What Saddam Was Really Thinking

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KAREN BALLARD / REDUX FOR TIME

Saddam Hussein

For years, Saddam Hussein showed himself to be a master practitioner of the big bluff. Everyone outside Iraq and just about everyone inside believed that he harbored a secret stockpile of weapons of mass destruction. So imagine the shock his generals received in late 2002 when U.S. forces were massing on the country's borders for an imminent invasion, and Saddam suddenly informed them that Iraq had no biological or chemical or nuclear weapons at all. Longtime aide Tariq Aziz told U.S. interrogators that military morale plummeted the moment senior officers learned Iraq would have to fight the U.S. without those weapons. The dictator's cunning policy of deception had deceived the wrong side.

Saddam had always hoped to dictate how history would view him. In his mind, he was the successor to great Iraqi heroes like Nebuchadnezzar and Saladin, to be revered as a giant among them for millenniums. But the Saddam who emerges from the pages of a new, comprehensive CIA report on Iraq's alleged arsenal will be remembered for the colossal misjudgments that cost him his rule. The exhaustive detail compiled by the report's author, Charles Duelfer, chief U.N. weapons inspector in the 1990s and the Bush Administration's top hunter since January, richly fills in the previous portrait of a paranoid and brutal dictator who believed that weapons of mass destruction (WMD) were the prime tools with which to advance his extravagant ambitions. Drawn from lengthy interrogations of the core Iraqi leadership and Saddam during their months in U.S. custody, the Duelfer report sheds fresh light on the dictator's inner motivations and artful deceptions.

Saddam was awed by science and impressed by the way technology conveyed military power. To him, WMD were a telling symbol of strength and modernity, and he thought any country that could develop them had an intrinsic right to do so. In his experience, through 25 years and two wars, WMD had also saved his neck. In the 1980s war with Iran, he concluded that chemical shells had repelled the enemy's human-wave attacks and that ballistic missiles had broken the will of its leaders. He was convinced that his readiness to use WMD during the Gulf War in 1991 had prevented the U.S.-led liberators of Kuwait from marching all the way to Baghdad to topple his regime. In a closed-door chat between Saddam and a senior aide just before the Gulf War began, the report says, he had ordered that "germ and chemical warheads ... be in [military officers'] hands asap" and targeted to hit Riyadh and Jeddah, "the biggest Saudi cities with all the decision-makers and where the Saudi rulers live," as well as "all the Israeli cities." He had squelched the Kurdish rebellion by gassing villages and put down the Shi'ite uprising in the wake of the Gulf War with the help of nerve gas.

But by the spring of 1991, Saddam faced a critical decision. Though defeated on the battlefield, he had kept stocks of WMD squirreled away and maintained secret development programs. Now he faced tough postwar U.N. sanctions that would cripple Iraq unless he got rid of the WMD. Saddam made a calculated decision, says the report, that getting out from under sanctions was of paramount importance. He opted for a "tactical retreat" by ordering the elimination of what he had left: all biological, chemical and nuclear programs were abandoned, stockpiles destroyed. The vast array of evidence uncovered to date shows that when the U.S. invaded in March 2003, Saddam had not been armed with WMD for a decade and that his ability to make new ones had been in a state of continual degradation.

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