When Yevgeny Primakov, former Russian Prime Minister and head of the Secret Service, speaks on the Middle East, the world had better listen. He has been a genuine Arabist and one who knew Saddam Hussein well. As the world wondered how Saddam materialised in a Baghdad court room last week, Primakov, in an interview to the Russian daily Gazeta, helped lift some of the mist. He said the former Iraqi dictator cut a deal with the US before the March 2003 invasion of Iraq. "There was an understanding with the Americans, paradoxical as it may seem".
Primakov has asked some pertinent questions. "Why weren’t the bridges on the Tigris blown up when the American tanks approached Baghdad? Why weren’t Iraqi aviation and tanks used? And where are they now?" The Americans found no WMDs. But where is the conventional arsenal? "Why was there an immediate ceasefire? Why was there practically no resistance a year ago?"
Primakov was Russian Foreign Minister and made two secret visits to Iraq a few days before the Anglo-American invasion. He has placed a question mark even on the authenticity of the footage of Saddam Hussein’s capture on December 14. "They showed two soldiers with guns near some palm trees close to the hole where Saddam was reportedly hiding." Primakov observes, "At that time of the year, date palms are never in bloom".
This would be dismissed as a conspiracy theory were it not for Primakov’s credentials. Primakov’s observations echo the assessments I heard in Najaf when Iraq’s interim constitution was being outlined by Paul Bremer and the handpicked Iraqi Governing Council in March 2004. I had a long conversation with one of the most distinguished clerics of Najaf; the conversation took place on a "non attributable" basis. A reference to the circumstances in which it took place would shed light on what the cleric said.
There were so many contentious issues embedded in the draft constitution that approval from Grand Ayatullah Ali Sistani in Najaf was considered essential to lend some legitimacy. The view from Najaf was consistent: the Governing Council or Interim Government would have no legitimacy. Elections giving weightage to all regions and communities were the only way out. The draft constitution was unacceptable to the clerics. Some contentious clauses: "The Kurdistan Regional Government is recognised as the official government of the territories that were administered by that government on 19 March 2003 (date of the invasion) in the Governorates of Dohuk, Arbil, Sulaimaniya, Kirkuk, Diyala and Nineveh". Considering Diyala is barely 40 miles north of Baghdad, an astonishingly large swathe of territory is being accorded autonomy bordering on separation. Arabic and Kurdish are recognised as the two official languages, diluting what Najaf and Fallujah consider the "Arab" personality of Iraq. "Iraq is a country of many nationalities". The draft adds patronisingly "the Arab people in Iraq are an inseparable part of the Arab nation". There is ambiguity on whether Iraq will be an Islamic state or "Islam will be a source" for Iraqi laws.
Since Bremer was under pressure to have the draft accepted, some Shia members of the Governing Council visited Ayatullah Sistani in Najaf. His private observations were reported as his "approval".
The clerics angrily went into a huddle. At this point, an audience with a senior cleric was arranged. "We have come to the conclusion that the invaders have a firm script" the senior cleric said. "We are willing to give them our opinion if we are convinced that they value our opinion".
"But they pretend to engage us only to implement their pre planned agenda". Then he said: "Let us consider the following facts: the US troops will not leave — occupation will not end. Two, Saddam Hussein is alive. (He used the word ‘mahfooz’ which means ‘protected’. And, mind you, this was said four months ago). Three, the Baathists are also ‘mahfooz’ and are being considered as eventual ‘stabilisers’ of Iraq." (It transpires that the interim PM Iyad Allawi will lean on Baathist forces to implement the draconian laws being considered. A Baathist general is helping in Fallujah — so much for freedom from Baathist tyranny!)
The cleric implied there may have been a last minute agreement with Saddam Hussein and the Americans before the March 2003 invasion — exactly what Primakov is saying now. It may not be such an outlandish theory after all.