Tuesday, October 25, 2011

A Glimpse Into the Workings Of Saddam Hussein's Iraq

Following the invasion and collapse of Saddam Huseein's government in 2003 in Iraq, US forces collected a treasure trove of documents that have been stashed away. Now, researchers are beginning to pore through the collection, and hint at just how Hussein continually misread US intentions in the region. There are also repeated boasting about Iraqi military and chemical weapons capabilities, and how Iraq would come to threaten Israel:
In the case of Mr. Hussein, the transcripts depict a leader who was inclined to see enemies everywhere, who often displayed a shallow understanding of diplomacy outside the Middle East, and who harbored grand ambitions for his country but was prone to epic miscalculations.

Mr. Hussein so grievously underestimated Iran’s military that he wrongly assumed that Iran’s initial air strikes in the war had actually been carried out by Israeli warplanes. He personally selected which rockets to use on one attack against an Iranian city, and he boasted that Iraq had a chemical weapons arsenal that “exterminates by the thousands.” He felt threatened enough by the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and other fundamentalist groups that he discussed his desire to “trick” them into thinking that his government, too, endorsed Islamic values. From a historical perspective, Mr. Hussein’s decision to confront Iran and his reaction to the Iran-contra affair are two of the most intriguing areas in the documents.

Mr. Hussein set the stage for war by repudiating a 1975 agreement with Iran and seizing the entire Shatt al Arab, the strategic waterway along their border. According to Amatzia Baram, an Israeli expert on Iraq who has studied the archive, the pivotal decision appears to come in a meeting on Sept. 16, 1980, when Mr. Hussein took the optimistic view that the Iranians, fearing the Iraqi forces massed near the border, would give in without much of a fight.

A top secret report from the Iraqi General Military Intelligence Directorate supported Mr. Hussein’s upbeat assessment. “It is clear that, at present, Iran has no power to launch wide offensive operations against Iraq or to defend on a large scale,” the report noted. It also predicted “more deterioration of the general situation of Iran’s fighting capability.” But the war, which ultimately lasted eight years and produced hundreds of thousands of casualties, turned out to be far more difficult than Mr. Hussein expected. Soon after it began, Iranian aircraft bombed a series of targets, including Iraqi oil refineries and Iraq’s Osirak nuclear plant south of Baghdad. The feat so surprised the Iraqis that they assumed that the attack could not have emanated from Iran.

“This is Israel,” Mr. Hussein exclaimed in an Oct. 1, 1980, meeting. He then complained that Iraqi officials had not followed his suggestion to bury the nuclear facility under the Hamrin Mountains north of Baghdad, before approving a plan to fortify the complex with millions of sandbags. But those sandbags proved to be of little use when Israeli warplanes actually did strike the site the following June.

Later, Mr. Hussein said he was not surprised that Israel felt threatened by Iraq, which he asserted would emerge from a triumph over Iran with a military that was stronger than ever. “Once Iraq walks out victorious, there will not be any Israel,” he said in a 1982 conversation. “Technically, they are right in all of their attempts to harm Iraq.”

As Iraq’s war with Iran proceeded, Mr. Hussein did not hesitate to give battlefield advice, despite his shaky knowledge of weapons and tactics. “Do you have cannons that shell air bursts to fall on them while they are in the streets?” he said in a meeting on Oct. 1, 1980, to discuss the bombardment of Abadan, a city in southern Iran. “We want their casualties to be high.” He was often cordial to his largely sycophantic inner circle, but was capable of coldhearted calculations about the forces he had sent to war. Early in the conflict, Mr. Hussein was frustrated with Iraqi bomber pilots who, hobbled by poor intelligence, had returned from missions over Iran after failing to strike their targets. Deciding that he needed to make an example of the airmen, Mr. Hussein demanded that the pilots be executed, a practice that former Iraqi commanders say was common during the war.
Hussein completely misunderstood the nature of Iran-Contra, and how this was seen as a way to free Americans held hostage in Iran while funding covert operations in Latin America and not as a direct threat against Iraq. Then again, Hussein thought that the US rebuff of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait was bluster and not to be backed up by force. That was a monumental miscalculation that has had consequences still felt 20 years later.

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