Best Defense

Book excerpt: Saddam Hussein said that the Iranians lied to him about everything

Saddam saw himself as the guardian of the Arabs against the Persian menace.


Saddam saw himself as the guardian of the Arabs against the Persian menace. Because of this, he said, the whole world saw Iraqis as the “most noble people.”

Saddam then resumed his tirade against Iran. “The Iranians are untruthful. They assume that all people are liars. They will announce something and then do the opposite. That is the Iranian mentality.”

Later on in the session he added, “Iran is still ambitious to expand into the Arab world in the name of Islam. They think that if the time is right, they will have a leadership role in the liberation of al-Quds [Jerusalem]. When they take over, they think they will establish the Islamic realm. Because Israel has nuclear weapons, Iran cannot play this role. So whoever owns these weapons can say that they can liberate Jerusalem. They [Iran] think they can lead the Arab nation.” Saddam also blamed the Iranians for the 1996 assassination attempt on his son Uday.

The next session was more of the same. Saddam came in his usual way, sat down and greeted us, and immediately launched into a long monologue about the Iran-Iraq War. “There were 548 acts of war committed against Iraq prior to the war.” Saddam said, and then proceeded to recite all 548 to us. We asked him to discuss specific points, including the sinking of several Iraqi and foreign ships at the entrance to the Shatt al-Arab, Iraq’s outlet to the Persian Gulf and the trigger for the conflict. “We sent to the U.N. 290 memorandums,” he said. “Iran answered with one … The Iranian defense Minister on 22 September said that if the Iranian forces attacked Iraq, they would not stop until they reached Baghdad.” In 1988, the liberation of the al-Faw Peninsula, located at the head of the Shatt al-Arab waterway, was a turning point for Iraq in the war because it drove Iranian forces from Iraqi territory once and for all.

Saddam went on for hours about Iran. It moved him to talk in ways that few other subjects did. He felt that his country had behaved gallantly during the war and that the test of arms between the two countries proved that Iraq had the “most noble fighters.”

When we asked him why he started the war, Saddam took issue with the premise of the question, even though military analysts generally agree that Iraq threw the first punch with one hundred thousand troops and nearly two hundred warplanes.

Saddam insisted Iran was responsible for the hostilities because it had not honored an agreement to return two settlements to Iraq, had set fire to Iraqi oil wells, and had stationed U.S.-made artillery pieces close to the Iraqi border.

Iraq “repelled” the Iranian artillery, Saddam said, and he wrote the Iranian leadership three times warning against an escalation. “They continued the shelling of Basra and the oil infrastructure,” Saddam charged. “In Diyalah they staged attacks from the second plot of land [Said Saah]. We took prisoners. One we kept approximately ten years to show that the war did not start on 22 September [when Iraq launched its invasion], but for us on 4 September. The Iranians tried to assassinate members of the command. They tried to kill Tariq Aziz, Latif Nusayif Jasim, and Mudbathir Badr al-Din. Even with that we were not at war. They committed over 240 aerial intrusions and airstrikes.” When asked about Ayatollah Khomeini’s call for the Iraqi Shia to overthrow the government, Saddam said, “Meddling in the internal affairs — that’s an act of aggression.”

Saddam tried to avoid commenting directly on his army’s use of chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq War, but his tight-lipped approach became increasingly difficult because he wanted us to know that Iran had used the same weapons and claimed that Iraq had used them only for defensive purposes. Saddam pointed out that Iran was the first to use chemical weapons in the September 1981 battle of Khorramshahr, the deepest Iraqi penetration into Iran and the place where it was stopped in its tracks.

When asked about Iraq’s tactics during the war, Saddam curtly replied, “Go ask the MOD [Ministry of Defense].” Saddam clearly didn’t want to talk about his use of missiles against Iran and, as usual, turned the missile war between Iraq and Iran as an Iranian provocation. He said Libya gave Iran missiles to hit Iraq. “I talked to the Iranians over the radio. I said this is a losing method. We need to avoid this type of war. Up to that time, I was reluctant to use these methods [missile attacks on Iranian territory] to reach Iran. I knew this would cause other problems. When Iran wouldn’t stop, a suggestion was to produce the Scud missile. When we started hitting Iran, the Iranians responded. We didn’t take any action against Iran until they did something first. We returned everything in equal measure.”

Excerpted from Debriefing the President: The Interrogation of Saddam Hussein, by John Nixon. Published with permission by Blue Rider Press, a member of Penguin Random House. Copyright © 2016 by John Nixon.

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Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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