15-time Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker and the founder of Downtown Community Television.
Shortly after the first Gulf War, filmmaker Jon Alpert traveled to Baghdad and became one of the last American journalists to interview Saddam Hussein. The interview was originally slated to air on ABC, but it was never broadcast. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: In Baghdad, the Iraqi government has announced plans to investigate why Saddam Hussein was taunted in the final moments before his hanging. Cellphone footage shows masked guards chanted the name of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and then told the former Iraqi president to go to hell. The treatment of Saddam Hussein has sparked protests around the world.
Former NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw said Hussein’s execution, quote, "resembled the worst kind of nightmare out of the old American West." Britain’s Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott said the manner of Hussein’s killing was deplorable.
Well, today on Democracy Now!, we’re going to continue our coverage of the execution of Saddam Hussein by airing one of the last televised interviews Saddam Hussein did with an American journalist. The interview actually took place in 1992, soon after Desert Storm. It was in Baghdad and was conducted by our colleague here at Downtown Community Television, 15-time Emmy Award-winning journalist Jon Alpert. Until now, this broadcast was never aired in the United States. In a moment, we’ll play excerpts. But first, Jon Alpert, welcome back to Democracy Now! Talk about this interview you did with Saddam Hussein.
JON ALPERT: Well, everybody was anxious to find out what he was thinking after the Gulf War. Did he feel that he had made a mistake in invading Kuwait? Was he interested at all in trying to find a path to peace? There didn’t really seem to be much going on in the diplomatic front. And we were fortunate enough to get an interview with him, and he used it to talk about the possibilities for peace and how he felt about the war.
AMY GOODMAN: Where did you do the interview?
JON ALPERT: In one of his palaces. It’s really a rather exciting journalistic story. They came knocking on the hotel room door at 10:00 in the morning. And I could tell from the way they were dressed and their serious faces that this was — these were the people who were going to take me to the interview. And I went to get my camera, because I do my interviews basically from behind the camera, not sitting here like this. And they said, "What are you doing?" I said, "I’m getting my camera." They said, "You can’t take the camera." I said, "Well, how can I interview him? You know, I’m not going to do this with colored pencils." And they said, "Get in the car. If you’re not in the car in two minutes, we’re leaving you behind."
And they took us to the palace. We walked in. And immediately, Saddam Hussein appears. And he came up, he shook my hand, took our photograph. I have the souvenir photographs here. And then he disappeared. And I said, "My goodness, I blew it. There’s no interview." And they said, "Just shut up," and took us down to the basement, where I had my first and only jailhouse search. They inspected parts of me I didn’t know I had, then took me to a room, and when they opened the door, there were 200 people sitting in the room. The entire crew from Iraqi Television and all Saddam’s officials, hanger-on, translators, and things like that. And I knew eventually I’d be speaking to him. It didn’t happen until later on that evening. But then we conducted a one-hour interview.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to a clip of this interview.
JON ALPERT: We’re wondering, when the Iraqi army went into Kuwait, did you imagine that the forces were going to strike back against your country as hard as they did?
SADDAM HUSSEIN: [translated] Yes, we imagined this, and we imagined even more than that.
JON ALPERT: This is now your chance to talk directly to the American people. And I’m wondering if you could just make a simple declarative statement about your intentions with chemical weapons and nuclear weapons?
SADDAM HUSSEIN: [translated] If it helps make things clear to the American people, then let me tell you that we are ready and willing to work positively and effectively with all those who are interested to work in this direction to make the region of the Middle East a region free of all weapons of mass destruction.
JON ALPERT: We have a new administration in Washington. Do you think that there is any hope, now that President Bush has gone, that there can be better relations between the United States and your country?
SADDAM HUSSEIN: [translated] We are still willing to discuss new relations with the United States, if the United States is prepared so to do.
JON ALPERT: If President Clinton was sitting here opposite you, what would you like to tell him?
SADDAM HUSSEIN: [translated] When he actually sits in front of me, then I will tell him what I think I will do.
JON ALPERT: And how about if ex-President Bush was here?
SADDAM HUSSEIN: [translated] And it is part of the trait of an Arab and values of an Arab not to fight. It is part of an Arab’s trait to fight only those who are on their horses with their swords drawn. Now that President Bush is neither on his horse nor with a sword drawn, then I don’t think that he is in a position to be fought.
JON ALPERT: Basically, the people in the United States have come to the point where they don’t trust you.
SADDAM HUSSEIN: [translated] At any rate, whether or not people trust us or not is — I don’t want to comment on that. But I want to say that the American people are going to discover that amongst the first people that are worthy of their trust are people here in Iraq.
JON ALPERT: Many people believe that if, for example, we turn around and we walk away, that you’ll be back across the border in Kuwait tomorrow.
SADDAM HUSSEIN: [translated] If only we had the means to reach out to the American people and explain to them how the American administration goaded the Kuwaitis themselves to become part of the conspiracy being woven against us, then the situation and the perception of the American people today would have been different from what it is.
JON ALPERT: Now, whatever you think about Kuwait, Kuwait is a much smaller country than your country, doesn’t measure up to your country militarily, and the same situation exists with you vis-à-vis Kuwait. In other words, the United States is a big country, and the United States can push you around, and they did push you around. You were a big country, and you pushed Kuwait around. How can we stop this?
SADDAM HUSSEIN: [translated] Would you consider any quarter or a government that was announcing at the time that they intended to — that is before, before the 2nd of August, 1990 — that they intended to bring the value of the Iraqi dinar to its lowest possible value and that they had intended to shrink or minimize the revenues and the resources of Iraq to the lowest possible level, would such a government be considered weak? So the rulers of Kuwait used their weapons to the limit, but their weapon was money.
JON ALPERT: If the same situation existed again, in your perception — Kuwait, for example, was successful in undermining your economy again — would you do the same thing that you did before? Would you go into Kuwait again if you felt that that would solve your problem?
SADDAM HUSSEIN: [translated] I don’t think it would be right to put hypothetical questions and then expect an answer from the head of state on the basis of those hypothetical questions. The question should be put in this way: Why should they use their wealth to destroy — in this way to destroy the Iraqi economy? So, the fact is — the known fact is that this great people of Iraq, despite all that has been inflicted upon it, perpetrated against it, still maintains its leadership and is still attached to its leadership. What does this mean? This means that the Iraqi people is in possession of — it’s more in possession of the truth. It has more details about the situation than the American public.
JON ALPERT: Well, the United States and Iraq are somewhat different. You know, the United States voted out its leadership. We did not have President Bush. Does the Iraqi people have this type of choice? Always when they talk about you, they talk about, this is a country that is a dictatorship, and they say that you’re a strongman and people cannot disagree with you.
SADDAM HUSSEIN: [translated] What does this mean? It means, that is at the time when the American people have thrown their president out of the White House. If the Iraqi people were not convinced in their leadership, they would have dismissed the leadership and could have at least used the opportunity created by the coming of all these armies and all the campaign, the military campaign launched against Iraq and the destruction inflicted upon the country. They could have used that chance to say to its leadership, well, we can no longer take it with you in power.
JON ALPERT: You’re one tough cookie, though. It’s not so easy. I’m curious, if you don’t mind, when we go around town now, we see hospitals without medicine. If you want to buy a car at the normal salary, you’d have to work 200 years to buy a car. The people are really suffering. And when you look back at the last two years, is there anything that you would have liked to have done differently? Great men have the capacity to look at their actions and say, "I should have done something different." And as you look back at what you’ve done, would you have done anything at all different possibly to avoid the situation, to avoid the bloodshed, to avoid the war?
SADDAM HUSSEIN: [translated] If you looked at the situation then and examined the details and the developments, you would have discovered yourself that the United States and its allies did not want peace to be ensured.
JON ALPERT: Do you think that President Bush was trying to kill you, for example, when he hit the air raid shelter, when he hit the hotel? There was talk that you might be at that conference at the Al-Rashid Hotel. Do you think that you were personally targeted? And how did you avoid getting killed during the war?
SADDAM HUSSEIN: [translated] Unfortunately, I have read things in the book, in the memoirs of Norman Schwarzkopf that would tend to explain, to go along the political level and military level. At any rate, whoever wanted to hit Saddam Hussein, it’s God’s will that has prevailed, not his, because you see what the situation is like nowadays. It is God’s will that Saddam Hussein is here and the others are not.
AMY GOODMAN: Saddam Hussein being interviewed by journalist Jon Alpert, just after Bill Clinton was elected for the first time in 1992. When we come back from break, we’ll discuss this interview and play a bit more. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: I’m Amy Goodman, joined by my colleague here at Downtown Community Television at the firehouse in downtown Manhattan. Jon Alpert won an Emmy 15 times for his reporting, interviewed Saddam Hussein just after the first Iraq war, just after Desert Storm. Jon, what we are watching today never appeared on American television, and yet I think it was you and Dan Rather who were the only ones who interviewed Saddam Hussein since the first Iraq war.
JON ALPERT: That’s correct. It’s the only time he’s ever talked to the press.
AMY GOODMAN: What happened? Why didn’t this air here?
JON ALPERT: I think it was probably a combination of two things. There might have been perceived pressure from the American government basically just to not give Saddam a forum, even though you would think that if we went to war with him, and ultimately we went to war with him again, we might be interested in finding out what he had to say, any type of conversation, what he was thinking. We were certainly putting American lives on the line there, and it would be nice to sort of have a little more understanding.
But this was the interview that everybody wanted. And I got it. And, boy, it made a lot of people in the establishment unhappy. We ultimately had a handshake from ABC. It was going to be Primetime Live, the main story. But I was told that Roone Arledge decided to kill it.
AMY GOODMAN: Roone Arledge was the president of NBC?
JON ALPERT: Yeah, you know, one of the gods of television news. And it was his idea and basically all sort of figured this out, that if they could keep this off the air, then maybe one of their reporters could get the interview, and that’s what they did. They sort of all ganged up, a little cabal, to keep this off the air, and then they all began calling up Baghdad, pushing their own reporters as substitutes.
AMY GOODMAN: But no one got it.
JON ALPERT: Not in the United States. It was seen all over the world and analyzed all over the world, and there were some actually important news items in the things that Saddam was saying. But never was seen here. It’s a real — it’s a journalistic tragedy, when you get right down to it. I don’t care about myself, but it was obvious that Saddam Hussein wanted to talk some way to the American people. He had gone to war with us. He would go to war with us again. And this was an opportunity to talk, instead of fight.
AMY GOODMAN: It particularly made headlines in Israel. Let’s go to another clip of the interview that you did. Jon Alpert interviewing Saddam Hussein in Baghdad.
JON ALPERT: People in the United States are very curious, if you would tell them what your policy on Israel and Palestine is at this particular time. If an accommodation could be reached with Palestine, what would be your view towards the state of Israel?
SADDAM HUSSEIN: [translated] As far as the Arabs are concerned, they are against discrimination. And they are against any religious discrimination amongst — on the level of mankind or within a certain nation. The Arabs do not establish their relations with others on the basis of religion or on the basis of race.
JON ALPERT: Can you envision an Israeli state and the Palestinians living side by side, if the solution was acceptable to the Palestinians?
SADDAM HUSSEIN: [translated] But the question is: Do you think Israel is going to give the Palestinians their rights? I don’t think so.
JON ALPERT: Would you recognize the right of Israel to exist, if justice was done for the Palestinians?
SADDAM HUSSEIN: [translated] I said that if they come to a solution that would be satisfactory to the people of Palestine, then that would be satisfactory to the whole, to everyone and to the Arab world, and to including Iraqis, because that would mean that the Arabs would be dealing with a new situation.
AMY GOODMAN: Jon Alpert interviewing Saddam Hussein. So, this made headlines in Israel.
JON ALPERT: This was big news: Saddam Hussein saying that he was ready to recognize the right of Israel to exist, that he was ready for peace in the Middle East. They weren’t talking those things in those days. And this was — when this played in Israel, my phone rang. My cousin was on the phone, "Jonny, you’re on TV!" And the fact that Saddam Hussein was saying, "Let’s make peace with Israel, I can make peace with Israel," was transformative, and it got absolutely no traction over here. And that’s a big tragedy. When you look at the death and destruction that’s come in the Middle East, and he was signaling at that particular time, "Listen, there might be a peaceful way to do this," it’s a shame that nobody picked up on this here in the United States.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, the footage that we didn’t get to see on the national networks then, that you brought back, was about the carnage in Iraq after Desert Storm.
JON ALPERT: Well, it’s the suffering that happens in all wars. Some people think that there’s justification for this war, justification for that war. In the end, the people on the ground always suffer, no matter what. And the people in Iraq were suffering. They were suffering from Saddam. He was a dictator. He was brutal. And they were suffering from the shortages. They were suffering from the effect of the war. And the people were dying, especially the babies. And when you saw this, it’s something that you’ll never ever forget, when you go to the baby hospital in Iraq, then and now, because the people in Iraq are still paying the price for what Saddam did and the war that the United States brought to them, too.
AMY GOODMAN: Jon Alpert most recently did Baghdad ER, a remarkable film about the emergency room in Baghdad today.
JON ALPERT: We’re suffering, too. I mean, the American soldiers, 19 years old, 20 years old, getting chopped up there. So any time there’s an opportunity to talk instead of fight, it’s a good opportunity. We should talk.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to go back in time with Jon Alpert to this footage after the U.S. first attacked Iraq, and I want to warn you, this footage is graphic. Jon Alpert, thank you.
JON ALPERT: Sure, my pleasure.
JON ALPERT: At night, during the war two years ago, when we visited the Qadisiyyah general hospital, the doctors had to work under incredible conditions. There was no electricity. But at least they had supplies. Now, because of the blockade, conditions in the hospital are actually worse than they were during the war.
DR. ABDUL-JABAR HASHIM: I am Dr. Abdul-Jabar Hashim. I’d like to show you some problems that we are having actually every day.
JON ALPERT: OK. So can we visit the hospital?
DR. ABDUL-JABAR HASHIM: Yes, please. This is the surgical department. Actually, normally this room is nearly filled, and there is awaiting people. When somebody come out, somebody come instead of him to have a surgery. But now, because we can’t afford the surgery, it’s empty.
JON ALPERT: How many operations are you doing a day?
DR. ABDUL-JABAR HASHIM: Now, we are doing about two to three. Before, we used to do about 12 to 15 operations a day.
JON ALPERT: And what happens to the people that are sick?
DR. ABDUL-JABAR HASHIM: They just are waiting. They don’t know what to do, actually.
This is my supply cart.
JON ALPERT: This is the supply cart?
DR. ABDUL-JABAR HASHIM: Yes.
JON ALPERT: But, Doctor, it’s empty.
DR. ABDUL-JABAR HASHIM: Yes, it’s empty. I mean, it’s usually filled with all medicine, what which we needed every minute.
JON ALPERT: So, band-aids?
DR. ABDUL-JABAR HASHIM: No.
JON ALPERT: Let’s look at the pharmacy. Show me the pharmacy.
DR. ABDUL-JABAR HASHIM: This used to be all the types of [inaudible] fluid here. You can see only this [inaudible] and this and this one.
JON ALPERT: So in the whole hospital you’ve only got those two bottles left? That’s it?
DR. ABDUL-JABAR HASHIM: I mean, this is — yeah, we have no more.
JON ALPERT: And what happens when the patient needs the fluid?
DR. ABDUL-JABAR HASHIM: Very difficult. Some of them will die.
I mean, this is the bandage unit. This kid. If we have the bandages and the cottons, we will cover him and dress him. But now we are leaving him exposed.
JON ALPERT: And you don’t have any band-aids for this kid?
DR. ABDUL-JABAR HASHIM: No.
JON ALPERT: That’s horrible.
DR. ABDUL-JABAR HASHIM: Of course.
JON ALPERT: [to the boy] You OK?
IRAQI BOY: [nods]
JON ALPERT: Doctor, what happened to this kid?
DR. ABDUL-JABAR HASHIM: This kid has a burn, actually. Exposed to burn. And she is suffering from burn. Her condition is actually getting worse. We can’t cover her, because we are having shortages of bandages and cotton. I think she might die, because, I mean, in another two days she will get septicemia from the infection because we have no proper antibiotic for her.
JON ALPERT: And does the mother know that her baby’s going to die?
DR. ABDUL-JABAR HASHIM: Yes. She said, "Yes, I know she is."
IRAQI GIRL: [speaking Arabic]
JON ALPERT: What is she saying, doctor?
DR. ABDUL-JABAR HASHIM: She is saying, "I am suffering," actually. "Don’t let me suffer more."
JON ALPERT: Do you have painkillers for her?
DR. ABDUL-JABAR HASHIM: No, we have no painkillers for her.
AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt of the footage of journalist Jon Alpert in Iraq soon after Desert Storm. For those of us in our radio listening audience, you can go to our website at democracynow.org to see the footage from Iraq.