| Iraq's Real Coup: Did Saddam Snooker Schwarzkopf?
June 28, 1992, Washington Post
WHEN SADDAM Hussein's helicopters strafed rebels into submission after the Persian Gulf War
last year, superior U.S. forces did nothing despite President Bush's appeal to Iraqis to overthrow
U.S. commander Norman Schwarzkopf claimed Iraqi ceasefire negotiators "suckered" him,
winning his permission for transport flights, then using gunships against Iraqi and Kurdish
civilians. But new evidence shows Schwarzkopf himself set no helicopter limits. Other information
raises questions about whether he acted in the mistaken belief that the helicopter forces would
lead an anti-Saddam coup -- and whether such a fatal miscalculation was planted in the minds
of the U.S. high command by Iraqi agents.
The new evidence begins with the ceasefire talks' transcript, recently declassified by the
Pentagon. Information has also come from veteran Iraqi watchers deeply experienced in
Saddam's devious ways. Although further investigation is needed, known facts and informed
conjecture suggest that deeper reasons exist than so far known about how the war left Saddam
in power despite his defeat. The starting point is the declassified transcript of the March 3,
1991, meeting in Safwan between Schwarzkopf, leader of coalition forces, and Iraqis led by
Gen. Sultan Hashim Ahmad. The crucial exchange began when Ahmad told Schwarzkopf:
"Helicopter flights sometimes are needed to carry some of the officials, government officials or
any members . . . needed to be transported from one place to another because the roads and
bridges are out."
Schwarzkopf then told Ahmad how to mark helicopters to avoid being shot at.
Ahmad: This has nothing to do with the front line. This is inside Iraq.
Schwarzkopf: As long as it is not over the part we are in, that is absolutely no problem. So we
will let the helicopters, and that is a very important point, and I want to make sure that's
recorded, that military helicopters can fly over Iraq. [Author's italics.] Not fighters, not bombers.
Ahmad: So you mean even the helicopters . . . armed in the Iraqi skies can fly, but not the
fighters? Because the helicopters are the same, they transfer somebody. . . .
Schwarzkopf: Yeah. I will instruct our Air Force not to shoot at any helicopters that are flying
over the territory of Iraq where we are not located. If they must fly over the area we are located
in, I prefer that they not be gunships, armed helos, and I would prefer that they have an orange
tag on the side as an extra safety measure.
Ahmad: Not to have any confusion, these will not come to this territory.
But in a televised interview with David Frost on March 27, 1991, with the transcript of the Safwan
talks still secret and unavailable to the American public, Schwarzkopf recounted the exchange
very differently. He said he had been ordered "to dictate rather strong terms . . . . So when [the
Iraqis] said to me, you know, 'We would like to fly helicopters,' I said not over our forces. 'Oh, no,
no, definitely not over your forces, just over Iraq, because for the transportation of government
officials.' That seemed like a reasonable request."
But the declassified Safwan transcript shows that as the ceasefire meeting ended, Schwarzkopf
emphasized the points he wanted the Iraqis to remember, beginning: "From our side, we will not
attack any helicopters inside Iraq." Although the transcript and the interchange with Frost make
clear Schwarzkopf was intent upon the terms of Iraqi helicopter operations, White House
spokesman Marlin Fitzwater in a press briefing put a very different character on the exchange.
He described it as "a side, oral discussion, nothing in writing." When a reporter sought some
clarification, Fitzwater responded inaccurately.
Reporter: Schwarzkopf says, okay, you can use [helicopters] for transportation, but that's it?
Was this a White House attempt to mischaracterize the Safwan talks because Schwarzkopf had
been pursuing a secret agenda that failed?
Analysis of the Safwan talks raises these questions: When Schwarzkopf said he preferred that
gunships not fly over allied positions, he was also saying that they could fly anywhere else. Why
did he make that concession? Why did Schwarzkopf only "prefer" that gunships not fly over
coalition positions? Why not forbid them to do so to insure that allied troops were protected, as
Schwarzkopf claimed on the Frost show to have done? When Ahmad asked if even armed
helicopters could fly, why didn't Schwarzkopf say no? But there is a hypothesis that makes
sense of these anomalies. If Schwarzkopf expected a coup from the helo forces, this could
explain why he inserted into the discussion the notion that gunships could fly inside Iraq, why he
waffled on whether Iraqi choppers could overfly allied positions and why he readily agreed that
even armed helicopters could fly. A possible explanation may lie in the tangled web of intrigue
that surrounds Saddam's regime.
Iraqi opposition sources told me before Desert Storm began, in January 1991, that Salah Omar
Takriti, a London-based Iraqi close to the Saudi leadership, claimed to have a list of Iraqi military
officers willing to plot a coup. Among them was Salah's cousin, Hakam Takriti, head of Iraqi Army
Aviation -- the helicopter squadrons, which include about 120 gunships among the estimated
350 helicopters, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies' annual world
Salah, once a super-zealous Iraqi patriot, first broke with Saddam -- or seemed to -- in the
1970s, and over the next two decades periodically reconciled and broke again with Saddam,
who like Salah, comes from the town of Takrit, Saddam's political base. In 1982, Salah served
as Iraq's U.N. ambassador, going into opposition when Iraq began to lose the war with Iran.
He remained in America about five years before reconciling with Saddam again and taking over
the London-based international freight division of Iraqi Airways -- subsequently identified by the
U.S. Treasury Department as an Iraqi front company. When Saddam invaded Kuwait in August
1990, Salah resigned and rejoined the opposition, claiming that as a Sunni, a Ba'athist and a
Takriti, he could overthrow Saddam while keeping the regime's structure intact and averting
chaos in Iraq.
Riyadh embraced and promoted him as the Saudis' main candidate among the Iraqi opposition.
They tried to impose him on the established opposition, threatening that if he were not taken as
an equal partner, the Iraqi opposition would get no support from the Saudis or Americans.
Saudi intelligence, which cooperates closely with U.S. agencies, could have passed to the
Americans Salah's reports of a possible coup attempt. If the Americans took such reports
seriously, Schwarzkopf would have been informed and might have taken steps in the ceasefire
talks to make sure that the coup plotters' helicopters were free to assault Baghdad. But the
coup never came, and the helipcopters were instead used to crush the revolt.
Saddam doesn't appear to have doubted Hakam's loyalty. Twice decorated since the U.S.
victory, Hakam still heads the helicopter forces. And although Saddam usually severely
punishes families of opponents, none of Salah's relatives are known to have been harmed. So if
Hakam remains a Saddam man, it is possible that rumors that reached the Saudis suggesting
that he was ready to mount a coup was misinformation -- or disinformation.
Iraqis who know him describe helicopter leader Hakam as a womanizer and informer for
Saddam. Said one source: "If the West is depending on people like Hakam, we will have
Saddam for the next 1,000 years." As the rebellion in Iraq swelled, U.S. policy toward Saddam's
helicopters went through curious changes. After Iraqi gunships attacked the rebels, but not
Saddam, the administration eventually tried to restrain them. A U.S. warning was issued on
March 17, 1991, that the use of Iraqi helicopters in offensive operations posed a threat to allied
forces -- formal justification for shooting them down. But by then, other considerations
influenced U.S. policy, including the military's apprehension about getting "sucked into" an
open-ended involvement in a possible civil war. No explicit U.S. threat was made against the
helicopters. The Iraqis continued to fly, although with no certainty that they would not be shot
Then U.S. policy shifted; on March 26, the White House announced that Iraqi helicopters would
not be shot down. Within 48 hours, this had precipitated panicked flight over the Turkish border
by thousands of rebellious Iraqi Kurds.
According to Iraqis who were with him in Saudi Arabia during the immediate post-war period,
Salah was the first to make the argument at this time that Saddam should be allowed to
suppress the rebellion because the revolt was causing the Iraqi army to rally behind Saddam
and thus delay his downfall. There is some evidence that the Bush administration subscribed to
this line at least temporarily.
On March 29, 1991, the Washington Post quoted a senior official as saying that "Bush believes
'Saddam will crush the rebellions and, after the dust settles, the Ba'ath military . . . will install a
new leadership.' But this official expressed his own doubts. 'There might not be a coup . . . and
all these thousands and thousands will be dead while we looked on.'"
Saddam may be a lousy military strategist, but he is well-practiced in the art of conspiracy. If all
this speculation seems far-fetched, remember, the previous U.S. administration signed on to
something that sounded equally implausible -- selling arms in order to "moderate" radical Iranian
mullahs, a policy promoted and endorsed by the Israeli government. The cautionary is
inescapable: Smart people sometimes do dumb things.
While Congress is investigating events leading up to the U.S. war with Iraq, it might also look
into events at the war's end. There are big questions still to be answered.
Laurie Mylroie is an associate of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and author of the
monograph, "The Future of Iraq, published last year.