Winter 2002-2003



Our Man In Washington

Foremost Iraqi Expert Prof. Amatzia Baram ‘Mobilized’ by the Americans;

“Some missiles might land, but the danger is smaller than from car accidents…”


The fear in Washington, according to Prof. Amatzia Baram of the Dept. of Middle East History, is the “wild card” nature of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein.  “He may use unconventional weapons against his own people, to create a human tragedy in the face of the advancing Americans.  The question is what to do in such a case?”

        The renowned Brookings Institute, specifically its Saban Center headed by former Ambassador to Israel and Asst. Secretary of State Martin Indyk, called on Baram, one of the world’s foremost experts on Iraq and Saddam, to attempt to answer such questions leading up to the war.  And in Baram’s assessment, there will be war, albeit a short one, and it will start in the first half of March. 

        Baram is also of the opinion that if Saddam does give the order to fire missiles at Israel, they will be non-conventional ones this time.  He questions the success of such an attempt, however.

        Focus spoke to the Middle East scholar one morning in early February just before he left his hotel for his temporary office not far from the White House.   

        It is possible that Saddam has only 5 or 6 missiles, he believes, though some people think he has as many as forty.  It is not clear in any case, he continued, how many of them are operational.  Then, too, the American attack may be so swift that Saddam’s officers may not be able to carry out the order.  “There is every reason to get prepared,” Baram sums up, but I’m not terribly worried about his missiles, as his capabilities are limited.”

        As though to back up his relative unconcern, the scholar notes that he is in Washington only for the between-semester break and that he will be returning to his teaching duties in another two weeks although Brookings wanted him for three months.

        As for Saddam’s bringing the temple down on his people and on himself, Baram feels that the Iraqi officers in charge of the non-conventional missiles are so loyal to their leader that they would carry out such an order.  Sabotaging Iraq’s extensive oil fields would be part of this order.  “They [Saddam’s officers] are members of the same tribe from the Tikrit area,” he points out. “They are angry, and they hate the rest of Iraq.”  He noted that Hitler’s Ministry of Industry, by contrast, refused to execute a comparable order to destroy Germany’s industry just before the Nazi tyrant committed suicide.

        Baram detects growing support in the U. S. for an attack on Iraq following President Bush’s State of the Union address and Secretary of State Powell’s UN speech.  Although he thinks that the Administration has yet to make a final decision, he thinks Bush has no choice at this point if there is no major change in Iraq.  “It will be very difficult politically for the president to withdraw American troops without any major achievement, nor will he be able to keep them waiting another ten months perhaps for nothing,” Baram states.  “He needs to finish the guy off now.”

        Oil, in the Middle East expert’s view, is not the reason for the war as some have charged.  “Bush is afraid of what Iraq will give to Islamic terrorist groups in the short run,” he explains.  “In the long run, he’s afraid of Iraq’s developing nuclear power and brandishing it to gain more and more control of the oil in other Arab countries.  Only in that sense is it [the war] about oil.”

        The professor, who plans to return to Washington during the Pesach vacation, points to Secretary of State Powell as having the most credibility when it comes to pronouncements about Iraq and war.  “Until now, he was pouring cold water on the need for an attack, but today [February 5] he showed Saddam’s pattern of non-compliance with U.S. and UN disarmament demands,” Baram says. 

        Amatzia Baram, whom the U.S. Congress not long ago called on to testify on Iraqi intentions, has a dual assignment for the Brookings Institute’s Saban Center.  He is spending the first part of his split stay in Washington analyzing Saddam Hussein’s reactions to American and UN developments.  What are the regime’s options, choices leading up to war?  But Washington also wants his input for the day after—what will be the future of Iraq once the Saddam regime is out of the way.

        “The Americans,” he says, “are working hard on what should happen in Iraq the day after.  How should that state’s institutions be reformed and reshaped for a peaceful, democratic society?”

            From Israel’s point of view, Baram’s assessment that “some missiles might land” is worrisome enough, despite the low probability that the Prime Minister, the head of the Israeli Air Force, and Baram himself all assign this eventuality.  “Drive carefully,” he cautioned in concluding the telephone interview.


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