In its Jan. 23 issue, the Italian magazine Panorama ran the text of a clandestine interview one of its reporters had with a senior Iraqi army officer he called Col. Qassem (not his real name), who agreed to the interview while on travel in Jordan.
According to the article, the officer is on active duty with the Iraqi army and returned to his duties in Baghdad the day after the interview. He was willing to talk to a foreign reporter, he said, because “I want a better future for my children.”
The story he told helps explain the problems the U.N. inspectors are having in the cat-and-mouse game being played in Iraq. There is a basic flaw, he said, in the search for weapons of mass destruction at military sites, research labs and government palaces. There is a presumption that chemical and biological weapons and agents are hidden in well-protected bunkers.
On the contrary, said Col. Qassem, these materials are not large and are easy to transport in trucks, and the liquids in tank trucks. The Iraqi military and intelligence services keep them invisible by constantly moving them around. Saddam Hussein, said the Iraqi officer, is very proud of this simple exercise. In a recent meeting, Saddam burst out laughing, saying, “While those guys [the inspectors] are looking underground, our trucks are driving over their heads.”
Col. Qassem said the trucks, escorted by intelligence officers, travel on regular roads all over the country, adding that they even travel on roads in Syria with the consent of the Syrian government, which is getting Iraqi crude oil dirt cheap. The colonel says it should be a high priority for the U.N. inspectors to stop and inspect these trucks. If even one is found to contain prohibited chemical or biological agents, the whole house of lies built by Saddam will collapse.
Asked about Saddam, Col. Qassem said the picture you have of him in the West as an ambitious, brutal, and arrogant man is correct. He has ordered the coldblooded execution of friends and relatives, and caused dissidents to be tortured and eliminated. He survives by constantly moving around, protected by his Praetorian guard. He has his food tasted before each meal, and no one knows in advance where he will eat or sleep.
His sons Uday and Qusay consider themselves omnipotent. The elder son Uday controls a network of trading companies that cover all kinds of illegal trafficking. Uday has a soft spot for women and often tasks his security agents to procure young Ukrainian girls, his favorites.
Col. Qassem talked of how Iraq evaded the U.N. embargo after the 1991 war. Much of Saddam’s army was destroyed, so Iraq had to buy military equipment and spare parts on the international arms market. Most equipment was shipped in through Syria. “The road between Damascus and Baghdad is groaning with traffic,” he said, and “the border is permeable.” Engines for aircraft and helicopters, missile parts, and Chinese and Russian air defenses, all came through Syria.
Asked if Saddam’s regime has relations with al Qaeda, the colonel replied that keeping in touch with such organizations is part of the job of any intelligence service, adding that there undoubtedly have been contacts, including in Europe, but there is no institutionalized connection.
Regarding Saddam’s possession of chemical and biological weapons, Col. Qassem said, “Naturally not all the chemical and biological weapons have been dismantled. You in the West talk of scientific research,” he added, “but while research is useful it is not essential. Some materials can be obtained on the black market and others are easy to manufacture. As for missiles, we still have several Scuds hidden in the woods in the north of Iraq near Mosul,” he said.
Col. Qassem said the Iraqi people are paralyzed by terror. It is difficult to speak out with a noose around your neck. Asked about dissent within the Iraqi armed forces, he replied, “I would not be here talking to you if there were no dissent.”
It is difficult to say whether this unidentified colonel is genuine, but his statements ring true. As Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said on Jan. 23, “There is every reason to believe that things are being moved constantly and hidden.” Defectors, he added, confirm this shell game. Among the prohibited items unaccounted for are large quantities of anthrax, VX nerve gas, and anthrax growth medium, just the sort of thing, along with mobile biological weapons labs, that might be moved around in trucks.
It may be worthwhile for the inspectors to begin stopping some trucks.