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Why not kill Saddam and spare Iraq?

Rod Liddle reveals that in some military quarters there is plenty of enthusiasm for assassinating the Iraqi leader, and reports on some of the methods that might be employed

4 January 2003

12:00 AM

4 January 2003

12:00 AM

There’s something terribly primitive about bombing the hell out of a country simply to get rid of one man (and, perhaps, his small ragbag assortment of grinning, psychopathic sons, obsequious flunkeys and hired assassins).

This is what we’re about to do to Iraq, if I’m not mistaken about the utter futility of this business with the weapons inspectors. We are angry with one evil man and further irritated by his devoted but minuscule coterie. And so we plan to send in the expensive bombers and those weapons of fairly widespread destruction, the missiles; and perhaps thousand upon thousand of ground troops, too, in order to be rid of him and install someone marginally less despotic. It seems an awful lot of effort, just for Saddam. You have to say, we would truly be putting ourselves out. Arguably we were more indulgent even of Hitler.

In a feature film, of course, we wouldn’t bother bombing innocent people just to get one man. In a feature film we’d kill him or have him killed, quietly and surreptitiously, by means of subterfuge and stealth in a manner which showed that we both appreciated the relatively small scale of the problem and demonstrated our ineluctable intellectual and cultural superiority.

So why don’t we do that now? Why don’t we kill just him?

The short answer is that we have almost certainly tried before now, and failed, just as we have with any number of other dangerous Commies or idiosyncratic custodians of desert satraps in the past. And the main reason we’ve failed is because democratic accountability has shackled us and made vague and hazy those areas within which our security services operate. ‘Listen: we could easily do this,’ the gung-ho CIA or MI5 bosses tell the politicians – but the twin terrors of failure and/or political embarrassment, plus the confusing iniquities of international etiquette and law, ensure that the schemes are either half-baked, or called off at the last moment, or strangled at birth. It is a strange morality, you might think, which prevents our leaders from quietly sanctioning the execution of one appalling man but can see itself through to obliterating an entire country in order to effect the same end.


I’ve been working on a BBC 2 documentary due to be shown later this month, entitled Seven Ways to Topple Saddam. It shows that there is plenty of enthusiasm for murdering Saddam within certain military areas, but little prospect of the thing actually being done. All the various options have their adherents but, in almost every case, even more detractors. The precedents, you see, are not good.

The easiest, most obvious and least worrisome approach would be to send one of our new bunker-busting missiles into his various underground lairs; the missiles you saw on the television blowing up all those caves in Afghanistan. We have technology so good now that it could, from a distance of 8,000 miles, pick out of a crowded shopping street Graham Norton, say, and reduce him to a swift diffusion of traumatised and very hot molecules. The trouble here isn’t the technology; it’s more the fact that – as with Osama bin Laden – we never know where Saddam is going to be. And, of course, there is the horrible precedent of Libya at the back of everyone’s mind. America tried this particular trick with Gaddafi, if you remember, and succeeded in killing, among other innocent people, the Libyan leader’s adopted daughter. Gaddafi himself was uninjured: he wasn’t at home for the night. Maybe he was out on the town, taking in a show, who knows? Bad, bad press all round. The politicians hated that one and aren’t likely to try it again, especially given Saddam’s disinclination to tolerate lax security.

It is often said that Saddam is ‘paranoid’ about security. Forgive me: this isn’t paranoia. When the world’s most powerful country (the USA) and most ruthless secret service (Mossad) have both announced that you are their number one target, checking the locks on the scullery door from time to time does not suffice as a survival precaution. The BBC documentary provides an entertaining example of Saddam’s commitment to running a tight ship. In an interview, Saddam’s former mistress (that’s something to tell the grandkiddies, love, isn’t it?) relates the story of the occasion when unexpected guests arrived at one of the leader’s functions. Saddam quickly identified the man who had innocently revealed the whereabouts of the party and machine-gunned him to death on the spot. Yes, a bit harsh, you might argue; but it does demonstrate a certain rigour in security matters. Next to nobody knows where he is, and those who do are kept with him.

The same problem precludes us from adopting option number two, which is to send in a team of agents to ambush the man when he’s on one of his romantic excursions out of Baghdad to pleasure a mistress or two. That’s the sort of thing which looks good in films – and it’s true that Saddam occasionally gets the romantic urge. But, sadly, he rarely allows us to become privy to his itinerary. And there’s more bad press to be considered. Israel got itself into a lot of trouble when a team of Mossad agents posing as Canadian tourists attempted to execute (with a nerve-agent injection) a senior Hammas leader in the Jordanian capital, Amman. They were arrested having merely grazed their target’s cheek. The Hammas man survived.

On another occasion, allegedly, a Mossad team rehearsed a trial assassination of a Saddam lookalike. It was not a success: people were killed. In fact, the only one to survive was, of course, the Saddam manquZ. The plan was not given the go-ahead.

Infiltrating Saddam’s inner sanctum has also been tried by the West. The trouble on this occasion was that the infiltrators rather hit it off with Saddam’s senior security men, to the point that they parted the best of friends. They probably still send each other Christmas cards. I suppose this is a rather touching little story. It was, however, no use in getting rid of Saddam.

The best approach, you might think, would be to persuade one of Iraq’s beleaguered and unhappy generals to stage a military coup, with a bit of Western assistance. But the last CIA operative who got involved in that found himself arrested upon his return to the USA. The charge? Attempting to overthrow the legitimate head of a foreign government. The agent was a bit miffed at this. A disgruntled Iraqi general had been primed and was ready to do the deed; the agent, therefore, thought he’d done a pretty good job. Instead of receiving a hero’s welcome, he was arrested. Later the charges were dropped and he was duly honoured with lots of nice ribbons, but this failure of political will, or conflict and confusion over our aims – often at the last moment – has dogged almost every attempt to liquidate or remove Saddam by covert means.

And again, you might expect that it would do so when you examine the precedents. For at least 15 years the US have attempted to kill or overthrow Fidel Castro. Here are a few of my favourite alleged (they don’t admit to most of them) CIA escapades:


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