Deliver us from evil

At the beginning of 1998, seven years after the Gulf war ended with the apparent defeat of Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi President remained in power, as defiant as ever...
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On the morning of Friday 20 February, Kofi Annan and his entourage flew to Baghdad in Jacques Chirac's presidential Falcon 900. When he landed he was surprised by the mob of reporters at the airport. He spoke with emotion of his "sacred duty'' to try to find a solution.

All Saturday was taken up with arguments over the wording of a draft memorandum for Annan and Iraq to sign. The preamble to paragraph four, dealing with the inspections, was a big problem. Tariq Aziz, the Iraqi deputy prime minister, insisted that the word "inspection'' was insulting to Iraq. He asked for the word "visit'' instead.

Annan said: "You can't have 'visit'. People will wonder if we're coming for tea. That's a very weak word.''

The talks continued, fruitlessly, all day Saturday. By 2am on Sunday, there was still no agreement. The Iraqis would not commit to return inspections, or to removing the deadline, and they still wanted the word "visit''. "This was for me a no-no. So we put everything in brackets,'' said Annan, who insisted on going to bed. Aziz suggested another meeting before Annan was due to meet Saddam at midday. Annan said no. Next morning he ordered his staff to prepare two press releases - one announcing success, the other failure - and went to meet Saddam in a car which was sent by Saddam's own security detail.

Annan had no idea of where he was being taken. Saddam's whereabouts were always secret. The destination could have been in the desert or in a completely different part of the country. In fact, it was near the villa in which he was staying, in one of the new palaces Saddam had built since the end of the Gulf war.

Annan carried a list of "Talking Points'' prepared by his staff. They suggested that he remind Saddam Hussein of the difficulties he had had in making this trip possible. He had come not as a messenger of anyone, but as the secretary general of the UN, "fully conscious of my moral and legal responsibility to help avoid tragedy''.

When he returned to New York he would have to report to the Security Council. "And I'll be faced with questions on practically every word and every comma of our agreement,'' his Talking Points advised him to say. "I appeal to your statesmanship, your courage, your wisdom and your vision to clear the remaining hurdles.''

At that point his Talking Points suggested: "Listen to the president's reaction, which will probably focus on injustices perceived by Iraq, and may take a defiant line. Then resume: 'I understand your concerns, but our discussions over the last two days demonstrate that Iraq is now fully aware of what is at stake. The differences between us can be bridged'."


THERE WERE guards everywhere. Some were in military garb and some dressed like Swiss Guards in brightly coloured uniforms with helmets and spears crossed archway fashion for Annan to walk through. Saddam greeted them, wearing what Annan described as an elegant double-breasted blue suit with matching tie. Annan was glad that Saddam was not in military dress.

When they began their tête-à-tête, Saddam said it was time sanctions were lifted. Annan said he could understand, but told Saddam, "Basically it's in your hands. If you co-operate, then you will see light at the end of the tunnel. If we don't come to an agreement, the US will use force and nobody can stop them.''

Annan flattered Saddam. "You're a builder, you built modern Iraq. It was destroyed once. You've rebuilt it. Do you want to destroy it again? Look how you talk about the suffering of your people. It's in your hands, we can do something about this. If we can work out an agreement that will prevent military action and you would undertake to comply, it will save the day.''

Annan went on to say that he had had many messages encouraging him to do what he could, from the Pope among others. Annan recalled later that Saddam listened, then brought out his yellow pad and started making notes. This meant Annan could not speak eyeball to eyeball. On the other hand, he thought that perhaps something was getting through.

As they went over and over the issues, Annan told him that obviously all the governments which had approached him had friendly intentions. Saddam should take advantage of this by working with other governments to stabilise the region. Annan said, "You've taken some courageous decisions. Some of them have been miscalculated, but this time around there's history to consider. In 1991, you didn't know. Now you know what happened in 1991. You know what has happened on several other occasions. And this time, let me tell you, you'll be hit and hit very hard. All the reconstruction you've done will be gone and you'll have to start again. Think of the suffering of your people. You say an attack will end the inspections. Maybe, but the impact on your people will be disastrous.''

It was becoming an exhausting encounter. Annan said later that he felt he had to just try to reason with Saddam, to tell him what was at stake, to try to convince him. "I had to really draw on all my inner resources - creativity and stamina and almost a spiritual courage - to really engage him in this. So at the end it was very draining,'' Annan related.

At one point Saddam told Annan, "I know you're a courageous man.''

This encouraged Annan to believe he was getting through to him. "He realised I had taken risks to do what I was doing.''

After almost three hours Saddam said, "You seem determined to solve this problem. Many people have failed to solve it - the Russians, the French, the Egyptians, the Turks. If you manage to solve it, it will be your victory.''

"No, Mr President, it will not be my victory, it will be your victory, your decision, it's in your hands. It will be victory for the Iraqi people, victory for the region. Not my victory. So let's do it together, let's find a solution. Work with me to find it.''

They turned back to the draft memorandum. Saddam did not have an Arabic translation in his hand, but he spoke very precisely from memory. "When I look at the agreement, everything that is in the interests of the UN is written in crisp, sharp language.'' And he pointed to paragraph three in Annan's English text: "The government undertakes to accord immediate unconditional unrestricted access.''

"But anything that affects Iraq is in loose language. You offer me nothing.''

One of the remaining problems was over the word "inspections'' of the presidential sites. Saddam said, "Tariq has told you, we cannot accept 'inspections'; we can use the word 'visits'.''

Annan replied, "I can't accept that. It's too loose, it will not be understood.''

He reminded Saddam that he was speaking for the Security Council. "So you are negotiating not just with me but also with them. They are the ones I have to convince - and the rest of the international community. So you don't want 'inspections' and I don't accept 'visits' - and we have to find a formula.''

Saddam said, "OK, they can enter.''

Annan recalled he then said, "That gives me an idea. Shall I try a formulation on you?''

Saddam replied, "Yes.''

Annan said, "What if I use this phrase, 'initial and subsequent entries for the performance of the tasks mandated'?''

Saddam responded, "I agree.''

Annan wrote it down and showed him.

He said, "Agreed.''

Then Saddam complained about the word "diplomats'' to refer to those being added to the team. He did not want any old diplomats. He wanted "ambassadors''. They compromised on "senior diplomats''.

Annan then said, "Mr President, now that the two of us have cleared the text, can we call in the others and tell them that we have an agreement?''

Saddam replied, "OK, call them in.'' Tariq Aziz and his colleagues, along with Annan's colleagues, returned.

Annan asked, "Do you or I go first?''

Saddam answered: "You go first.''

"We have an agreement, we have a text,'' said Annan. He took them through the changes, and then Saddam said, "Fine, you and Tariq finalise it.''

"And that was it,'' said Annan later. "After another orange juice, we left.''

As he said goodbye, Saddam said, "I want to thank you for coming to Baghdad personally. You must feel free to come here. You can even come for a holiday, if it won't embarrass you.''

As he left, Annan felt elated but exhausted. "I was tired. In a strange sort of way I was very calm.''


Ten months later, just before Christmas, America and Britain finally concluded force, not diplomacy, was the answer. Their forces targeted hundreds of sites during days of bombing. Two out of three Americans believed that the attacks had at least partly been launched to divert attention from President Bill Clinton's problems with Monica Lewinsky. Saddam's war machine was damaged. But a debate has raged since about what in the long term was achieved. Hundreds of Iraqi civilians died, doing nothing to improve the image of the West among ordinary Iraqis, and heavy sanctions have added to their misery. And still Saddam rules just as defiantly from Baghdad.