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21 January 2011

Hussein Wanted Soviets to Head Off U.S. in 1991

By: Michael R. Gordon
Published: January 19,2011

WASHINGTON — As the American-led ground offensive in the first war with Iraq got under way on Feb. 24, 1991, Saddam Hussein directed his frustration at an unlikely target: the Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev. Mr. Hussein had dispatched his foreign minister to Moscow in an 11th-hour bid to head off a ground war.

After prodding by Mr. Gorbachev, Mr. Hussein had offered to withdraw Iraqi troops from Kuwait in 21 days. But the United States appeared to be moving ahead with its land campaign.

“The situation is now is getting worse,” Mr. Hussein had written the previous night in an emotional letter to the Soviet leader. “Our nation and army are confused. We are asking ourselves which one is more significant: the Soviet Union’s proposal or the Americans’ threats?”

Speaking to trusted aides, Mr. Hussein was less diplomatic, denouncing Mr. Gorbachev as a “scoundrel” who lacked the will or influence to stay the first President George Bush’s hand. “He tricked us,” Mr. Hussein said. “I knew he would betray us!”

The disclosures about Mr. Hussein’s closed-door deliberations that first day of the Persian Gulf land war are documented in an extraordinary Iraqi archive, which includes 2,300 hours of recorded meetings and millions of pages of documents, that was captured by United States forces after the 2003 invasion.

On the 20th anniversary of Operation Desert Storm (the air campaign began on Jan. 17, 1991), three transcripts of Mr. Hussein’s fateful decisions are being released to coincide with a symposium in Texas on Thursday with Mr. Bush and members of his war cabinet. Only a small portion of the archive, stored in digital form at the National Defense University, has been declassified and opened to outside researchers. (A 2008 government report drew on the three Feb. 24 transcripts, but until now they have not been available in their entirety.)

The war’s history has been well documented, but the three transcripts provide gripping new details of what went on inside the Iraqi command, including Mr. Hussein’s anger at Mr. Gorbachev and his misinterpretation of the United States’ military actions.

With only fragments of information coming from the battlefield and a room full of subordinates eager to applaud the faintest glimmer of success, Mr. Hussein was convinced that the United States lacked the resolve to wage a grinding ground war, the transcripts show.

Even if the Americans suffered just one casualty for every four Iraqi casualties, he boldly predicted, the United States would falter. He lectured his aides that igniting Kuwait’s oil fields to hinder the allied warplanes was a valid military tactic that would not enrage the world. And he and his aides kept misreading the signals about whether the ground assault had even begun.

Studied along with a parallel archive of declassified transcripts at the George Bush Presidential Library at Texas A & M University, the captured Iraqi records depict Mr. Gorbachev as eager to engineer a solution that would protect the Soviet Union’s former Iraqi client and make the Soviets an equal partner with the United States in international diplomacy, but unwilling to jeopardize his relations with the Bush administration.

Mr. Bush emerges as a leader who sought to mollify Mr. Gorbachev even as the United States stuck to its demand for the unconditional withdrawal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait.

“It is your neighborhood, and some of them are your friends,” Mr. Bush told Mr. Gorbachev in a phone call on Feb. 22, 1991. “We recognize Soviet interests in the area. I want to get our forces out of there as soon as possible. I know how the Iranians and others feel.”

Jeffrey A. Engel, a professor at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A & M, noted that the exchanges showed that “despite heated discussions at the height of war with Iraq, Bush and Gorbachev were fundamentally concerned with safeguarding the future of Soviet-American relations.”

Iraq’s invasion and occupation of Kuwait on Aug. 2, 1990, were followed by months of demands that Iraqi forces leave the Persian Gulf nation, resolutions in the United Nations Security Council and a buildup of military might by the Americans and their allies in the region.

After the air campaign began in January, preparations for a possible ground attack in Iraq were stepped up. With the ground war just days away, Mr. Gorbachev mounted a peacemaking effort. Tariq Aziz, the Iraqi foreign minister, arrived in Moscow on Feb. 21. Later that day, Mr. Gorbachev told Mr. Bush in a phone call that he sensed a “serious shift” in Iraq’s position, according to a transcript in the Bush Library.

Iraq, Mr. Gorbachev said, was no longer demanding that resolution of the gulf crisis be linked to other issues in the Middle East. And although the Iraqis had initially demanded that they be given six weeks to leave Kuwait, the Soviets had insisted that the schedule be shortened to 21 days. That timetable still fell short of Mr. Bush’s demands that Mr. Hussein unconditionally remove his troops and pay reparations to Kuwait and that a plan be worked out to deal with Iraq’s poison gas, biological weapons and nuclear arms programs.

Mr. Gorbachev’s diplomatic efforts were undermined on Feb. 22 when the Kuwaiti oil well fires that Mr. Hussein had ordered set — and which he saw as a defensive measure — were described by Mr. Bush in his conversation with the Soviet leader as a “scorched-earth policy” and a reason to not delay military action. Mr. Bush said it should take the Iraqis no more than seven days to pull out of Kuwait, and he issued them an ultimatum to take action before noon the following day.

On Feb. 23, just minutes before the noon deadline, Mr. Bush and the Soviet leader spoke by telephone. Mr. Gorbachev argued that joint American-Soviet action through the United Nations would establish a model for dealing with other crises.

“George, let’s keep cool,” Mr. Gorbachev said. “Saddam wants to stall, but we are not simpletons.”

But Mr. Bush’s patience had been exhausted. “Mikhail,” he said, “I appreciate that spirit, but I don’t want to leave a false impression there is any more time.” If the Iraqis intended to comply with the withdrawal demand, he said, it would need to happen “in the next few minutes.”

In Baghdad the next morning, Mr. Hussein waited anxiously for word from his foreign minister, who had left Moscow. “When will Comrade Tariq arrive?” the Iraqi leader asked. Told that Mr. Aziz had yet to return to Baghdad, Mr. Hussein demanded: “What do you mean he has not arrived?” He read aloud a headline: “Tariq Aziz Arrives in Baghdad.”

As he waited for the minister to show up, Mr. Hussein instructed his subordinates to read a letter he had sent to Mr. Gorbachev the night before, asking the Soviet president why he was not doing more to oppose Mr. Bush’s decision to start the ground war. “We trusted you,” Mr. Hussein wrote.

The conspiracy-minded Iraqi leader seemed both baffled and angry.

“In typical fashion, he suspected that Iraq had been stabbed in the back, this time by disingenuous Soviet mediation efforts,” said David Palkki, the deputy director of the research center that houses the declassified Hussein archives.

Mr. Gorbachev’s reply was not reassuring. He wrote that Mr. Bush did not agree with the Soviet proposal, and that if Mr. Hussein wanted to avoid a ground war, he should immediately issue a statement saying that Iraq would withdraw its forces within 9 to 10 days, which was close to Mr. Bush’s seven-day timeline.

When Mr. Aziz finally arrived to see Mr. Hussein, the Iraqi leader greeted him with a laugh: “Are you up to surprises like Bush?”

To elude American warplanes, Mr. Aziz had returned via Jordan and traveled by road to Baghdad. Like two teenagers discussing the latest muscle car, Mr. Hussein and his foreign minister talked about how fast it was possible to drive on Iraq’s roads.

“We were going 220 on the highway,” Mr. Aziz said, referring to kilometers. That translates to more than 130 miles per hour.

Neither official put much hope in getting help from Iraq’s neighbors. One aide asked about Iran, whose eight-year war with Iraq had ended in 1988. “We are done dealing with the Iranians this time,” Mr. Aziz said. Added Mr. Hussein: “Like all new revolutions, they talk too much.”

With little accurate intelligence, Mr. Hussein and his command failed to grasp their adversary’s strategy. The Iraqis believed an American amphibious landing — a giant feint intended to distract Iraqi troops — was likely.

And Mr. Hussein initially mistook some probing actions by the American military as signs that a major attack had been mounted and contained. “If this is the initial shock,” Mr. Hussein said, “then the attack has failed.”

But as the day wore on, the seriousness of the predicament became more apparent. Frustrated at their inability to negotiate a compromise on their terms, the Iraqi officials speculated that casualties that the United States would suffer in a ground attack would lead Mr. Bush to soften his demands.

“Let us pray to God to grant us success to slaughter any number of them,” Mr. Aziz said. “That is what is going to help us get results.”

“Let them come to Karbala city,” Mr. Hussein said confidently. “It will become their cemetery.”