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Iraq, 15 Years On: An Interview with Former Iraqi National Congress Spokesman Zaab Sethna

"The Americans squandered the occupation. I was with US forces in southern Iraq and in Baghdad in late March, early April 2003 and I saw people welcoming them and clapping, throwing flowers, throwing rice. I saw it with my own eyes, nobody could tell me it didn’t happen. There was an enormous store of goodwill to the Coalition. And all of that evaporated in May 2003 when the US and the UK passed UNSCR 1483, establishing the CPA, and they had to do this under international law, that declared themselves the occupiers of Iraq.”

Iraq in Context:

On March 17th, we interviewed Zaab Sethna, former INC spokesman, to discuss the 2003 war and some of its repercussions on how we frame the conflict in Syria, military intervention and disarmament.

IIC: “Fifteen years after 2003, there is a Baathist leader in Syria, strongly supported by Russia. He has been accused of using chemical weapons, many times, in the worst instance killing as many as 1000 people. The headlines today about a dictator “massacring his own people” as the world stands by, seem very familiar to anyone who followed the situation in Iraq before 2003 or read Kanan Makiya.

As in Iraq in the 1990s, the CIA has made efforts to remove Assad between early 2013 and 2017, but just as in the 1990s, these efforts have been (until cancelled) ill-conceived, only partially supported by the U.S. President and badly organized probably making the situation worse. The international community seems paralysed and people talk of Assad and Russia making a mockery of the U.N’s resolve, the same point Colin Powell made about Saddam.

Indeed, Bashar al-Assad is strongly supported by Sergey Lavrov, whose colleagues in Russia dealt personally with Saddam Hussein’s regime. Moscow’s strategic intent--to see Russian IOCs in southern Iraq (Russian service companies were already operating there) was a significant factor in Lavrov’s position when he represented Russia at the U.N. in 2003. In Syria today, just as in Iraq in the 1990s, the regime’s prospects for survival (at least in the short term) incrementally improved despite considerable efforts to remove it. Indeed, it is likely that partial efforts to remove both regimes gave them time to adjust and entrench themselves, although the latter strategy ultimately failed for Saddam.

Today, there remains a hope that some kind of international framework can find a resolution to the Syria crisis, but this has not stopped calls for regime change or at least tougher action, recently coming from analysts who argue that “containment has failed,” echoing the neocons in 2003. Some warn that removing Assad could lead to even worse chaos. A lesson of Iraq is that such efforts require complex long term planning, strong resolve and coordination, rarely present in Western policy making. Many argue it is simply impossible for intervention to remake a society within a planned framework.

Another dimension of the conflict is chemical weapons. Syria was a signatory of the Chemical Weapons Convention. It has been under sanctions and an arms embargo, yet according to the U.N., has been able to break the embargo with 40 shipments of ballistic missile parts and materials that could be used for military purposes, from North Korea. In a similar way, Iraq was repeatedly able to manipulate sanctions in a way that helped the regime, to the point of being able to obtain weapons through the 1990s (although not for an active WMD program) from countries such as Syria, Russia and Serbia. In some ways, the Iraq war seems to be slipping into history. But the same issues endure.

Are there parallels to the situation in Syria today?”

Zaab Sethna: Regarding Syria, if that is an argument for intervention, I am not sure intervention in Syria would be a good thing. When you look at the two regimes, they’re both Baathist regimes, they are both totalitarian dictatorships with a dynastic grip on power. But I think the scale of the atrocities committed by the Iraqi Baathists far exceeds those of the Syrian Baathists and that includes today, with half a million dead in Syria, with maybe the majority killed by the regime, but certainly a large number killed by the opposition (the Halabja chemical attack may have involved between three and five times the fatalities of the 2013 Ghouta chemical attack, although casualty estimates for both attacks vary widely--ed.)

I would still say that the Iraqi regime was significantly worse in terms of its human rights violations and obstructions of the will of the international community. So, I actually think there was a better case to be made for the removal of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

IIC: Do you think there is greater outrage surrounding the Syrian conflict today because of high internet penetration, as people often point out, the political and social mobilization of the Arab Spring was largely enabled on mobile phones. And with the Anfal genocide and the 1991 intifada in Iraq, a vast amount of documentation is buried in captured regime archives, slowly surfacing in Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International reports that appear over the 90s, and Iraqi efforts to translate and release this material (2.5 million pages of Baath party records were captured by Kurdish Peshmerga in 1991-ed.) Today, at least some of the human rights abuses of Saddam would have shot around the world on mobile devices and there might have been calls for a more forceful intervention, sooner, had that technology existed then. What do you think?

I think there is no question. The effect inside Iraq, on the people, would have been significantly different. In the late 90s and early 2000s, the Iraqi people who were opposed to Saddam were the majority--there is no question. They had access to very limited technological means. We were smuggling in satellite phones allowing them to connect to the internet--imagine how slow that is. They were sending fax reports through satellite phones to us. And we were smuggling in video cassette cameras.

And really, just a few years later, all that technology was outmoded. So, in answer, yes, technology really would have changed things and had we had access to this technology, to get evidence of human rights violations and sanctions busting, of course we would have published it as much as possible. And I daresay we would have done a better job than the Syrian opposition.

IIC: And I presume that to an extent, it adds credibility to what you are saying. There are organizations now, like Bellingcat, who geolocate video evidence, helping others to do the same. This might have cleared up a lot of the debate you had at the end of the 90s where some people were questioning some human rights reports coming out of Iraq, such as Fedayeen Saddam executions of women. And when you actually meet people who escaped Iraq, who were lucky to escape with their lives, you realise the weight of evidence against the regime is just phenomenal. Entire villages destroyed. (At least 2,000 Kurdish villages were destroyed during Iraqi campaigns in northern Iraq between 1987 and 1989. In the 1990s, vast swathes of southern Iraq were cleared of Marsh Arabs-ed.)

Above: Map showing the destruction of the Marsh Arab homelands of the central Iraqi marshes.

We had no Google Earth in 2001. We used an early system of accessing satellite photos online, to get a photo of the Salman Pak training facility, where there was a civilian aircraft and people said this was hijack training, others said it was anti-hijack training, which seems far fetched. But we got this satellite imagery of the facility.

(Salman Pak was an Iraqi Special Operations facility of the Mukhabarat intelligence services located on a former biological weapons production site that was in use in the 1980s, near the town of the same name, south of Baghdad. Information that paramilitary forces were using a Boeing 707 fuselage to train hijackers, including Gulf Arabs, formed a part of several claims that Saddam was working with Al-Qaeda, and may have provided them material support prior to 9/11. Later sources suggested this aircraft was a Russian Antonov. The U.S. Defence Intelligence Agency later concluded that there was no connection between the site and Al-Qaeda, however, the Iraq Study Group (ISG) report concluded that at the start of the 2000s, the facility was used to train Fedayeen Saddam, which included foreign fighters, among them Sudanese, Egyptian and Yemeni nationals, and that irregular forces had been trained in assassination and bomb construction. A mass grave of 130 people was found on the site.)

IIC: I think it was described as CT facility but as you say, the idea of Iraq developing some kind of SWAT team seemed far fetched at the time, given Saddam’s historic support of terrorist groups like the Abu Nidal organization.

And actually, during the invasion in 2003, it did not get a lot of coverage, but the CENTCOM spokesman Vincent Brooks gave a daily press briefing saying they took the Salman Pak facility where they encountered heavy resistance, and among the bodies found, were a number of foreign nationalities, non-Iraqis. (This is mentioned in Vincent Brooks’ press briefing from April 6th 2003, available online.)

IIC: So it’s a Fedayeen Saddam facility.

Right. So are they teaching these Sudanese, Egyptians and Yemenis counter-terror?

IIC: The relationship between the Baath regimes in Iraq and Syria with radical Islamists, on paper, should be clear cut, given that both were threatened by, and had cracked down hard, on Islamists. But both regimes ultimately used extremists when it suited them, as Saddam did during the Faith Campaign and Bashar al-Assad did after 2003. Again, not a direct connection, but not a clear situation either.

So, there is a thaw in Iraq-Syria relations. Qusay Hussein goes to Damascus, Firas Tlas visits Baghdad to discuss an arms deal, they also have the pipeline, and that was 50--100 kbpd. Then when the invasion happens, you have all these jihadis going into Iraq with the reason for entry as “jihad” stamped on their passports. What follows is a long history of Assad allowing eastern Syria to be a border sanctuary for AQI, while in some cases former Iraqi Baathists are allowed to fundraise for insurgents in Iraq, while in Damascus, as late as 2010.

And where is Izzat Ibrahim today? Is he in Damascus?

IIC: Katherine Van Heuvelen, writing in the Nation in 2013, says that Syria’s successful destruction of WMD is a “slap in the face” for neoconservatives, following the OPCW declaration that Syria had destroyed 94% of its WMD stockpile, on August 28th 2014. After Khan Shaykhun, can it ever be a clear cut case when we are talking about ridding dangerous regimes of CW?

It’s impossible. She’s just point scoring. Events have subsequently proved that is ridiculous. Remember, we found in Iraq in 2003, fighter planes that had been buried in the desert. Completely covered in sand. So if you can hide a squadron of fast jets, you can certainly hide lots of things.

IIC: And UNMOVIC found, in January 2003, 3000 research documents on the laser enrichment of Uranium inside someone’s house. Blix reports that this could be part of a pattern, which could be “serious,” or could be isolated. This underlines how difficult it was for the regime to really convince Washington that there is compliance, the old issue of the “absence of evidence not being the evidence of absence.” Blix had mixed feelings, but of course if someone thinks Saddam is still hiding WMD, you can see how they would be influenced by these findings. (Chilcot concluded this was still not proof “beyond doubt." See also Blix’s report on the “Air force document” and the 1000 tons unaccounted for CW.This is also discussed in the memoirs of Richard Butler, Charles Duelfer and Scott Ritter-ed.)

Blix was saying that the U2 spy planes were providing higher resolution imagery than what was commercially available. But the Iraqis wanted to restrict their overflights (Iraq eventually gave in on this point just before the invasion, but said “it could not ensure their safety”--ed.) The regime had claimed it did not want to accidentally shoot U2s down. Then Blix was told the U2s flew above the range of Iraqi AA missiles. (The US claimed there was a shoot down attempt in 2001-ed.)

Well, we know now Saddam wanted to maintain uncertainty over WMDs and that he was unafraid to use them. As we noted, all of the escalations in the Iran-Iraq war, such as attacking oil tankers, using ballistic missiles and using nerve gas, were by Saddam. So, to maintain the aura of having them was very important to him.

IIC: And that is what the ISG report says--something Saddam notes in his extensive interviews with George Piro. He says in a speech in 2001, we won’t get rid of our WMDs unless our neighbours do.

A lot of people say, look, Saddam had to go, but does he really have to go in such a dramatic and catastrophic way, was there not a better alternative? Remember in 2003 there were fears Baghdad was going to turn into a kind of Stalingrad. Although the actual invasion itself did not produce such a scenario.

Well, I think there could have been better ways. The mistake the coalition made was that they didn’t involve Iraqis in the liberation of their own country. This is what the opposition kept telling the Americans, “don’t let this appear as the US against Iraq. Make this an Iraqi war of national liberation. Empower the Iraqi people to liberate themselves and then give them assistance. But if you attack Iraq, and make the Iraqi people feel like losers and the US the victors--and ultimately it would have been the people who were the victors-- but if you treat them as the vanquished, then it will be a disaster.

IIC: And we are again in a situation where that is a policy that should have begun years before the time it was started. The lead time to build an effective Iraqi force that could have gone in with Western support, would have been years, for the Afghan model. And that did not happen.

We hardly had any time at all. (To stand up-an effective Free Iraqi Army/ FIA-ed.)

IIC: But with the FIA, there were not a lot of recruits, a lot of them ultimately became interpreters during the invasion.

Above: A member of the Free Iraqi Forces speaks with locals, 2003.

I wouldn’t even say it was a half hearted effort. It was not even quarter hearted. It was some kind of fig leaf, not taken seriously.

IIC: So arguably Clinton shares a lot of blame. In 1998 the Iraq Liberation Act was passed, committing the U.S. to regime change, but nothing really changes after that. Had similar measures to build an FIA been taken years before, one wonders what might have happened.

Well Clinton signed the ILA, it was shoved down his throat, he signed it kicking and screaming. He had no intention of implementing it. And Congress appropriated some funds, at the time, to actually implement the regime change and I was deeply involved in this in Washington. We as the Iraqi opposition would give DOS proposals as to how to spend this money and they would divert it into expensive consulting firms, having conferences and doing pointless exercises to waste the money.

And one of the things they funded was broadcasting into Iraq. And instead of doing it in a cheap and quick way, guerrilla broadcasting, which the opposition could have done, they went to Prague and set up Radio Free Iraq. RFI, with massive overheads and American experts on expat salaries, was a fine effort but we could have achieved a lot more using one tenth of the money that was spent there, and that’s just broadcasting. And the same applies in every other aspect.

IIC: For someone focused on Iraq for years, in the Iraqi opposition, how do you feel about Chilcot’s conclusion that at some point, war may have been necessary. For many people in the opposition, it was war already. There was the 1991 uprising, the 1995 coup effort and Ramadi uprising, the 1997 Nasiriyah unrest, the 1999 Basra and Sadr city uprising, the 1996 air raids, 1998’s Desert Fox, the 2001 US raids, 2001’s Iranian missile strikes...

The question asked, which we’ll see again during the 15th anniversary period is, “how many people died because of the Iraq war?” The real question to my mind is, how many people would have died if Saddam had stayed in power? And, I suspect, we would have ended up with a significantly larger death toll. There is no question that an Arab Spring wave would have reached Iraq. If Saddam was in power in 2011, then the Arab spring would have washed into Iraq. And Assad killed 400,000 or 500,000. Saddam would have been a lot more brutal, many more Iraqis would have died. And, probably he would have had support from the Arab countries, because he was a Sunni. And that is the counterfactual people don’t talk about. There would have been a lot more chaos, instability and bloodshed.

IIC: When the regime gets weaker, a lot of people look at the question in terms of the question of the coalition and what they might have done or didn’t do, rather than looking at the regional picture. Some make the point that the war made Iran stronger. But actually, what Iran is doing during the 90s, is building networks in the Iraqi opposition, helping insurgents in a limited way. In 2001, Iran fires a volley of Scud B missiles into Iraq.

At the Mujahadeen Khalq camps.

IIC: Yes. In many other situations, firing Scuds into a neighbouring country could be the start of major hostilities.

There were constant violations of the gulf war ceasefire.

IIC: In 2001, Badr announced they had launched a Katyusha rocket at one of the regime buildings in Baghdad.

That Badr claim is dubious, they were constantly announcing these attacks, but I think their ability was very limited. I think Saddam would have retaliated in a very vicious way against the Shia.

IIC: You could argue that, in the Arab Spring, very little would have happened in Iraq. Because Saddam had already established a kind of “peace of the grave” after 1991. But that would be misleading because, in 1999, there is the Basra and Sadr city uprising. And Iraq doesn’t go five years without a local uprising during the 1990s, after the intifada. That suggests to me that peoples’ spirit had not been crushed.

No, the sentiment was boiling in Iraq before 2003. There was huge anger at the regime.

IIC: So, either Iraq is getting weaker, because of sanctions, or sanctions are lifted, if there is no invasion. But it is difficult to see conditions in Iraq improving dramatically with the removal of sanctions--at least not in a short term period. Because at the start of the 2000s, you have "smart sanctions." The Goods Review List is broadened, and there is around that time a marked increase in the food availability of Iraqis (the UN had a committee that reviewed what was allowed to be imported into Iraq and these items were either allowed, or blocked-ed).

But there are still so many other problems, particularly with education. UNICEF reports for example, that 83% of schools in central and southern Iraq are lacking basic facilities at the start of the 2000s. UN Humanitarian Coordinator Hans Von Sponeck says in his memoirs that education was the great casualty of sanctions.

Well, my view on sanctions has always been, they would not have come off completely. You can’t keep Saddam in his box, keep sanctions in place but not do anything to help the people and to get rid of him. That would be deeply immoral because you are holding the people hostage forever, with no end point in sight, but you are not doing anything to help change the situation. It really is an immoral position that opponents of the war don’t have an answer for, except drop sanctions altogether--fine, I accept that at least let the people let normal lives. But had you dropped sanctions on Saddam I think there is no question he would have reverted to his aggressive character, someone who had already engaged in genocide and invaded two of his neighbours and fired missiles at five regional countries. There is no question that had you opened the taps and allowed him unfettered access to Iraq’s oil reserves, that he would have started again.

IIC: In January 2003, the ISG found that the Military Industrial Commission (MIC--body responsible for Iraq’s WMD programs) had a budget set, of $500 million, which, depending on illegal revenue calculations, (in 2002 the oil exports ceiling was lifted, but Saddam tried to get around UN revenue management by smuggling) that is a substantial part of Iraq’s GPD. This is interesting in terms of how regimes that are completely controlled by highly erratic individuals calculate their priorities.

Today, Trump has recently said “we’ve put maximum pressure on North Korea, it’s worked, Kim Jong Un wants to talk, maximum pressure has worked.” But this does not look like maximum pressure compared to Iraq when the coalition buildup surpassed 200,000 in February 2003, compared to 23,000 U.S. troops, some joint exercises and some tweeted threats. And yet, even with that level of pressure, Saddam's regime is only saying they will cooperate with UNMOVIC with some of their own terms in place. And we still do not know what will happen in North Korea, it could still be the worse case scenario if there is a miscalculation.

But if the purpose was piling maximum pressure on Saddam, might it have been a mistake to have that level of military buildup? Because, unless Saddam has a miraculous change of heart, it’s war. The buildup altered the timeline for invasion--nobody wanted 250,000 troops sitting in the dessert over the summer waiting for Saddam to decide.

I don’t think that’s right. I think they were holding out a last ditch hope for a coup, or a decapitation strike with missiles, which would have removed the leadership and allowed some other Baathist--potentially pro-western, to assume power and then they would not have had to invade. And (then CIA director) George Tenet was telling Bush right up until the last minute, we could do a decapitation strike and we don’t have to go in.

IIC: Hence the Dora farms strike.

Yes, Dora farms was the first, and the restaurant in Mansour was the second. And he was absolutely sure, if you read Bob Woodward, Tenet was certain and assured George Bush that “We know Saddam is there, we can get him and you won’t have to invade.”

IIC: And even that might not have been a simple solution, if they had decided just to keep hitting suspect locations because, there is a presidential directive banning assassination of a head of state--that still stands, in principle (Executive Order 11905 of 1978, bans political assassination in response to an inquiry into CIA activities-ed.) So, even if you ignore this--as they did in Dora farms and with attempts to bomb Gaddafi’s convoy in 2011, you are condemning Iraq to random air raids, indefinitely, to kill a head of state. And in the Mansour strike, a lot of civilians were killed. Continuation of that would be, to say the least, not without problems.

I think they justified that by saying they were targeting command and control infrastructure.

IIC: So, during the buildup of military force, Wolfowitz says we are holding out that Saddam has a dramatic change of heart, Tenet is talking about a “precision strike,” on Saddam. (France called for a new inspections regime involving road blocks and that Iraq should sign the CWC. Russia had previously asked Saddam to step down- ed.)

They offered him to go to Qatar. But most people did not believe he would actually do anything like that. The hope remained there would be a coup d’etat or something similar.

IIC: In early 2003, Blix warns the regime--Saddam would not meet him-- that “it’s 3 minutes to midnight.” And the remaining issues at that point are interviews with weapons scientists and the Iraqis insisted they had minders, and Blix’s often quoted unaccounted for stocks of anthrax, CW precursors etc. The Iraqis actually knew where they thought these weapons had been destroyed and actually approached UNMOVIC asking if they had any equipment that might be able to determine how much had been destroyed. Blix says this is like finding out how much milk has been poured into soil in the past in a particular spot, so they reject this suggestion. Blix rejects it, as kind of ridiculous (in his memoirs.)

Would it have been better, instead of building up that huge force to the point of no turning back, why not simply threaten another Desert Fox type scenario, and just threaten to hit the regime hard with sustained airstrikes. This is also quite morally questionable, as Desert Fox was in 1998.

In the end, that doesn’t solve the problem. As Rumsfeld said, that’s swatting mosquitoes rather than draining the swamp.

IIC: It is arguably comparable to Donald Trump firing volleys of cruise missiles into Syria. It's not clear what that achieves.

In the end it’s not punishing enough for the regime.

IIC: Going back to sanctions, at the time a lot of people were hugely opposed, but also expressed deep opposition to the invasion. Some of the warnings regarding the aftermath of invasion are detailed in UK JIC assessments and US NIE assessments. When you look at the sanctions situation, there was actually no ceiling on oil exports in 2002-03. But there are many problems the regime is having with capacity, they are not distributing supplies adequately. Then you look at the Kurdish region. They are getting their 13% of revenue from Oil for Food (as it was in 2002) and the majority of Kurdish villages destroyed in the Anfal campaign have been rebuilt.

And this situation is praised by both the PUK and the KDP. This suggests to me that, compared with the situation in southern Iraq, the regime has a very very weak capacity. So, lifting the sanctions, even entirely is certainly not going to change things quickly. But the other problem there is secondary sanctions. IOCs would need unfettered access to the southern fields. The Russians had service contracts before the war. But everyone knows the southern reservoirs and Kirkuk fields are a mess. It needs billions in investment. So, even if sanctions are completely lifted and the IOCs go in, Saddam’s history is to channel those extra revenues to loyalist areas. Even within Sunni majority areas, it’s going to loyalist towns and tribes.

Well, I think there would be some benefit for the people, but a significantly greater effect for the regime. It would have diverted resources to his own uses, and he would have reverted to his previous pattern of behaviour, as with the resources devoted to the MIC in 2003. Would they have diverted some of the resources to WMD? We don’t know, but it’s quite likely. But we do know what he said himself, regarding the Iran threat. He feels like he is stronger and more protected if he has these weapons systems.

IIC: What I find interesting is the possible trajectory of the regime in the absence of war--given that all of the preceding confrontations between Baghdad and Washington do not necessarily come from the Neocon side--the ILA for example, passes with overwhelming support in Congress. The bill authorising the use of force in Iraq is not too different, strong cross party support. (Six out of eight Democrats that ran in 2004 and 2008 voted for the bill--ed.) So, Saddam stops oil production for a month at a time on several occasions, fires missiles on aircraft in the no-fly zone and generally has a tendency to do things that ramp up aggressive rhetoric and actions from Washington. He also rips up the Lukoil contract in 2002. So if sanctions get lifted, how do you think this will effect IOC investment?

Very negatively. Even in a completely hypothetical situation where sanctions are completely lifted, I think Western IOC would have been very wary. The French, possibly Italian, Spanish. But I don’t think you’d have seen the US firms and BP and Shell, moving into Iraq.

IIC: I am reminded of CNPC being kicked out of southern Iran’s Azadegan oil field because they were slow with work schedules, due to secondary sanctions.

I think secondary sanctions would have had a big effect. Oil companies and investors and general often like dealing with authoritarian states. It is better than dealing with the messiness of democracy. They prefer the GCC model, where there is centralised decision making, rather than the Iraqi model, where there is parliament, different parties etc. But in the end, it’s not a stable situation, because one man can sign your contract and open all the doors and just as easily, tear it up.

IIC: And I think the peak US imports from Iraq are in 2002, and they don’t actually reach that level until 2015. Similar situation with Venezuela--there are no sanctions on the oil industry there. I’m not sure lifting sanctions results in a kind of South Korea or Chile style transition.

Finally, regarding the war, how might things have been different?

First, in the run up to the invasion, include Iraqis in a much more significant way. Make it a war of national liberation for the Iraqi people, rather than an invasion by Westerners. Two, after you invade and take over Iraq, they should have handed over power very quickly, returned sovereignty to Iraq very quickly. The sovereignty should never have been out of Iraqi hands, but indeed it was, for 14 months.

They should have handed sovereignty back, kept some troops there but empowered Iraqis. Because, occupation in an Arab context means the French in Algeria, the British, colonial history and of course, Israel and Palestine. That’s what occupation means. And the Americans squandered the occupation. I saw it with my own eyes. I was with US forces in southern Iraq and in Baghdad in late March, early April 2003 and I saw people welcoming them and clapping, throwing flowers, throwing rice. I saw it with my own eyes, nobody could tell me it didn’t happen. There was an enormous store of goodwill to the coalition. And all of that evaporated in May 2003 when the US and the UK passed UNSCR 1483, establishing the CPA, and they had to do this under international law, that declared themselves the occupiers of Iraq. And I was there in Baghdad and I remember Al Jazeera and other channels pumping it out “Occupation! Occupation! Iraqis were coming to me, I remember it very clearly, saying, “they said they’d call it liberation, and now they call it occupation.” In that moment, the good will was lost.

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