Saddam Hussein may have “created a certain ambiguity” about his weapons capabilities before the second Gulf War for two reasons: pride and the threat of Iran, the former top U.S. arms hunter said Tuesday.
Charles Duelfer told the Council on Foreign Relations that it was easy for the U.S. government to misinterpret Saddam’s actions, but the former dictator didn’t necessarily have only Washington in mind when he shut U.N. inspectors out of weapons sites after 1998.
That left the world to wonder whether he was rebuilding his banned weapons programs.
“There was a greater concern than we could appreciate sitting here in Washington of the threat posed by Iran,” Duelfer said in a rare public appearance. “Our gut feeling for that was not the same as the gut feeling one would have sitting in Baghdad.”
Duelfer’s Iraq Survey Group announced in an Oct. 6 report that it had found no weapons of mass destruction. The suspected presence of the weapons had been a key reason for the U.S. invasion.
He told the council that there were intelligence failures on both sides. The United States couldn’t discern Saddam’s true motives, while he miscalculated just how much U.S. attitudes had changed in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
“There really was this element of mutual misunderstanding,” Duelfer said.
Saddam likely feared renewed conflict with Iran in the years after a brutal 1980-88 war between the two neighbors in which 1 million people died, Duelfer said. In the 1990s, intelligence reports from elsewhere had also begun to raise questions about whether Iran was developing weapons of its own.
“Saddam was certainly aware of the WMD assessments of Iran and he created a certain ambiguity about what his capabilities were,” Duelfer said.
U.S. officials may have also underestimated how much it offended Saddam to have weapons inspectors “poking around their most secure areas.”
Duelfer’s comments were reminiscent of those made by former U.N. chief weapons inspector Hans Blix, who said in 2003 he believed Iraq had destroyed most of its weapons of mass destruction years before, but kept up the appearance that it had them to deter a military attack.
Duelfer speculated that under the U.N. oil-for-food program, which began in 1996 and ended in 2003, Saddam came to believe that he could divide the U.N. Security Council and possibly bring an end to sanctions imposed after his 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
Saddam may also have thought that such an end was inevitable because from Baghdad he saw businesses taking more and more interest in his country.
“If you look at the Baghdad international fairs which took place every November, they were increasingly flooded with businessmen,” Duelfer said. “So he had a great deal of reinforcement of the view that the perimeter around him was weakening.”