Saddam Hussein
Saddam Hussein, 1987. Photo by Getty Images
Text size

During the occupation of Baghdad in April 2003, U.S. forces confiscated a large number of secret Iraqi documents. Among them were audio tapes of hundreds of hours of discussions during the 1978 to 2003 period between the ruler of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, and his top advisers: the heads of the Ba'ath party, military commanders, tribal leaders and high-ranking foreign visitors. A large part of the tape collection, along with many documents, was recently brought to the Conflict Records Research Center at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. Along with a few other researchers, I was recently given access to both the tapes and the documents. The conversations in question cover many subjects, among them Iraq's attitude toward Israel.

On June 3, 1978, Saddam, who was then vice president (he only assumed the country's leadership the next year ) but already Iraq's strongman, presented his worldview to top officers and other key people at a graduation ceremony at the Al-Bakr University for Higher Military Studies: It is essential that "the Arabs" (by which he meant Iraq ) have nuclear weapons soon, he asserted. As long as they did not, they would not be able to attack Israel, because when the Arab armies moved toward Israel's borders and prepared for a crucial blow - Israel would threaten a nuclear attack.

Saddam had no doubt that Iraq would be the first target of such a bomb. "Therefore: will the Arabs stop or not?" he asked. He had no doubt that, without a nuclear capacity of their own, the Arabs would indeed "stop," namely: call off the offensive. If a nuclear bomb were to be dropped on Baghdad, he insisted, "[No] Iraqi soldier will remain in the front, as he will want to know what happened to his family."

The solution, in his opinion, lay in creating an identical threat on the Arab side. This would prevent the use of nuclear weapons by either side, and allow the regular Arab armies to act unhindered. The urgency here derived from Saddam's prediction that the next major war with Israel would break out at the Arabs' initiative, within two to four years. Perhaps he was thinking about the French nuclear reactor that was due to be assembled in Iraq, and which was already in advanced stages of development at the time. In fact its construction was delayed somewhat because of sabotage of the reactor's equipment while still in France.

Saddam also related to the subject of a nuclear bomb in an emergency meeting with Iraq's political leadership, held immediately after the Israeli attack on the Tammuz nuclear reactor, in June 1981. His answer to Menachem Begin, he vowed, was that, "Every lesson we learn we transform into a plan." In this case, the plan was for Iraq to go back to its own nuclear project. Today we know that this indeed is what happened, and that Iraq continued its work on developing such weaponry until 1991.

One issue was not touched upon at all in that discussion: revenge on Israel. No one talked about the need to take revenge nor was there a promise made to do so - until 10 years later, when Saddam had an interest in provoking an Israeli response. Apparently the Iraqi leadership did not want to become embroiled in a war on two fronts: At the time, the fighting against Iran was raging, and the Israeli air force had already proved it was able to reach every place in Iraq.

Though the Iraqi nuclear effort was apparently intended to serve the country mainly against Iran, Israel too had cause for concern. That effort ended with the Gulf War of 1991, after which the United Nations launched nuclear inspections. Israel was very surprised by the advanced stage the Iraqis had reached. Had Saddam not attacked Kuwait in August of 1990, it is likely he could have achieved his nuclear goal, with all the attendant dangers.

In addition to Israel's involvement in conflicts with the Arabs in general, and the Palestinians specifically, the Iraqi leadership was convinced that Israel and the United States had toppled the Shah of Iran and brought Iraq's bitter enemy Ayatollah Khomeini to power in 1979.

On September 16, 1980, six days before the Iraqi invasion of Iran, in a meeting of the Iraqi Ba'ath Party leadership and the Revolutionary Command Council, one of the closest people to Saddam, his paternal cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid, the administrative secretary of the leadership, asked what Israel and the United States would do if Iraq were to succeed in toppling Khomeini. The question derived from the Iraqi view that Khomeini was the darling of those two countries - although this was at a time when American hostages were still imprisoned in their country's Tehran embassy.

In other discussions, after the war with Iran broke out, Iraqi leaders seemed to be convinced that Israel was helping Iran buy weapons abroad. Saddam could be heard saying: "Israel is holding the Iranians' hands and introducing them to countries with which it is friendly," so that it could purchase arms from them. Though he exaggerated, he was not far from the truth, as revealed in the so-called "Irangate" or "Iran-Contra" affair (a circular deal through which, in the 1980s, the United States sold arms to Iran, with Israel as the middleman ).

In a meeting on September 16, 1980, six days before Iraq began its invasion of Iran - when the question came up of what Israel's response to the toppling of Khomeini would be - in a tone of admiration rather than contempt (the latter he reserved for the Ba'ath regime in Syria ), Saddam said: "Zionism [meaning Israel] knows us extremely well! It is the element that knows the [Iraqi] Ba'ath Party best [in the world] . Look at how they have been 'killing' us for two years now and the escalation is continuing!"

Perhaps he was referring to the sabotage of his nuclear industry or perhaps to Israeli academic research, or to both. About a decade later, Iraq's foreign minister, Tariq Aziz, said in an internal meeting of the leadership that university research in Israel about the Arab world and Iraq was impressive. With its help, he said, the "Zionists" were succeeding in exacerbating existing communal and ethnic rifts among the Arabs, thereby weakening and dividing them.

Aziz also described Israel's society and economy as being very similar to the Ba'ath system in Iraq, with a socialist public economy that operated alongside a private sector. The number of millionaires in Israel, he said, was very small, smaller even than in Lebanon.

During the fighting with Iran, sometime between late 1983 and early 1984 (the time frame of the recording is not accurately marked ), Saddam held a discussion with senior military officers about the art of war. In this context he expressed his opinion, which no one disputed, about the excellence of Israel's military commanders. "Their expectations and calculations are as close to reality as can be," he said. "The military exercises ... should resemble what is anticipated in the battlefield ... directing the [actual] battlefield is like doing an exercise: The more you do it, the better you get" - and the Israelis, he implied, do it very well.

In particular he mentioned an Israeli general (possibly Israel Tal ) who "is known for developing a famous military tactic. He had the ability ... to develop a tactic from his experience fighting for four years with the Allies in World War II. Therefore, when he designs war plans it is normal routine for him. He knows ahead of time what and how much it takes ... before he goes to battle." But the president also found some consolation: Since Iraq was engaged in a long and difficult war, its generals too were acquiring a great deal of experience and they too would soon reach a high level of achievement.

Required reading

Along with a certain degree of familiarity with Israel on various subjects, as revealed in the documents, the ignorance of the Iraqi leadership about other matters is quite astonishing. At a meeting of the party leadership in the mid-1990s, Saddam said that in order to understand Israel ("the Zionist entity" was the more common term ), it was worth reading closely "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion." There was general agreement to this, and the president promised to distribute copies to all the members of the leadership for purposes of a thorough discussion in the near future. Although there's no evidence that that discussion took place, Saddam was very pleased with the initial meeting As he saw it, that conversation had a broader, more intellectual and educational horizon than the usual ones, where time was usually devoted to making immediate decisions. As an indication of his satisfaction, he ordered his aide to: "Give them cigars" (from the supply of cigars Cuban ruler Fidel Castro would replenish every month ).

In a memorandum from 2001, the Iraqi General Intelligence Service reported to the Presidential Palace that the animated series "Pokemon" was very dangerous to Iraqi youth because of its sweeping popularity. "The meaning of the name 'Pokemon' in Hebrew," the intelligence people added, "is 'I am a Jew,'" adding that the series - a Japanese creation - was aimed at corrupting Iraqi children without anyone noticing.

The nearly primal fear of any contact with Israel comes up again in a series of meetings in Geneva between a person defined as a "mediator" with Israel, and Saddam's half-brother Barzan Ibrahim al-Hasan al-Tikriti. From the correspondence between the latter and the president's personal secretary, insofar as it can be reconstructed, it emerges that at the beginning of February 1990 Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir probed the possibility of an Israeli-Iraqi dialogue. At the end of that month, Baghdad replied that it had no interest in the initiative.

In another meeting, al-Tikriti had apparently understood that Shamir was wondering: Maybe Saddam never got the message? However, the prime minister received an authoritative answer within days: Iraq fired a trial missile that covered a distance of 600 kilometers.

In March Shamir sent another message to Saddam, again via his half-brother: He asked why Iraq was investing in the development of weapons instead of in economic development. Shamir also "promised to answer all the questions Saddam has about Israel's aims" in the Middle East.

Saddam delivered a speech on April 1990, in which he warned Israel that any attack on Iraq would be answered with chemical missiles - or, in his words: "I will burn half of Israel." Immediately thereafter the Iraqi leader's personal secretary sent an urgent message to al-Tikriti in Geneva, ordering him to sever contact with the "mediator" immediately. Emanating from this message is real fear that any contact with Israel would cause Saddam tremendous damage if it ever became public knowledge.

And indeed, except for very short periods, as in 1986, when Iraq was in real distress because of the war with Iran, the Ba'ath Party's position toward Israel remained extreme and uncompromising. An example of this is Saddam's comment on the eve of his invasion of Iran: He already envisioned himself as the future leader of the Arab world, and said then that if the Arabs authorized him to act on their behalf he would agree to meet with Prime Minister Menachem Begin, but only after Israel withdrew from all the territories it occupied in 1967. And even then, at that meeting, Saddam added, he would tell Begin "[Y]our presence here, on this land [Israel before June 1967] is illegal. [I will say] that they have to leave my [Arab] country."

Saddam thus implied that he did not seek bloodshed per se but, rather, the demise of Israel. He was even prepared to meet personally with the devil, the Israeli leader, a far-reaching concession for him but, apparently, in contrast to Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, he would only do this to rescue the Arab people from the continuing nightmare of the "Zionist entity," once and for all.

Dr. Amatzia Baram is a professor emeritus and director of the Center for Iraq Studies at the University of Haifa.

Some of the material discussed here appears in the recently published "The Saddam Tapes: The Inner Workings of a Tyrant's Regime, 1978-2001," an annotated collection of translated documents edited by Kevin M. Woods, David D. Palkki and Mark E. Stout, issued by Cambridge University Press.