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2003-12-15

Robert Fisk Reports From Near Tikrit After Visiting the Hole Where Hussein Was Found

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Robert Fisk, chief Middle East correspondent for the London Independent reports from the site where Saddam Hussein was captured by U.S. forces in the village of Dawr near Tikrit. [includes transcript]

In his latest article, London Independent’s chief Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk writes:

“So they got Saddam at last. Unkempt, his tired eyes betraying defeat; even the $750,000 in cash found in his hole in the ground demeaned him.

“Saddam in chains; maybe not literally, but he looked in that extraordinary videotape yesterday like a prisoner of ancient Rome, the barbarian at last cornered, the hand caressing the scraggy beard. All those ghosts–of gassed Iranians and Kurds, of Shias gunned into the mass graves of Karbala, of the prisoners dying under excruciating torture in the villas of Saddam’s secret police–must surely have witnessed something of this. "Ladies and gentlemen–we got him," crowed Paul Bremer, the American proconsul in Iraq. "This is a great day in Iraq’s history. For decades, hundreds of thousands of you suffered at the hands of this cruel man. For decades, this cruel man divided you against each other. For decades, he threatened to attack your neighbours. These days are gone for ever ... the tyrant is a prisoner," he said.

“Tony Blair said: "Saddam has gone from power, he won’t be coming back. That the Iraqi people now know, and it is they who will decide his fate." It took just 600 American soldiers to capture the man who was for 12 years one of the West’s best friends in the Middle East and for 12 more years the West’s greatest enemy in the Middle East. In a miserable 8ft hole in the mud of a Tigris farm near the village of Ad-Dawr, the president of the Iraqi Arab Republic, leader of the Arab Socialist Baath party, ex-guerrilla fighter, invader of two nations, friend of Jacques Chirac and a man once courted by President Ronald Reagan, was found hiding, almost certainly betrayed by his own comrades and now destined–if the Americans mean what they say–to a trial for war crimes on a Nuremberg scale."

  • Robert Fisk, chief Middle East correspondent for the London Independent speaking from the village of Dawr, near Tikrit.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Robert Fisk, long-time Middle East correspondent for the independent newspaper. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Robert.

ROBERT FISK: Hi. Thank you. I’m not actually in Baghdad. I have just left the place, the very location of Ad Dawr in northern Iraq where Saddam was found. In fact, I have literally been sitting his little underground hole. And pretty claustrophobic it is, too. I will be in his kitchen where his luncheon meat, chicken and beef is still standing on the shelf, and were a little generator powers a lamp with which he could read Ibn Khaldun’s philosophy and several books of poetry, which I had my hands on. But anyway, I’m not in Baghdad

AMY GOODMAN: Just continue describing what you have seen.

ROBERT FISK: Well, a lot of soldiers of the fourth infantry division are surrounding still the area where he was found. It’s a very beautiful area, actually of palm trees orange orchards beside the Tigris River, quite magnificent. You walk down a long muddy path between palm groves and then through a little gateway, number 8, which was originally part of a farm. And inside, there is a tiny courtyard completely surrounded by palm fronds and overhanging with the leaves of palm trees and with a very thick orange orchard behind. There’s a table in the courtyard with some knives on it for cutting and bowls for cooking on. There’s a little generator and fresh water in the jar with a screw lid on. When you walk into a bedroom, it’s a rather strange room, it has got some books in a bookcase, some of them published in Beirut and others in Iraq, much of it poetry, there is a Koran, and there also are children’s books, which presumably belonged to the farmer originally. A couple of very naive pictures on the wall, one of Noah’s ark and flock of sheep in a field. Across the bed is very — what appears to be a very expensive leather jacket, which I assume was owned by Saddam. Next door there is a kitchen with a lot of tins of tuna fish on the shelf. Obviously he stocked up — or was shocked up by his supporters with this. There’s a lot of eggs still there, a Jacob’s coffee mug made in china, a Jordanian chicken luncheon meet and beef luncheon meat. Happy tuna it said on the outside of the tuna fish can. There were vegetables and fruits in stands, even a little boat in the orchard next door, presumably in case he had to escape across the Tigris River. Ironically, the location of this tiny hideaway with its underground tunnel, and I’ll describe it to you in a minute, is only a few hundred meters from the spot where in 1959 as a guerrilla leader on the run after trying to assassinate the president of Iraq, Saddam swam the Tigris River. So he was on home territory. He had almost, if you like, gone back to his younger days. It’s quite clear that the underground hideaway was made some months ago. You sit on a little tiny, very narrow rectangle of wood and lower yourself down to earth steps into a tiny, tiny, very claustrophobic box made of gray bricks. On top of some timbers and dirt and a big concrete platform, so carefully prepared. I imagine there must have been a lot of other ones around, which have not been found. In here, he would go if he thought he was in danger. Now obviously on Saturday night, he must have heard the Americans coming, as one of the captains in the fourth infantry division said to me, we can come in and trap him there, cause he can hear us coming. And apparently when they arrived, the little door on top of the escape chute, which you climb up the one I climbed down, and it does have an air vent by the way, the door on the top was covered with palm fronds. So on top of that was a bowl for a plant. So there was a potted plant actually standing there. I saw a potted plant in fact on the side, which, I assume, is the same one. But really, nothing has been touched, not the book, not the bedding, not the clothing. It smells a bit, I have to say. But you know, you could even walk in there and pick a mandarin off the tree, which I actually did. Rather beautiful, quite different, of course, from the opulence and luxury of drinking champagne in his opulent palaces. And I imagine Saddam found this a pretty dingy experience and these pictures of him strongly suggest that he did. But actually if you wanted fresh food and dates and you wanted to live a more spartan life, it might have done him some good, much good did it do him in terms of security of course.

AMY GOODMAN: How long is it believed that he was there?

ROBERT FISK: Well, the initial impression was a couple of days, but I think he was moving in and out of this and other locations, because quite clearly, it was well stocked. I mean, there were several tins, for example, of Iraqi-made hygienic liquid to cleanse fruit and vegetables, because obviously they’re dirty when you pick them off the trees and you don’t know where they have been, as they always say, or mothers always say. And quite clearly, the provision of a small generator as well as a tiny radio set and cassette player with some Arabic music and songs on the cassette, quite clearly this had been provided over a long period. This was not a normal house. This was a farmer’s hut, which would normally be used probably for keeping a cow perhaps or storing farming implements. I would say it has been there for several months. It’s conceivable it has been there since before the Angelo-American invasion. But I certainly don’t know.

AMY GOODMAN: Robert Fisk, we are joined in the studio by Salam Al-Rawi, who, I believe you know, in New York owns several Iraqi Middle Eastern restaurants here. Salam has just returned from Iraq and has a question for you.

SALAM AL-RAWI: Robert, do you get the feeling that if we try to submit to the theory that it was a staged capture, that there was actually a deal was struck from — just from looking at the surroundings.

ROBERT FISK: No, no, I don’t get that impression. It was first in my mind, because I have learned to have the conspiracy theory of history, the Al ra amra, the plot in the Middle East. I don’t think so. I really don’t. I got the impression very much both from the videotape that you have seen, that the man was in shock, and there was no suggestion among local people that there was anything prepared or the Americans had been there earlier or that messages were being sent. I don’t think that it was a staged episode. I doubt he would have been sitting in this underground hide. What does come over from going there and visiting it and climbing around inside of it, it’s no place from which you can direct an insurgency. Clearly, from there, Saddam could not run a resistance movement. There appears to be no communications equipment. There was no satellite phone. He wouldn’t have used it anyway. But the idea that he could operate this insurgency, which continues today as we speak, is quite impossible. I don’t think personally Saddam’s capture makes the slightest bit of difference. The attacks on the Americans are inspired by the anger at occupation and Iraqi nationalism. They’re not inspired by the Ba’athism or Saddam. But I don’t think it was staged, no. That’s probably giving a little bit too much credit to the Pentagon, actually.

SALAM AL-RAWI: Well, I mean, he was — he was close to the Pentagon. He wasn’t that far. And you know, I’m not talking about the resistance, I’m talking about him as a person, you know, going back to — his early days as a thug.

ROBERT FISK: Yeah, I think that having got him, there’s a very embarrassing situation for the Americans, or one that hopefully from their point of view they have already worked out. This is a man who knows more about the secret relations between the United States and Ba’athist Iraq than anyone else. Now, if they’re going to put him on trial, it’s going to be embarrassing for the Americans. Because while the Americans are going to want to have him interrogated about massacres, he’s going to want to talk about Donald Rumsfeld and the Reagan government’s assistance to Iraq. He’s going to want to reveal secrets that we haven’t been told, which is one reason why some Arabs think is he going to suffer a fatal heart attack or commit suicide in quotation marks now that he’s in custody. That’s the conspiracy coming from here in the other direction, I don’t know if I believe it but there we go. But that of course is going to be one of the most sensitive topics, which the interrogators will raise. They will want to talk about the insurgency, he will want to talk about the United States of America.

SALAM AL-RAWI: What about the money? What about the 35 years of robbing Iraq of its wealth? What about the estimated network of $400 billion that the Iraqis in Baghdad are talking about and want to claim to — to reclaim?

ROBERT FISK: I doubt very much if he knows where the bank accounts are. I think it was known by underlings but that could still be found out. It was interesting that he was found with $750,000 in cash. I couldn’t find out from the American military today where the cash actually was. It was obviously close to him. But the odd thing is that’s really pin money for a guy like Saddam. You might have expected him to have two or three million, not just three-quarters of a million. It doesn’t seem very much.

AMY GOODMAN: U.S. dollars, is that right?

ROBERT FISK: Sorry?

AMY GOODMAN: U.S. dollars?

ROBERT FISK: Yes it’s U.S. dollars cash, not Iraqi Dinars. Otherwise, you would have to fill the ship the size of the Titanic to equal $750,000 in Iraqi Dinars. And I noticed there are still a lot of Iraqi Dinars with Saddam’s head around. When people give it back to you in shops they fold the notes such a way that the head is always invisible inside the folded bill the outside is always a nice Sumerian historical scene. But there you go. I really don’t know the answer for the money thing. I am sort of on the ground out here. I think one probably needs to be in Washington or talking to Iraqi banking authorities to know the answer to the question there.

AMY GOODMAN: Right now, what do you think about what is going to take place, the U.S. not wanting the United Nations involved in any kind of war crimes tribunal. The word is talking about putting Saddam Hussein on trial in the next few weeks, which human rights groups like Amnesty and Human Rights Watch are warning against saying, that this is a complicated trial that must take time.

ROBERT FISK: Well, you see, the judges and the court system in Baghdad are in a deplorable condition. The judges have no competence, and are not even obeyed for the most part by the Americans. If they order someone’s release, he is not always released by the Americans. And sometimes when the judges serve notice that they want prisoners brought from Abu Ghraib prison, which is under the American jurisdiction here, for trial and criminal proceedings, for looting or theft, for example, the Americans will not release them. The judicial proceedings themselves are highly prejudice because defense lawyers are not always given all the facts and in many cases feel intimidated. Now in this ambience, I’m in a city, which is the center of a massive, increasingly impressive, in the guerrilla military sense, insurgency. The idea that there can be a fair trial of Saddam Hussein, not that he deserves one, but e should have one, because we believe we are fair, it seems to me to be preposterous. I’m sure, you know, we keep hearing all these promises: There will be a national tribunal, there will be this and at the end of the day, the date slips by. We were told we were going to have mobile phones this morning and there is not a single mobile phone company that has been given a contract, which has a phone ringing. Over and over again, we have been told there are going to be elections, it will be next year, there will be a constitution, there won’t be a constitution. The occupational authorities can crow and say, we got him like Paul Bremer did, but if you look on the ground, there’s really no progress.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Robert Fisk, who is at the site where Saddam Hussein was captured. Are you there with a group of reporters? Did the U.S. military bring you in?

ROBERT FISK: Well, originally, three helicopters flew in with a group of people from the so-called Coalition Provisional Authority. Officials in the occupation authorities coming to see one of the few victories in a long time. One or two of us had driven up by cars because we couldn’t get in yesterday in the hope of getting in, we met a very smart — I mean, intelligent smart — captain in the fourth infantry division who said, I will try to get you guys in when the VIP’s have left, I don’t see why you shouldn’t go. And there were a bunch of us who turned up, not very many, there was only about four newspaper men there, three French and me, and a couple of TV crews just out of the blue. And after we hang around for two-and-a-half hours in very cold weather, I can tell that you Tikrit here is bloody cold at the moment, the captain came back said, you can follow us and we will take you in. Please don’t touch anything. Everything was there as one would wish it to be as a journalist, untouched, untrampled. We could even read the books that Saddam had been reading. It wasn’t a staged managed affair. I mean it probably was for the VIP’s because they had to be impressed. But they were pretty straightforward with us, they told us what they knew and what they didn’t know. They weren’t smoking and crowing and abusing Saddam Hussein. Those of us who once met him, including me, were asked by soldiers out of curiosity, what was he like. Not intelligence soldiers, just ordinary soldiers. And, they wanted to know how Arabic worked and how — one woman was asking about the grammar of Arabic. I said it was a woman, this was a female American soldier. They were very laid-back, friendly troops. They didn’t seem to be indulging in propaganda or they didn’t seem to be in a set-up thing for the press, although, obviously the earlier visitors whom I don’t know the identity of, were clearly so.

AMY GOODMAN: Robert Fisk with us, from the site where Saddam Hussein was captured this weekend near his hometown of Tikrit.

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