have a nice vacation but you must tell your President about the problems the Kuwaitis are making.
I might add that Tarek Aziz was responsible for very cleverly advising Saddam when I got out of town, because the British ambassador and the Russian ambassador had already departed on vacation so there were no senior diplomats of a major power in Bagdad. It was interesting that we all were out of Iraq when he invaded Kuwait.
Al Hayat: Some sources in the State Department had mentioned that you had not received instruction and guidance from your government or from Secretary of State James Baker then?
A.G: No, that is not true. I received instruction that I carried out. I would say that the meeting in Washington of the Iraqi ambassador at the State Department was a week before I left and my instructions came from that meeting. I went to the Foreign Ministry I think five times and repeated the instruction not to do anything against Kuwait. About leaving I had asked a few weeks before if Icould leave, then when the situation became very threatening I thought as Saddam said to me and to President Mubarak that there would be no war that it would be a good chance to take my mother who was ill home and to consult with the Secretary of State and we had an important congressional visitor due to arrive and I thought I would be back in Bagdad within five days in time to be with this congressional visitor in the hope that Saddam would see him and he then could say it is not just the US government asking you not to invade Kuwait but also Congress, the American people were against him attacking Kuwait.
Al Hayat: But Saddam terrified people when you were with him in this meeting were you very diplomatic or harsh with him?
A.G: I was the representative of the President of the United States. Of course I was not afraid of Saddam Hussein. What I was afraid of was that he would do a very serious mistake and miscalculate as he did; the determination of a great many people in the world not to let him take Kuwait. I think he misunderstood a lot of Arabs, he had for an instance an idea that the Saudis would allow staging areas in their country and Gulf States as well; and I certainly think he misunderstood the backbone of the American government. Somebody had said to me once that they heard him talk about how Vietnam had weakened the resolution of the American people and the American government; he thought that we did not have the guts to do anything. The other thing about him was that he was unbelievably ignorant altghough certainly not a stupid man. He designed that Baas uniform to look like a military uniform; we know that he never spent one minute fighting, he was never in an army, he knew nothing about armies. But just like the shah the more power he got the more he thought he knew. He suddenly became Iraqi expert on military supplies, on agrarian reform, on culture, on everything, when you get somebody with that state of mind who also thinks l'etat c'est moi, you are dealing with a very dangerous parameter.
Al Hayat: Was he totally autistic or you think he misread what you told him?
A.G: It is just what i said. I think he listened, he never got as stupid not to listen even briefly but he thought he knew that I was talking through my head, that my government did not have any guts, that we would not fight and certainly not for that little tale of desert that was Kuwait for him.
Al Hayat: Did you have the impression that for him what he claimed oil theft by Kuwait was the issue? Or he was just megalomaniac?
A.G: Yes he was megalomaniac.
Al Hayat: Was he really backed by some Arab allies like King Hussein of Jordan as rumours spread?
A.G: No never, King Hussein knew this is too dangerous; you are dealing with a megalomaniac who may go after you next. I think his whole political career derived from overcoming the humiliation of his past .He came from nowhere, he was a selfmade man , he understood the power of the pen .When you went to the so called museum of revolution in Bagdad you might have thought you would see Saddam's shirt but you would see the typewriter he used to persuade those who followed him. He grew up at a time when Iraqis believed understandably they were worthy of the leadership of the Arab world just as Egyptians are , decades when we heard about unity; ,unity and even the Baas split and he was there. Nobody paying attention to him at all except those people whose lives he ruled. He must have known a good deal of the ideology of the Baas when he was younger. So it was not the party and what Michel Aflaq wanted, it was his own sense of becoming the leader of the Arab world, after all in his own thinking, I who stood against the ancient enemy and beat them back (his war with Iran) the pillar of "Al Ourouba" he used to say during his war with Iran.
Al Hayat: Did he tell you after that famous meeting "go on vacation, don't worry, I will not attack"?
A.G: Yes he said go and please while you are there tell your president not to worry but it is a serious situation here. So I said I am going but I'll be right back.
Al Hayat: Why all this blame from Baker and Washington on you, was it not unfair to you?
A.G: President Bush was superb, he asked me to go and see him, it must be difficult for Presidents of countries who have too many things to think of to have been able to do so much thinking and having a conversation with him on the Middle East made me think like I was talking to any important personality I could think of in the Middle East. He was extremely thoughtful, extremely knowledgeable, extremely worried as he should have been. But it is over. Nobody wants to take the blame. I am quite happy to take the blame. Perhaps i was not able to make saddam believe that we would do what we said we would do but in all honesty i don t think anybody in the world could have persuaded him .And don t forget that eventhough i persuaded some people around him that we meant what we said,who would dare tell him that his political calculations about the arab world and the western world were incorrect ,that his military calculations were absolutely correct and his calculations about the state of his own country were wrong because the shiites were not as frightened of him as he thought they were .
Al Hayat: What instructions Washington wanted you to do and they believed you did not implement?
A.G: Absolutely nothing that i did not implement everything is written down, we had all these meetings in the foreign ministry before i saw Saddam, they knew I have done what i was told to do.
Al Hayat: But was there a mistake somewhere from somebody? Why this judgment of you as if something went wrong?
A.G: I think because everybody thought we had some breathing space. President Mubarak made a statement saying he had spoken to saddam and that nohing will happen, so I think we all were wrong every single one of us was wrong. I am not Arab, but I would point out that even the Arabs were wrong. Everybody relaxed a little bit and thought he would not do it right away, particularly Arab officials working behind the scenes, in my personal opinion, looking back whatever saadoun hamadi reported to Saddam after that jeddah meeting must have made him decide he was not going to let this little country in his view kuwait interfere anymore with what was due to him and to Iraq. Don't forget that he was very fond of saying and started to believe that in standing up against Iran he has saved those little countries down there and they owed him money and respect, this is how he was thinking in my opinion.
Al Hayat: Did he tell you that?
A.G: No but this is what I think.
Al Hayat: What about the Kuwaiti leadership, what was happening then did you talk to them?
A.G: What more could they have done? I lived in Kuwait and extremely fond of this country and its people entreprising hard headed commercial people, Beirutis should understand above all the Kuwaitis who are smart business people and lived in the shadow of the big brother at the time and that is not fun. At the time, they have done their very very best to maintain their own sovereignty and fend off this wolf who wanted to get them.
Al Hayat: Do you think saddam s invasion of Kuwait was the beginning of the end for him?
A.G: It certainly rained him in but it did awake a more active resentment in Karbala and Najaf amongst the Shiites because at the end of the Iraq/ Iran war remember what happened , but he had always shown he could stamp on descent effectively and he was doing it again. A very distinguished Iraqi Sunni professor at Bagdad University who was tortured by Saddam but got out of Iraq years before the war once said to me something which is perfectly obvious, but sometimes we tend to forget very obvious things. He said there is only one thing in the world that would make the general Sunni population ever get behind Saddam, because for every reason that we know they have been terrorized by him and that is if they though there was a real possibility of the Shiites taking control in Bagdad. That is perfectly obvious but for a diplomat it is important to remember.
Al Hayat: But the Shiites in the war were not with Iran, they backed Saddam?
A.G: They did not seem to be but he had to always worry that they would be that is why he stepped on them even harder.
Al Hayat: Since you left what did you think of what happened in Iraq? What did you think of the trial of Saddam and the killing of Oudei and Qusai?
A.G: Well, you know past is past either we learn from it or we don't, but the British had an extraordinary weapon, the Gatlin gun and they could not quell Iraq 100 years old but in the end they could not do it. We tried to do it. What happened to Saddam was obviously an Iraqi decision. I certainly think it must have been a difficult one, as long as he was alive he must have been perceived by many Iraqis likely to reappear and they would have been afraid of him obviously to make a martyr is the other side of the argument. I cannot pass my judgment it is an Iraqi issue not an American one.
Al Hayat: But what did you think of the trial and developments?
A.G: I don t know, all I read is the newspapers I simply cannot comment on trial.
Al Hayat: Do you think that the American war in Iraq was a good thing?
A.G: As I said, the British with extraordinary technology of their time tried very hard, spoke more Arabic than the current coalition forces, were working within their old former mandate, they had all the maps they knew every place in Iraq from north to south and they could not do it. I think that the reasons that they could not do it are there for anybody to read and the same difficulties have emerged now. And as I said the only thing to get the Sunnis to pull together behind Takrit with Saddam gone is the fear that they were going to be ruled by the Shiites, which is obvious to us all.
Al Hayat: Do you think Iraq will be for a long time under occupation? Will it be possible for any new US President to withdraw from Iraq?
A.G: I suppose all kinds of things are possible and most of them are probably unwise but to me, there is only one thing that needs to happen and that is creative, active courageous diplomacy. And I think there has to be from the West there has to be really deeper understanding than I have seen of the profundity of the animosities in Iraq, it is very easy to make speeches saying the Kurds are very different from the Arabs and the Shiites Arabs are very different from the Sunnis, it is a very profound and complex ancient difficulty, that has to be understood much better. I was once reprimanded for saying that I truly believe that despite things that were said at the time that there were a new axis of crisis it was not Palestine.