Exclusive: Inside the Mind of Saddam's Chief Insurgent

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Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri in Baghdad in 2002

Iraq's Ba'athist insurgents have no intention of joining a political process that was "manufactured by and serves the occupying force," the highest-ranking figure from Saddam Hussein's regime still at large has told TIME Magazine. In an exclusive written interview — his first to the Western media — Izzat al-Douri said the Ba'ath Party will continue "to mobilize and bring together the energies of the people for the fight to expel the occupation."

A national reconciliation program aimed at drawing elements of the insurgency into the political process is the cornerstone of the current Iraqi government's efforts to stabilize Iraq. And despite the government's insistence that there will be no amnesty for former regime leaders such as al-Douri because they are accused of crimes against Iraqis, analysts in Baghdad say the reconciliation program can succeed only if the Ba'athists come in from the cold. But while al-Douri signaled a willingness to negotiate, he insisted the Ba'ath Party would first need to see the U.S. announce a timetable for withdrawal of troops, the formal recognition for the insurgency, and the reinstatement of Saddam's army, which was dissolved in 2003.

Al-Douri, the former Vice-President — the "King of Clubs" in the U.S. deck of cards naming the Saddam regime's most wanted figures — is among several Ba'athist leaders believed to be hiding in Syria, under the protection of the regime of President Bashar Assad. He is believed to be in poor health, possibly suffering from stomach cancer. Nonetheless, al-Douri said the Ba'ath Party has been restructured under his leadership as a "revolutionary, struggle-oriented" organization, in which he plays an influential role.

A U.S. official in Baghdad familiar with Sunni politics confirmed that claim: "He's still in charge, still dedicated to a return of Ba'athist dictatorship," said the official. Although U.S. and Iraqi sources say there have been contacts, usually through intermediaries, with the party's leadership, they insist there can be no deal with al-Douri. "The only thing we will discuss with him is his surrender," says the U.S. official.

TIME's questions were sent to al-Douri in May through intermediaries, and it's not exactly clear when his written answers, delivered in Arabic and authenticated by trusted sources, were composed — the fact that they refer in the present tense to the terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi suggest they were written before Zarqawi was killed in June. Al-Douri praises the Qaeda man's "courage, the strength of his faith, and the sacrifices of his fighters," but rebukes Zarqawi's advocacy of mass sectarian killing of innocents.

Asked about the country's new government, al-Douri said he respects those in the political process who oppose the presence of the U.S.-led coalition force — a reference to Sunni politicians who have been outspoken critics of the U.S. military presence — but urged them to quit the process "because they and the agents, traitors, and spies who are with them are incapable of offering anything to the people while under the occupation. "

In a rare admission for a senior Ba'athist, al-Douri said the Saddam regime had blundered in its military strategy at the beginning of the U.S.-led invasion. Rather than allow the Iraqi military to confront the coalition forces in open combat, he believes the leadership "should have husbanded the army's strength and means till the second page had been turned." Still, he claims that Saddam's military bounced back, suggesting that elements of the old army are responsible for 95% of insurgent operations against coalition forces.

Al-Douri also claimed to have sent President Bush a letter, "via a friend in the official Arab circles," after the December 2003 capture of Saddam. In it, al-Douri says he warned Bush that the continued presence of U.S. troops in Iraq would turn the country "into a world center for terrorism and the manufacture and export of terrorism in its many different forms." Al-Douri said he wrote Bush: "I know that you are courageous, and courage calls for a decision to withdraw immediately from Iraq."

The U.S. official in Baghdad was unable to confirm that such a letter had been received by the White House, but didn't rule it out, saying, "there are a variety of channels through which [insurgents] reach out." However, he added, "considering the source, I don't think such a letter would have been given much credence."