Saddam’s Delusions

Saddam’s Delusions

March 12, 2006 9:11 am (EST)

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An exclusive report in the May/June Foreign Affairs by the key authors of the Pentagon’s secret study of Saddam Hussein’s regime, based on captured Iraqi documents and prisoner interviews.

The fall of Baghdad in April 2003 opened one of the most secretive and brutal governments in history to outside scrutiny for the first time.  Seizing a unique opportunity, the U.S. Joint Forces Command (USJFCOM) commissioned a secret comprehensive study of the inner workings and behavior of Saddam Hussein’s regime based on previously inaccessible primary sources.  Two years in the making, the report of the “Iraqi Perspectives Project” draws on interviews with dozens of captured senior Iraqi military and political leaders and hundreds of thousands of official Iraqi documents from all levels of the regime, and is destined to rewrite the history of the war from the ground up.  Excerpts from the report itself are presented exclusively in a special double-length article in the May/June issue of Foreign Affairs.

 “Saddam’s Delusions: The View From the Inside,” by Kevin Woods, James Lacey, and Williamson Murray—the key authors of the USJFCOM study—shows that even as coalition forces massed on Iraq’s borders in early 2003, Saddam remained convinced there would be no invasion—or that even if there were, he and his regime would survive.  Saddam believed that the United States was a paper tiger and that France and Russia would protect him; his foremost concerns remained, as always, preventing a coup and keeping his police state in good working order.  Ignorant of military history, logistics, and technology, Saddam lived in a bubble due to the atmosphere of fear he had had instilled throughout his civil and military bureaucracies.  Because of the characteristics of the Iraqi regime, in short, once the war actually began its ultimate result was a foregone conclusion.  Some of the topics the Foreign Affairs article addresses:

  • Did Iraq have WMD?  No—but Saddam wanted others, particular in the region, to think he did, so he maintained a calculated ambiguity on the question.  In the last months before the war he realized that it was too dangerous to continue playing this double game and finally decided to cooperate fully with international inspectors.  But at that point his track record of repeatedly lying meant that no one believed him:

    When it came to weapons of mass destruction (WMD), Saddam attempted to convince one audience that they were gone while simultaneously convincing another that Iraq still had them.… According to Chemical Ali [Ali Hassan al-Majid], Saddam was asked about the weapons during a meeting with members of the Revolutionary Command Council. He replied that Iraq did not have WMD but flatly rejected a suggestion that the regime remove all doubts to the contrary, going on to explain that such a declaration it might encourage the Israelis to attack.

    By late 2002, Saddam finally tilted toward trying to persuade the international community that Iraq was cooperating with UN inspectors and that it no longer had WMD programs. As 2002 drew to a close, his regime worked hard to counter anything that might be seen as supporting the coalition’s assertion that WMD still remained in Iraq. Saddam was insistent that Iraq would give full access to UN inspectors “in order not to give President Bush any excuses to start a war.”But after years of purposeful obfuscation, it was difficult to convince anyone that Iraq was not once again being economical with the truth.

  • What made Saddam so complacent?  His belief that the United States did not have the will to take casualties in a serious war and that if necessary France and Russia would keep him safe:

    According to [Tariq] Aziz, Saddam’s confidence was firmly rooted in his belief in the nexus between the economic interests of France and Russia and his own strategic goals: “France and Russia each secured millions of dollars worth of trade and service contracts in Iraq, with the implied understanding that their political posture with regard to sanctions on Iraq would be pro-Iraqi. … Moreover, [the French] wanted to prove their importance in the world as members of the Security Council—that they could use their veto to show they still had power.”

  • What did Saddam care about?  First and foremost, preventing a coup.  His entire regime was set up to prevent the emergence of any alternate centers of power that could threaten his position.  He created an astonishing array of different military and paramilitary forces to maintain domestic control, but made sure to stock them with lackeys and cronies, have them check and balance each other, and have everybody watched carefully at all times.  This allowed him to stay in power, but it meant that his armed forces were almost completely ineffective at dealing with actual military operations against a competent foreign enemy:

    Before the war, coalition planners generally assumed that the quality of Iraqi military officers improved as one moved up the military hierarchy from the militias to the regular army, to the Republican Guard, and then to the Special Republican Guard.  It stood to reason that the commander of the Special Republican Guard—Iraq’s most elite fighting force—would be highly competent.… In fact, after the war [Major General Barzan Abdel Ghafur’s] peers and colleagues were all openly derisive of his abilities. Saddam had selected Barzan, one general noted, because Barzan had several qualities that Saddam held dear.  “He was Saddam’s cousin, but he had two other important qualities which made him the best man for the job,” this general noted. “First, he was not intelligent enough to represent a threat to the regime, and second, he was not brave enough to participate in anyone else’s plots.”…[Barzan], the man who was to command the last stand of Saddam’s most impressive military forces, spent most of the war hiding.

    Every senior commander interviewed after the start of hostilities emphasized the psychological costs of being forced to constantly look over his shoulder.  At any one time, each of these commanders had to contend with at least five major [internal] security organizations…. The Second Republican Guard Corps commander described the influence of the internal security environment on a typical corps-level staff meeting: “[all the appropriate military] participants would assemble at the corps headquarters. The corps commander had to ensure then that all the spies were in the room before the meeting began so that there would not be any suspicions in Baghdad as to my purpose….I spent considerable time finding clever ways to invite even the spies I was not supposed to know about.”

  • Did Saddam plan the current insurgency?  No.  He thought the United States would never attack, and was confident that even if it did, the resulting war would follow essentially the same script as the first Gulf War in 1991, without a full-scale invasion all the way to Baghdad.  He did preposition a lot of military materiel around the country before the war started, but only to disperse it and keep it safe, so that it would be available either in the later stages of a long and drawn-out campaign against the coalition, or to reestablish control at home afterwards (as he did in 1991, when the Kurds and Shia revolted):

    As far as can be determined from the interviews and records reviewed so far, there were no national plans to embark on a guerrilla war in the event of military defeat.  Nor did the regime appear to cobble together such plans as its world crumbled around it…. [T]he regime ordered the [prewar] distribution of ammunition [around the country] in order to preserve it for a prolonged war with coalition forces.

  • How did Saddam think the war was going?  Swimmingly.  Because everyone knew that Saddam severely punished anybody who told him unpleasant truths, the entire regime was built on lies.  During wartime, this meant that junior officers told senior officers that everything was going well, they reported it up the chain of command, and Saddam himself remained a prisoner of his delusions:

    As late as the end of March 2003, Saddam apparently still believed the war to be going the way he had expected. If Iraq was not actually winning it, neither was it losing—or at least so it seemed to the dictator. Americans may have listened with amusement to the seemingly obvious fabrications of [“Baghdad Bob”]. But the evidence now clearly shows that Saddam and those around him believed virtually every word issued by their own propaganda machine…. [On March 30] Saddam’s principal secretary directed the Iraqi foreign minister to tell the French and Russian governments that Baghdad would accept only an “unconditional withdrawal” of U.S. forces because “Iraq is now winning and … the United States has sunk in the mud of defeat.”  At that moment, U.S. tanks were a hundred miles south of Baghdad, refueling and rearming for the final push.

  • Full text of “Saddam’s Delusions” is available at

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