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October 7, 2004
Surprise!, Saddam Said

The Los Angeles Times takes an interesting look at one aspect of the Duelfer report that paints Saddam Hussein in a different and far more Machiavellian light than first thought. Once Operation Iraqi Freedom was complete and the WMD had not been found, analysts presumed that military and scientific leadership had fooled Saddam into thinking Iraq had WMD to protect themselves from Saddam's wrath, or that Saddam had gone mad and refused to accept the weapons no longer existed. However, that's exactly the opposite of what the Iraq Survey Group found:

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. ...

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.

So why did he continue the pretense of fighting the UN, bribing the French, German, Chinese, and Russians, and blocking weapons inspectors? Because he never expected the US to forcibly disarm him, instead believing that the US would eventually lose interest. The article makes clear that Saddam felt his worst security problem was the neighboring mullahcracy in Iran, and that the only way to stand them off from an invasion would be to threaten them with the WMD that had accounted for tens of thousands of Iraqi casualties during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s.

But the situation had more complexities than the Times report demonstrates. First, the Duelfer report makes clear that Saddam intended to start production of WMD as soon as the sanctions were lifted; he wasn't going to be long satisfied with an empty bluff, especially since he was convinced it was the only way to maintain the Iranian stalemate. The experiences of Dr. Mahdi Obeidi, who hid the research and prototypes for the Iraqi nuclear-weapons program in his yard until after the American invasion certainly prove that.

Second, Saddam made tons of money in the Oil-For-Food corruption -- billions of dollars, mostly untraceable at the time and even now mysterious and difficult to find. The UN's corruption allowed Saddam to solidify power in Iraq and make himself the sole conduit of necessary materials, as well as the sole arbiter of who received the goods once purchased. He and his sons set up a perfect mob-style patronage system that ensured loyalty for his allies and starvation for his enemies, turning themselves from a totalitarian Stalinist state to an Arab version of the Sopranos run amuck.

As long as the money flowed and European and UN officials could be bought, Saddam felt safe with his bluff, convinced that neither Iran nor the US could remove him from power until sanctions were lifted. Once that occurred -- and that was coming soon, pressed by his client states of France, Germany, and Russia -- he would be free to use the Obeidis he had hidden away, as the Duelfer report notes, in order to quickly rebuild his WMD arsenal. And thanks to UNSCAM, he could use the fortune he had amassed to fund the programs without generating any notice at all.

In the end, his machinations backfired on Saddam. However, it doesn't change his nature as a dangerous and genocidal dictator; in fact, it underscores the threat that Hussein represented to the security of the region and to the US if he had been unleashed once again.

UPDATE: Thanks to my friend Bill from INDC Journal for the link and hearty recommendation. He owes me a cookie, by the way ...

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at October 7, 2004 5:33 AM

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