WASHINGTON – Former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein told an FBI interviewer before he was hanged that he allowed the world to believe he had weapons of mass destruction because he was worried about appearing weak to Iran, according to declassified accounts of the interviews released Wednesday. Saddam also denounced Osama bin Laden as “a zealot” and said he had no dealings with al-Qaida.
Saddam, in fact, said he felt so vulnerable to the perceived threat from “fanatic” leaders in Tehran that he would have been prepared to seek a “security agreement with the United States to protect it (Iraq) from threats in the region.”
Former president George W. Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq six years ago on the grounds that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction and posed a threat to international security. Administration officials at the time also strongly suggested Iraq had significant links to al-Qaida, which launched the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.
Saddam, who during the interviews was often defiant and boastful, at one point wistfully acknowledged that he should have permitted the United Nations to witness the destruction of Iraq’s weapons stockpile after the first Gulf War in 1990.
The FBI summaries of the interviews – 20 formal interrogations and 5 “casual conversations” in 2004 – were obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by the National Security Archive, an independent non-governmental research institute, and posted on its Web site Wednesday. The detailed accounts of the interviews were released with few deletions, though one, a last formal interview on May 1, 2004, was completely redacted.
Saddam was later transferred to Iraqi custody, and hanged in December 2006.
In an interview last year on CBS’s “60 Minutes,” the agent who conducted the interviews – George Piro – said he purposely put Saddam’s back against the wall “psychologically to tell him that his back was against the wall,” but he did not use coercive interrogation techniques because “it’s against FBI policy.”
During the conversations, Piro, who conducted the interviews in Arabic, often appeared to challenge Saddam’s accounting of events.
At one point, Saddam dismissed as a fantasy the many intelligence reports that he used a body double to elude assassination. “This is movie magic, not reality,” he said with a laugh. Instead, he said, he had only used a phone twice since 1990 and rarely slept in the same location two days in a row.
Saddam’s fear of Iran, which he said he considered a greater threat than the United States, featured prominently in the discussion over weapons of mass destruction. Iran and Iraq had fought a grinding eight-year war in the 1980s, and Saddam said he was convinced Iran was trying to annex southern Iraq – which is largely Shiite. “Hussein viewed the other countries in the Middle East as weak and could not defend themselves or Iraq from an attack from Iran,” Piro recounted in his summary of a June 11, 2004, conversation.
“The threat from Iran was the major factor as to why he did not allow the return of UN inspectors,” Piro wrote. “Hussein stated he was more concerned about Iran discovering Iraq’s weaknesses and vulnerabilities than the repercussions of the United States for his refusal to allow UN inspectors back into Iraq.”
Saddam noted that Iran’s weapons capabilities had increased dramatically while Iraq’s weapons “had been eliminated by the UN sanctions,” and that eventually Iraq would have to reconstitute its weapons to deal with that threat if it could not reach a security agreement with the United States.