13 years ago U.S. special-ops soldiers ended one of the largest manhunts in military history.
On December 13th, 2003, Saddam Hussein was captured in a spider hole in the town of Ad-Dawr, Iraq.
But before they could alert President George W. Bush that the former Iraqi president had been apprehended, the prisoner’s identity needed confirmation. That’s where CIA analyst John Nixon comes in.
Debriefing the President: The Interrogation of Saddam Hussein is Nixon’s account of his work as the first U.S. representative to confront the dictator.
Armed with a specialised knowledge of Saddam, he was able to identify him by an old scar, a bullet wound and two tribal tattoos.
That’s when he hit him with a load of questions. First up, the weapons of mass destruction. Did they exist? Did he plan to use them against the U.S.?
In the Mail On Sunday, Nixon said:
‘You found a traitor who led you to Saddam Hussein. Isn’t there one traitor who can tell you where the WMDs are?’ He warmed to the subject, saying Americans were a bunch of ignorant hooligans who did not understand Iraq and were intent on its destruction.
‘Iraq is not a terrorist nation,’ he said. ‘We did not have a relationship with (Osama) bin Laden, and did not have weapons of mass destruction… and were not a threat to our neighbours. But the American President [George W Bush] said Iraq wanted to attack his daddy and said we had ‘weapons of mass destruction.’
Nixon went on to ask if he was planning to use WMD’s against U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia, which again was completely denied.
American intelligence had got it so so wrong, but how? Why? Well Saddam had an answer for that. “The spirit of listening and understanding was not there – I don’t exclude myself from this blame,” he said.
And did they have anything to do with 9/11? You can probably guess what he said.
Saddam was quick, too, to deny involvement in 9/11. ‘Look at who was involved,’ he said. ‘What countries did they come from? Saudi Arabia. And this [ringleader] Muhammad Atta, was he an Iraqi? No. He was Egyptian. Why do you think I was involved in the attacks?’
Nixon claims that Saddam actually thought 9/11 would bring Iraq and America closer together to help fight fundamentalism, how wrong he was.
The invasion of Iraq in 2003 would spark a war which wouldn’t end for eight years, costing the lives of 4,815 men and women fighting in the coalition forces and at least 168,000 civilians, according to the Iraq Body Count project.
And at the time, Saddam did warn Nixon that the U.S. would fail in its mission to help govern Iraq.
Saddam inferred things were not going well for the US forces and took pleasure in the fact. ‘You are going to fail,’ he said. ‘You are going to find that it is not so easy to govern Iraq.’ History has proved him right. But back then, I was curious why he felt that way.
‘Because you do not know the language, the history, and the Arab mind,’ he said. ‘It’s hard to know the Iraqi people without knowing its weather and its history. The difference is between night and day and winter and summer. That’s why they say the Iraqis are hard-headed – because of the summer heat.’
And the biggest bombshell? Nixon believes Iraq would have been better off if Saddam had remained in power.
I do not wish to imply that Saddam was innocent. He was a ruthless dictator who plunged his region into chaos and bloodshed. But in hindsight, the thought of having an ageing and disengaged Saddam in power seems almost comforting in comparison with the wasted effort of our brave men and women in uniform and the rise of Islamic State, not to mention the £2.5 trillion spent to build a new Iraq.
An extraordinary insight into a period that has changed U.S. and Middle East relations forever.