Aziz Says Regime Made 'Mistakes'
By William Drozdiak
BAGHDAD, IRAQ -- Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, conceding that the regime of President Saddam Hussein has made "mistakes" because it has been in power so long, said Iraq has made an irrevocable decision in the wake of the gulf war to adopt a constitution acceptable to the majority of the people.
"We know we have made mistakes, which is bound to happen when you are in power that long," Aziz, one of seven members of the Revolutionary Command Council and a senior Baath Party leader, said in an interview with The Washington Post.
"But we think Saddam Hussein is popular enough to be elected and the people will give us the chance to carry on the leadership in these difficult times," he said. "Besides, there is no concrete alternative."
Discussing plans for postwar reforms, Aziz said Iraq hopes to conclude an agreement soon on autonomy for the country's 3.5 million Kurds that will pave the way for direct elections to create a new National Assembly.
He said the presidential term -- Saddam now serves for life -- will be limited to renewable seven-year terms, the ruling Revolutionary Command Council will be abolished, and the Baath Party, which seized control in a coup 23 years ago, will surrender its monopoly on power.
Despite skepticism at home and abroad about the leadership's good faith in creating a true democracy, Aziz insisted that a new, democratic constitution will be adopted to replace the "revolutionary legality" that has governed Iraq since 1958.
Aziz, who as foreign minister conducted Iraq's diplomacy through the crisis, also warned that the Middle East now faces a decade of turmoil as a result of the Persian Gulf War because of a dramatic shift in the regional balance of power in Israel's favor and the overwhelming dependence of other Arab countries on the United States.
He said one of the primary consequences of the war has been to reinforce Israel's intransigence against making concessions of captured territory in return for peace. He predicted social upheaval in the Arab world in the late 1990s, particularly in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Syria that joined the international coalition in driving Iraqi forces out of Kuwait.
"Ten years from now, we will see that everybody, including the West, will be worse off because wars always create messier situations than before," Aziz said.
"I really doubt the situation is better than before last Jan. 15 for the United States and its Arab allies," he said. "Israel is more ambitious and expansionist than ever, and you will see in a few years how the Arab members of the so-called coalition will suffer seriously because of it."
In the interview, held at his office in the capital's Qadisiyah district, where large sections of a government compound still lie in ruins from allied bombing raids three months ago, Aziz spoke optimistically about Iraq's postwar rebuilding program and its aspirations to create a democratic, multiparty system.
With its economy ravaged by inflation and growing joblessness following its devastating defeat, Iraq needs to revive close commercial relations with the West to rebuild. "Iraq is an oil-producing nation with strong incentives to maintain good relations with our customers among industrialized nations," he said.
Reflecting on the events leading up to war, Aziz sounded defensive when asked why Iraq made no significant gesture, such as a partial troop withdrawal, that would have enabled a diplomatic solution to avert military conflict.
He insisted that he spelled out the risks to Saddam in crucial prewar meetings of the Revolutionary Command Council of maintaining the occupation of Kuwait in the face of the awesome firepower marshaled by allied forces.
He also implied that he did not necessarily endorse the decision to go to war over Kuwait against the coalition. "I laid all of the facts on the table, but how they were assessed is another matter," he said. Pressed whether he personally sought to dissuade Saddam from going to war, he would only repeat, "I laid all of the facts on the table."
Aziz said Saddam became convinced in early December that the United States was determined to prosecute the war in order to eliminate Iraq's military power in the region, regardless of what was done about Iraq's occupation of Kuwait. Saddam and other leaders were convinced that proposed concessions such as a partial troop withdrawal would have had no effect, he said.
"Kuwait was no longer the main question, it was only a detail," Aziz said. "The United States saw a historic chance to impose its power in the region after the Soviet Union's decline. We developed a fatalistic feeling about war. We found ourselves in a position where we could not do anything about it."
When the intensive air bombardments began on Jan. 17, Aziz said, Iraq's leadership was surprised by the devastation. "We were watching the American buildup and we expected the conflict to be severe," he said. "But we did not think the United States would try to destroy all of our telephone exchanges and our civilian infrastructure."
He said that a "man-to-man confrontation" never really occurred in the war because of the air supremacy achieved by the United States and its allies. "It is not much of a war when there are all these American computers flying in the skies and we are on the receiving end of their bombs," he said.
When U.S. warplanes destroyed a reputed command bunker in a residential neighborhood in Baghdad on Feb. 13 and killed more than 200 people, American officials said it was a military site and a shelter for the ruling elite, but Iraqi officials contended it was a civilian shelter.
Aziz disputed reports that the raid killed some relatives and officials close to Saddam who may have taken refuge there. "Nobody in my family was injured, nor were any of those from other members of the leadership," he said.
He attributed the relatively light civilian war casualties, which he would only estimate as "above 1,000," not so much to precision bombing as to the fact that many people fled the capital in the days before the war.
He said military casualties -- which U.S. authorities put at around 100,000 for the full war -- were not significant during the long weeks of intensive bombing because the soldiers were so deeply entrenched in and around Kuwait.
But once Iraqi troops began their retreat in the final days of the war, he said, the death toll rose dramatically. Many also were killed in the Shiite insurgency that followed the gulf war truce, he said.
Aziz denied a rumor that Iraqi warplanes flew to Iran because of an aborted coup attempt. He said Saddam ordered the planes to fly there because it was the only haven in the region.
He expressed regret that no diplomatic solution could have been found to stave off war. When he met Secretary of State James A. Baker III in Geneva on Jan. 9, as the mid-January deadline set by the U.N. Security Council neared, Aziz said, he realized that the United States already was primed to begin bombing.
"If our deliberations had taken place in September or October, we probably could have reached a compromise," he said. "But after the U.N. Security Council passed its ultimatum we knew that chances for a peaceful solution were gone."
In his current post, Aziz supervises political affairs of the postwar government and remains active in foreign diplomacy.
He said the highest priority of the postwar government led by Prime Minister Saadoun Hammadi is to rebuild the economy as quickly as possible in order to restore social and political stability.
Using the army to restore much of the lost power and water services, Aziz said, Iraq had made "exceptional" progress in reviving normal activity despite dire assessments a month ago by a U.N. envoy that Iraq had been bombed back to the pre-industrial age.
He said the leadership hopes to move Iraq rapidly toward a more open, democratic state, starting with an agreement on autonomous rule for the country's Kurds, most of whom live in northern Iraq.
Aziz said autonomy talks with Kurdish leaders have been conducted in a "constructive and cooperative spirit" and he hoped that an accord could be reached quickly on remaining issues. But he insisted that Iraq could not accept "international guarantees" such as a foreign troop presence to protect the Kurds because "this is a 100 percent internal problem."
Baghdad has accepted the principle of self-rule in all provinces where there is a clear Kurdish majority, he said, citing the areas of Sulaymaniyah, Dahuk and Irbil.
But he pointedly excluded the oil-producing region around Kirkuk and insisted the government would not concede any share of the significant oil resources around Kirkuk. It once was part of the traditional Kurdish homeland but recently has been populated by Arab immigrant families encouraged by Baghdad to settle there in order to change the demographic balance. "The selling of oil is the responsibility of the central government and has nothing to do with autonomy," Aziz said.
Kirkuk's oil facilities were largely unscathed by the war. Its oil wealth is vital to Iraq because many oil facilities in the south were destroyed in the war.
Aziz said the Shiite revolt was fomented by Iraqi Shiites deported to Iran a decade ago who were infiltrated back into the country by the Islamic government in Tehran.
He acknowledged that "maybe 6,000 to 10,000" Shiite soldiers retreating from Kuwait joined the revolt. But he insisted it was not a popular uprising because millions of other Shiites in the region did not join the rebellion at a time when Baghdad's authority was in tatters.
"If this revolt had popular support, then how could we have eliminated the Shiite insurgency when we were the weakest government in the entire world?" Aziz said. "We had no telephones, no electricity, no gasoline, no bridges left, and yet we managed to put down the rebellion."
Key Changes Discussed By Iraq's Foreign Minister
Government will work to reach agreement on Kurdish autonomy plan, paving the way for direct elections to a new National Assembly.
Presidential term will be limited to seven years.
Revolutionary Command Council will be abolished.
Ba'athist Party will surrender its monopoly on power.
Constitution acceptable to the majority of Iraqis will be adopted.
© Copyright 1991 The Washington Post Company