Where is Saddam Hussein? Is he alive or dead? What became of his sons? Where is he hiding the missiles and launchers? What are the “sensitive things” that Saddam’s associates in Baghdad handed over to Assad’s associates in Syria?
“I don’t know,” “maybe,” “probably.” These are the words that IDF Intelligence Director Maj. Gen. Aharon Zeevi-Farkash repeats again and again. The director of Military Intelligence does not know? His nuanced phrasing suggest that he knows more than he wants to say, beyond the situation assessments that he provides to the senior echelons of the security establishment. On one subject he is clear and succinct: Saddam Hussein, the concealment wizard, has non-conventional weapons. Have some patience, and they will be found.
Question: Maj. Gen. Zeevi-Farkash, what is your interpretation of the pictures that we saw this week on Iraqi television? Iraqi television promises a speech from Saddam Hussein, and the information minister appears in his stead. Saddam’s close bodyguard, who never leaves his side, pops up all of a sudden behind the information minister. Pictures of Saddam and his two sons are shown, but their voices are not heard.
“I see that they are under pressure. In the military arena, since the middle of the week we have been seeing a break in the defenses around Baghdad, critical blows to the Republican Guards and armored divisions. People here did not really notice that the Iraqis abandoned the second most important area in the country, the oil fields of Rumeila in the north. That is a sign that things are breaking down. Because of the pressure, they moved the elite Nebuchadnezzar and Adnan divisions away from Tikrit, Saddam’s stronghold, and brought more infantry divisions from the regular army to defend Baghdad.”
Question: Who is holding Baghdad today?
“We don’t know. Probably parts of the leadership close to Saddam Hussein, and maybe Saddam himself, if he is alive. There is no question that Saddam and his two sons, Udai and Kusai, have not yet managed to prove that they are alive.”
Question: Let’s get back to the pictures that show Saddam Hussein speaking, after the beginning of the offensive.
“Regarding Saddam Hussein at least, the assessment is that it was him, in a taped performance, despite the fact that here, too, there are exceptional signs: He usually speaks standing up. The two speeches he gave after the attempt to assassinate him were given sitting down. It is likely that he cannot stand. Saddam also never speaks with a military beret. This time he wore one. In the first speech he read from a notebook. He always spoke without glasses, and looked right at the camera.
“Every speech is printed for him in large letters. And when he speaks, there are usually two eagle emblems on either side. After the assassination attempt the eagles disappeared. In the second appearance they tried to use a crooked symbol. You could see that it was improvised. We even saw that behind him was a sheet that was quickly sewn to serve as a backdrop. I have not seen such a backdrop in the past. There is usually a flower arrangement next to him. It too was absent this time.
“There is a string of indications that they organized things in a hurry in order to prove that Saddam is alive. It is certainly possible that he is wounded, and it is also possible that his condition has worsened. The fact is that for more than a week he has not appeared.”
Question: And his two sons?
“They have not appeared at all.”
Question: We saw pictures of them around Saddam’s table. “We did not hear their voices.”
Question: If Saddam is wounded and his sons do not exist, who will run the battle for Baghdad?
“We think that perhaps some of his associates, because apparently not all of them were killed, and those people who are very loyal to him, who understand that in any case they will pay with their lives.”
Question: If you are asked for your assessment, as director of Military Intelligence-is Saddam alive or dead?
“I must say with all duemodesty that I do not know. If I have to guess, I would say that there is a greater possibility that his sons are dead, or that they cannot function.”
Question: Is it still possible that we will see Saddam in an appearance that will convince everyone beyond any doubt that he is alive and functioning?
“If he did not appear on Tuesday, despite the fact that they promised, and despite the fact that the matter is so significant-to convince the army and the people to join the jihad-I do not think that we will be seeing him soon. There is a connection between everything that happened in the middle of the week, the indications that the Americans are advancing well, and Saddam’s absence. His palaces are under attack, his offices are under attack. The Republican Guards are crying for help. Something happened.
“If he has not appeared until now, we must relate with skepticism to the claim that he is alive and functioning. It is hard for me to guess to what degree he can accurately assess the situation in which is currently finds himself. If the break is real, he will use tapes and will not appear. Even if he is planning a surprise, or the use of chemical weapons, he will not do it through the media.
“But there is a possibility that he is trying to do something else: To find shelter and disappear. We might be closer than ever to the time when Saddam will move from a strategy of survival to a strategy of suicide or disappearing.”
Question: For how much time can he disappear inside Iraq without being found? “I imagine that he knows Iraq better than foreigners.”
Question: How many people are in his close circle? “In the closest group, between 30 and 40. In the wider group, between 70 and 100.”
Question: What good will disappearing be for him? “Such a strategy has advantages for Saddam. His loyalists will continue to do their job out of their fear of Saddam until the coalition forces purify certain sections of Baghdad.
“The demise of the army and of civilians will continue when Saddam cannot or is not interested in showing a sign of life. On the other hand, there are also disadvantages for him, because in the end people will see that he is gone and that will affect their actions towards the Americans.”
Question: Where can Saddam disappear to?
“He can disappear into the tunnel system that apparently exists underneath his palaces. He could be smuggled to one of the areas in the north or center of the country. It is possible that he prepared his escape route ahead of time. We know of at least 50-70 palaces, houses, and sites that belong to his family.
“But once again, on the other hand, it is possible that his image will not allow him to do this, and he will want to fight to the end. That is assuming that he was not wounded. If he was wounded, it is possible that he has already decided to initiate a few things that he thinks will cause a turnaround.”
Question: Like chemical weapons?
“There is a very problematic point here. Until the assassination attempt, at 4:20 a.m. two weeks ago Thursday, Saddam Hussein’s strategy was survival, his goal was to ensure that they would not find any non-conventional weapons: hide them, lie about them, as long as they do not find anything. That also means taking the weapons he has, breaking them down into small parts, and hiding them.
“And then the war started. Now it is not simple for him to take the same weapons that he worked so hard to hide, and use them all of a sudden. Perhaps the Americans are already in some of those places. Perhaps he cannot reach them.”
Question: The Americans went to war in order to get rid of Saddam Hussein and to find chemical and biological weapons. What will happen if Saddam disappears and the weapons are not found?
“Patience. Only two weeks have gone by since the beginning of the war. I must compliment the Americans on the way there are operating. I have no doubt that in the end they will find it. I look at the report from the chief of the inspection team, Blix. Only after the war started did he remember to reveal that there were open questions.”
Question: Questions that concern you?
“Absolutely. They did not do a good job counting some of the el-Hussein missiles (which are capable of reaching Israel-S.P.) that were destroyed. Fourteen missiles were apparently not destroyed, and neither were between two and eight mobile launchers.
“There is something here that is going unnoticed: Saddam’s policy was to conceal things. And when you are concealing, you are not training units but instead taking the weapons apart and hiding them all over the huge country. Perhaps it is also preferable for him not to pull out the chemical weapons, because he has heard the French threat that should he use such weapons they will join the war.”
Question: Let us say that the Americans do not manage to find the hidden weapons by themselves. What then?
“If the picture that is now coming together turns out to be accurate, this means that the battle for Baghdad has been decided, and this is the beginning of the point of transition from which we will be able to see how this war will end. The next stage will be critical: Guaranteeing that Saddam and his associates are arrested or killed, and immediately thereafter finding all of the people involved in developing weapons of mass destruction so that they will point out where they are located.”
Question: Are you talking about the scientists?
“Scientists, and part of the special Republican Guards. The second they find them, and the fear of Saddam is gone, they will reach the weapons.”
Question: Did the inspectors even manage to find something that we did not know about?
“Yes. Before the inspections we did not know about the Sumud-2 missiles that can reach a range of 600 km with a 300 kg warhead. We also did not know about the pilotless aircraft with the range of 500 km. There were enough things that we did not know about.”
Understanding the Israeli Soldier
Question: Try to get into Saddam’s head, or the head of whoever it is that is leading the defensive battle for Baghdad in his name. How will they stop the Americans from getting in?
“Saddam has already asked all of the civilians to prepare trenches and throw grenades and firebombs. As far as he is concerned, every resident of Baghdad is responsible for fighting for his own home. It is interesting that both sides believe that the war’s fate will be decided in the battle for Baghdad.”
Question: Why did the Americans believe that they would be greeted with flowers in Iraq?
“This was not our assessment. Ours was that there would be combat, and that in the end the Americans will be able to win. We have known the Middle East for long enough to be able to make these assessments. By the way, I did not hear an American assessment that they would be greeted with flowers and rice. It can be assumed that their assessment was that the resistance would be lighter, as it was in Afghanistan.”
Question: Will Baghdad be the Iraqis’ Masada?
“I am not sure. Entering Baghdad is not the only possible scenario. There is the option of imposing a closure, there is the option of blockade. Assassinations. Special operations. The Americans are testing the ground. They are more experienced now than they were two weeks ago.”
Question: You are using terms familiar to us from home: closure, blockade, targeted killing.
“I now hear them in the American media. There is gradually more understanding for the soldier at the Israeli checkpoint who cannot tell the difference between an ambulance and a dangerous car. After the Americans lost five soldiers in Najaf, the rules on opening fire changed and then changed again, because innocent civilians were also killed. The Americans learn lessons quickly.”
Question: When the Americans prepare for a closure or a blockade and to carry out targeted killings, it is easy to see that they got a few tips from us.
“I cannot get into our relations with other countries.”
Question: Still, there is an Israeli angle to this war.
“I hope that this angle stays as it is now, without our involvement. But this conflict has an effect: the US went to war without international legitimacy. Because there are those who tie the Iraqi issue to the Palestinian issue and to the implementation of Security Council resolutions, it is possible that we will have to pay part of the price. We already see the issues related to the ‘road map.'”
Question: We heard this week from President Bush that he intends to present the “road map” without allowing either side to make changes. Can you live with that?
“I suggest that we be careful. As I recall, they said that they would be willing to accept reservations. This ‘road map’ has many dangers for the State of Israel, but there is also a chance of something good happening. Assuming that the ‘road map’ reflects the realization of President Bush’s vision, we can deal with it.”
A Chance for Abu Mazen
Question: How do you explain Yasser Arafat’s silence, the fact that he has not expressed support for Saddam Hussein? “He understands the war’s implications for the Palestinian Authority. That is what led him to give in to the Legislative Council when it established that the prime minister would share Arafat’s authorities. Arafat is the one who weakened the system over the past two-and-a-half years of the failed Intifada.”
Question: What is his relationship with Abu Mazen?
“I think it is ‘respect him and suspect him’ from both sides. I would like to see how the ‘founding fathers’ syndrome’ will affect the conflict, the argument and debate between them.”
Question: What does Bashar Assad want? He is the only Arab leader who is supporting Saddam Hussein and provoking the Americans.
“It will soon be the third anniversary of his assumption of power, and this is the first time that he is facing a significant experience, one which could get Syria onto the ‘axis of evil.’ Bashar Assad is brilliantly leading Syria in that direction. It is possible that he is doing it because of the hatred of the West that he suckled at home. He cannot overcome that impulse.
“I think that something happened this week that he could have avoided, and I mean the smuggling of weapons into Iraq. Syria has become Iraq’s only oxygen line. It provided Iraq with night-vision equipment, as Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld announced, and apparently also equipment for the T-72 tanks of the Republican Guard.
“We have been dealing with this issue for many months. Last summer, until October or November, we saw that suspicious things were moving from Iraq to Syria under the auspices of central figures in Syria and Iraq.”
Question: With the regime’s knowledge?
“We believe that if those people who handled them are so central, then the regime apparently does know. If we knew what they passed, that would be excellent. There is no doubt that they passed things they were trying to hide.
“At first we suspected that some of this equipment went to Hizbullah, through Iran. But the more time that passes, the option strengthened that this is equipment from Iraq to Syria and we don’t know where it is stored. In any case, I think that Bashar Assad’s actions endanger his country. Syria has apparently not internalized the game rules after September 11, that terror is not legitimate just as threatening another country is not, or having non-conventional weapons.
“After being reprimanded by the United States, Bashar must decide whether he is going to continue on this path. We have t be sensitive to what happens and not summarily state that he is on a steep slope from which he will not return.”
Question: Assad said this week that Israel is a danger to Syria.
“So he said it. While words do have some weight, I look at actions. The result of the war in Iraq will have a great effect on Syria: if the war goes on for long and ends with a less than decisive victory, he will have to decide.”
Sleeps Two-Three Hours a Night
Question: Are you working harder since the war began?
Question: How many hours a night?
“In the last two weeks I think there were days I slept two-three hours. We hold intelligence assessments two-three times a day, in which we try to understand the picture. At stake are issues that concern our life in the State of Israel. Missile fire or the question of the Iraqi air force’s abilities are critical issues, ones that preoccupy us. We have to be certain that what we say and present to the decision-makers is of the highest reliability.”
Question: When you saw the missile that landed in Kuwait this week, did you think of us?
“Yes. And there were incidents during this period, having to do with information, that we could not rest until we refuted them and ruled them out.”
Question: For example?
“Surface-to-surface missiles in western Iraq, for example. We have to use all the means we have to ensure that if we say ‘there are none,’ or ‘there are,’ that this is well based.”
Question: Are there or aren’t there missiles in western Iraq?
“So far we haven’t found any.”
Question: So why are we still carrying around our gas mask kits?
“Because there are still some sites about which there are suspicions that missiles and non-conventional weapons are hidden there. Until we utterly rule this out, we cannot say that the danger has passed.”
Question: Would you say that since the war began the danger of missiles has shrunken?
“With every day that passes, the American presence in western Iraq further decreases the chances that it will be possible to fire missiles at Israel from there. The ability to launch missile was greater and it is shrinking, but it is still not zero.”
Question: A question that everybody asks themselves: how is it possible that intelligence networks all over the world were unable, to this day, to locate and kill Saddam Hussein?
“Tyrannical regimes have a special defense layer for the dictator and for the small group around him. The special economic conditions that the higher-ups enjoy, creates great dependence. The moment he disappears, the benefits disappear. Like with Mussolini, Stalin and Hitler, fear and terrorization rule and people are willing to give their lives for him.
“You also have to remember that fortunately, Iraq does not border Israel or the US, and our intelligence services cannot get deep inside. The intelligence needed to kill requires a great investment of resources and manpower. Such precise intelligence gathering could not have been obtained in the year and a half that passed since the terror attacks in New York and since war was declared on Saddam.”
This interview ran in Yediot Aharonot on April 4, 2003