The Monday Interview: Iraq's elder statesman and potential president

By Donald Macintyre
Published August 9th 2004 in The Independent

In the league table of highly charged confrontations, the 25-minute meeting that Adnan Pachachi and three Iraqi colleagues had with Saddam Hussein in his prison cell last December ranks pretty high.

When Saddam was caught, Mr Pachachi, a leading member of the Iraqi government before the Baathist coup in 1968, was phoned by Paul Bremer. The Americans' administrator in Iraq invited him, as the acting chairman of the Iraqi Governing Council, to gather a few members together and visit the prisoner "so the Iraqi people could see that it was true, that it wasn't propaganda."

"Of course, the temptation was too great," Mr Pachachi recalls. "Who could give up a chance like that?" Mr Bremer and the US military commander, General Ricardo Sanchez, had suggested they might want to stare at Saddam through a window or via a television camera. But of course, the group, all former opponents of Saddam, wanted to talk to him; or at least three of them did.

For while the fourth, Ahmad Chalabi, the Pentagon's favourite Iraqi until the CIA accused him earlier this year of being an Iranian spy, later talked a great deal about the meeting, he was silent while it went on. When Saddam, who was sitting in black slippers on his steel US Army cot with his beard freshly trimmed, saw the four come in, Mr Pachachi said: "He asked the Americans: 'Who are these gentlemen?' Chalabi immediately pointed to me and said: 'That's Adnan Pachachi'." Whether or not Mr Chalabi had taken sudden fright at Saddam in the flesh, however haggard, Mr Pachachi adds with an infectious laugh: "These were the only words [Chalabi] uttered during the entire meeting."

"Then [Saddam] said: 'Oh yes, of course we know you; you were the foreign minister. What brought you with these people?' And I said: 'Well, we are trying to create a democratic Iraq.'

"Then I asked [Saddam] why didn't he withdraw from Kuwait [after the invasion in 1990] when he could have done. He would have saved Iraq all its problems: sanctions and the ravages of war. He said that he was prepared to withdraw provided all the problems of the Middle East could be settled. I said: 'You must have known that was never going to happen, that it was a non-starter.'

"I then asked him why did he kill so many people, why he had been such a ruthless ruler. And he said: 'Iraq needs a just but firm ruler.' I said: 'You were not a just ruler. You were in fact an oppressive ruler, an oppressive tyrant over the Iraqi people.' And he said: 'You know, sometimes one has to use force in order to keep the peace and unity and integrity of the country'."

Mr Pachachi says thoughtfully now that these exchanges - including Saddam's breathtakingly hubristic self-justification - were conducted in a "very civil way". He added that his other colleagues - the Governing Council member Mowaffak al-Rubaie, a victim of Saddam's torturers in 1979, and Adel Abdel Mahdi, of the Shia Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq - had been "more abusive. And he replied in kind". This is an understatement; when Mr Rubaie accused the former dictator of cowardice, because he had had two AK-47s when he was run to ground by US forces but did not shoot a single bullet, Saddam replied with the full - and ample - range of Arabic swear-words favoured in the Iraqi street.

But the conversation he recollects in such detail also says as much about Mr Pachachi as it does about Saddam. The man who can have a "civil exchange with even a tyrant he has every reason to hate - one who put tens of thousands of his fellow Iraqis into mass graves, and caused his own exile for more than a generation - remains by instinct the diplomat he once was - as a pre-Saddam ambassador to Washington.

One question about the future Iraq is how pivotal a role a man as internationally experienced, but also as fastidious and undemagogic, as Mr Pachachi, will play in it. What is clear is that Mr Pachachi, at 81 the nearest Iraq has to an elder statesman, is ready and eager to try. Sitting behind his desk in the spacious house he has rented as his headquarters in the upmarket Mansour neighbourhood of Baghdad, he is seeking to maximise the support in the coming elections promised by the end of January for his party, the Independent Democrats. Like its leader, the party is nationalist, but also secular and liberal in outlook. The elections will choose the national assembly entrusted with drawing up a new constitution.

Mr Pachachi says: "There is now a real possibility of having credible, fair, transparent elections that would reflect the desire of the Iraqi people more than anything that has gone before." He welcomes the fact that they will use a system of proportional representation which means that every vote will count.

If they happen. Given the chronic security crisis, does he really think elections are possible? "They have to take place. A lot of countries have elections even in time of war and civil conflict, and the government will be called upon to protect the voters." He doesn't exclude the possibility of "acts of violence" designed to undermine the poll but adds that if there is a reasonable election - covering, say, 70 per cent of the country - that will have been "worth its while".

His own party's campaign has almost certainly been boosted by his decision in June to turn down the position of interim president which was offered to him by the UN special representative, Lakhdar Brahimi. There was, he says, a "vicious campaign" - for which he has personally blamed Mr Chalabi - to depict him as the Americans' choice when the truth was the "exact opposite". Unlike the UN, the US favoured the present incumbent Sheikh Ghazi al-Yawar, an engineer with no previous political profile. Mr Pachachi believed acceptance under such circumstances would have "impaired" his role in elections.

On the performance of Iyad Allawi's interim government in a "difficult situation", Mr Pachachi is at times a master of understatement. He points out that little more than a month has passed since sovereignty was handed over and the administration needs time before it can be fully judged. He is an enthusiast for the planned creation - by an Iraqi National Conference which has already been postponed once - of a temporary assembly to scrutinise the government's workings until elections take place.

But he cannot endorse the month-long ban announced on Saturday on al-Jazeera's journalists in Baghdad. He understands the anger al-Jazeera provokes among some interim ministers. The complaint, he says, is not that al-Jazeera shows explosions and scenes of war - the other networks do that. Rather it is, he says, that it has been "used" to portray videos of hostage-takers responsible for "appalling beheadings and so on" and allowed itself to become the "medium" of choice for propagating the statements of insurgents. But he adds: "The way to do it is for the government to ask al-Jazeera for as much time as they need to refute the allegations of terrorists and insurgents, and show the other side." After all, he points out, al-Jazeera will in any case continue broadcasting into Iraq.

On last week's fighting by Iraqi and US forces with Shia loyalists of Muqtada Sadr, he says the UN and any other form of mediation should be tried if at all possible. "I am very upset at the loss of life in Najaf," he says. "I would like to see every effort to defuse the crisis without undermining law and order."

On the insurgency in general, Sunni at least as much as Shia, he says: "It's a terrible situation. It will prolong the presence of foreign troops in Iraq and it will adversely affect reconstruction. They want to destabilise the country, to make it ungovernable."

As a member of an old Sunni family, he met a wide range of Sunni tribal leaders last week - a few of whom, he says, may have at least some indirect contact with some of those involved in the insurgency, contacts he does not have. He urged them to participate in the political process - not least by registering as voters. And he argues that the greater the security, the faster the Americans will leave.

He is not shy about criticising the US. Paul Bremer's decision to disband the army was "a mistake, a hasty decision". So was the "wholesale dismissal of government employees. What should have been done was to keep the government structure intact and then gradually remove officials who were implicated in crimes". And he says the trickle into Iraq of funds approved by the US Congress last year - a paltry $458m (£250m) out of $18bn - is a coming "big issue".

But he retains an unfashionable, if sober, optimism about the long-term future. "I don't think there will be a civil war," he says. Iraqis, he adds, are not inclined to kill each other for ethnic or sectarian reasons. "This isn't Northern Ireland or Bosnia or Lebanon."

He says his party will be seeking to form coalitions - in government or in opposition - with other like-minded parties. And on speculation that he might offer himself as a presidential candidate to a new assembly, if and when it happens, he says no decisions have yet been taken by the party. It is wholly possible of course, that Mr Pachachi will be drowned out by younger and more strident voices. But if nothing else, and whatever role he plays in a barely foreseeable future, Iraq could certainly do with some of his optimism.