Posted Oct. 18, 2002

Part 1


Prelude to war: Saddam's long, deadly dance with Washington

Gannett News Service

WASHINGTON — Saddam Hussein's rise from a regional thug to international menace seemed nothing short of meteoric.

Last winter, the war on terrorism had its bogeyman in the gaunt, finger-waving Osama bin Laden and its battlefront along Afghanistan's craggy scrub land.

Despite vague rumors about al-Qaida operatives meeting with Iraqi agents in Prague, Saddam loomed as merely one of many black hats in the Muslim-Arab world blowing anti-American smoke.

Since 1998, he thumbed his nose at the United Nations' weapons inspections resolutions that ended the Persian Gulf War. Policing his regular no-fly zone violations had become a fly-swatting operation.

The focus after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks was on radical Islam, and it was well known that Saddam and his secular regime loathed religious fanatics, having fought Iran's radical mullahs to a standoff in the 1980s.

But as the war on terrorism entered its second phase, to finding and stamping out future bin Ladens, Saddam suddenly found himself in the crosshairs of a hawkish Bush administration beating a drum for what it euphemistically called "regime change." Over several months of ramped-up war rhetoric from the White House, Saddam emerged from a gallery of rogues — some deemed even worse by the CIA — to become the embodiment of all that threatens Americans.

"No living dictator has shown the murderous combination of intent and capability as Saddam has," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld recently said.

He ought to know. Rumsfeld flew to Baghdad in 1983 and 1984 as a special envoy to enlist Saddam's help in ensuring the free flow of Middle Eastern oil through a gauntlet of rising Islamic fundamentalism.

The fact is Saddam and the United States go way back.

The regime that President Bush is so eager to oust so quickly is one that two previous presidents — Republican Ronald Reagan and Democrat Jimmy Carter — have courted, funded and even protected.

As early as 1979, Saddam's first year as dictator, the Carter administration ignored Iraq's status as a terrorist state and urged it to attack Iran. According to congressional records, the United States was selling Saddam the ingredients to make anthrax, botulism, E. coli and other bioweapons throughout the 1980s, even after the revelation that he had been gassing tribal Kurds and Iranians.

Until virtually the eve of Saddam's invasion of Kuwait in 1991, he remained in the eyes of many U.S. policymakers an effective, if repugnant, regional enforcer and bulwark against religious radicals.

"A common criticism of U.S. policy in the Middle East is that we are satisfied with the existence of dictatorships throughout most of the Arab world because they are easier to deal with than genuinely pluralistic governments," said Iraqi attorney Feisal Amin Istrabadi, who testified recently before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Initially, Saddam welcomed the U.S. overtures. He was a young dictator on the rise, and the United States was happy to have a secular surrogate in a region witnessing a wave of anti-American Muslim fundamentalism.

Rise of a thug

Unlike the scions of sheiks who graciously inherited most of the Middle Eastern autocracies, Saddam came from the rural poverty north of Baghdad. He took his power more like the banana republic dictators of the Kennedy era: through the barrel of a gun.

His early hatred of the West, which he never let impede weapons procurement, grew out of the colonial occupation of the Arab world. Long before he became Iraq's president, Saddam saw himself as the champion of all Arabs. He considered most Arab leaders impotent anachronisms and dreamed of a modern pan-Arabian state armed with nuclear weapons.

As Saddam rose through Iraq's secular Baath socialist party in the 1960s and '70s, he shunned the flowing robes of Arab royalty, preferring tailored suits or olive drab accessorized by a handgun at the hip.

His proficiency in torture and assassination made him invaluable to the increasingly brutish Baath leadership.

If nothing else, Saddam was a pragmatist, realizing he could do well by playing the Cold War superpowers off each other.

After declaring himself president in 1979, he nationalized Iraq's oil industry and immediately invited Western companies to drill for it. The new dictator needed money to build a world-class military, and this was the way to do it.

"He developed a Soviet-style economy, basically geared toward war," said Khidhir Hamza, an Iraqi physicist who defected to the United States in 1995.

Not surprising for a man who devoured Stalin's writings and ideology.

My enemy's enemy

By the time Saddam took power, no one in the United States was under any illusions about his ambitions and methods.

But Saddam lived by the enduring Middle Eastern maxim "my enemy's enemy is my friend." And for more than a decade, he was the enemy of the United States' enemies.

When Iran overthrew its U.S.-friendly Shah in 1979 and occupied the American Embassy, Saddam proved a willing U.S. surrogate launching a bloody war against the "Persians," whom he detested almost as much as the Jews. He was rewarded in 1982 when the United States removed Iraq from its list of terrorist nations and then again four years later with a handsome bump in U.S. military aid. In 1983, the United States started providing Saddam with satellite photos of Iranian troop placements.

The Reagan administration went so far as to run cover for Saddam, initially blaming Iran for the 1988 gassing of Iraqi Kurds.

"No question — Saddam was not just one more dictator," said Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies, a liberal think tank. "Our relationship with him was a very strategic one."

Then as now, stability in the Middle East was paramount. Then as now, no small chorus fretted that removing Saddam would make room for someone even worse and send the region reeling.

Saddam's threats to "burn Israel to the ground" started to alarm U.S. intelligence, but he continued to be a useful player.

By 1989, U.S. war planners were starting to create scenarios with Saddam as the leading threat in the Middle East. But as late as January 1990, a National War College report concluded, "Baghdad should not be expected to deliberately provoke military confrontations with anyone. Its best interests now and in the immediate future are served by peace." The following summer, a cash-strapped Saddam accused Kuwait of "angle" drilling into its vast southern Rumaila and Zubair oil fields and invaded its neighbor to the southeast.

The United States could overlook Saddam's war crimes, but threatening the flow of oil was unacceptable.

After routing Saddam in Kuwait, the United States began a sporadic campaign to overthrow him from within, encouraging a series of coups and uprisings that ultimately were botched. Bush appears resolute to end this cat-and-mouse game with a sweeping campaign to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction.

There is no shortage of opinion that this can only be done through regime change.

Not since Vietnam

As he began openly stalking Saddam, Bush faced considerable opposition to his policy of regime change in the United Nations and on Capitol Hill. But he went about disarming those skeptics the way he has dealt with a balky Congress to win massive tax cuts, trade promotion authority and withdrawal from the anti-ballistic missile treaty: by confronting them head-on and relentlessly.

In a Sept. 12 speech to the U.N. General Assembly, he bluntly challenged members of the Security Council to enforce tough weapons inspections against Iraq and other Security Council resolutions that have long been ignored by Saddam.

In the Democrat-led Senate, leading voices called Bush's request to attack Iraq unilaterally, if necessary, a dangerous blank check.

Many didn't buy his attempt to link Saddam with bin Laden, if only by general intent.

"He's got to do something better than the shoddy piecing together of evidence," Russell Feingold, D-Wis., charged from the Senate floor. Feingold, one of 23 senators to vote against use of force in Iraq, would prove a voice in the wilderness.

After a marathon debate and vote in Congress, Bush emerged with a resolution of support from both houses that contained most of the essential leeway to go after Saddam unilaterally that he initially requested.

Watered-down proposals that authorized military action only with the sanction of the Security Council failed overwhelmingly in both the House and Senate.

Saddam now faces a U.S. president with more unfettered authority to wage war than any since Lyndon Johnson won approval of the Gulf of Tonkin resolution in 1964, paving the way into Vietnam.


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