Interview: Mohammed al-Douri

Former Iraqi UN envoy sought to end the war before Baghdad fell on April 9, 2003.

    The Security Council formally removed the sanctions on Iraq on May 22, 2003 [AP]

    Mohammed al-Douri, the last Iraqi ambassador appointed by Saddam Hussein's government to the UN, says his country's demise began well before the US-led invasion in March 2003.


    A university professor of international law who rose through the ranks of the foreign ministry, al-Douri told Al Jazeera that UN sanctions slapped on Iraq in response to its 1990 invasion of Kuwait debilitated his country.


    "The sanctions from 1991 to 2003 destroyed Iraq's military, health, educational, and economical infrastructure, and brought the country to its knees," he said.


    Though Iraq was defeated and forced out of Kuwait, the sanctions regimen remained and was later reshaped to persuade Saddam Hussein's government to disclose and disarm its weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programmes.


    For 12 years, Iraqi authorities and the UN Security Council were engaged in what one observer called "cat-and-mouse" tactics. An issue of mistrust developed between Iraq and UN weapons inspection teams, with each side accusing the other of violating the UN mandate.


    Al Jazeera: The UN estimates that several hundred thousand Iraqis died during the sanctions. However, the Iraqi government was not deemed sufficiently co-operative to alleviate the hardships of its people. Why didn't the Iraqi government do more to lift the sanctions and prevent the March 2003 invasion? 


    Al-Douri: The US started to beat the drums of war right after [the] September 11 attacks despite the fact Iraq had nothing to do with these attacks. On the contrary, Iraq did everything it could to avoid war and bloodshed. UN inspection teams left Iraq before the Desert Fox operation in 1998 - an act we saw as conspiratorial.


    During Desert Fox the US military fired some 400 missiles at Iraqi civilians.


    We refused to let the inspectors in after the attack; however, we did allow them to come back in 2002 to prove US allegations of WMD false and to deny them a pretext for war. Iraq fully co-operated with the inspectors, but they were not satisfied.


    They played a major role in preparing for the war against Iraq by refraining from clearly stating that Iraq was free of WMDs.


    Now five years after the war, it has been proven that Iraq was WMD free and free from links with al-Qaeda as the US had always alleged.


    So, I wonder who should be blamed for that war. Iraq who proved to be honest or the US who proved to be wrong in every claim it made?

    Al-Douri, moments after leaving the Iraqi
    mission in New York on April 9, 2003 [AP]
    What was your mandate as an Iraqi delegate at the UN?


    My assignment came at a very critical time in Iraqi history. We realised early on that our battles took on diplomatic and political dimensions. Mainly, I was asked to work on trying to end or at least ease the sanctions on Iraq, and to explain our point of view to the members of the Security Council.


    It was not an easy job - we were being watched closely by the Americans and an Arab state. I refrain from specifying which state, but I think anyone who is aware of Iraqi history can easily identify which country I mean.


    The US and its Arab partner worked hard to foil any effort we made to achieve our mission. We were under constant surveillance and we understood that, but the problem we faced was their huge resources against our meagre means.


    They were quite able to scuttle our bids to establish communication with other Security Council members.


    Were you able to convince any Security Council members of Iraq's position? 


    The UN security council became divided into three groups on the eve of war: the first was the US and its allies - permanent members like Britain.


    The second involved permanent members who were not necessarily on Iraq's side but were also not in favour of going to war like China, France, and Russia.


    The third group comprised non-permanent members, mainly from the developing countries.


    Many of the representatives of these countries told me off the record that they were unhappy with the case the US was building against Iraq.


    Did the start of the war on March 20, 2003 mark the end of your diplomatic efforts?


    We continued our efforts to bring a halt to the war and many countries hardened their positions after the start of war, and they were willing to work to end the war.


    I should say it is worth mentioning the position of South Africa in trying to end hostilities.


    Ironically, on April 9, we had a meeting in that regard and we learned that US forces had now occupied Baghdad.


    I emerged from that meeting and informed reporters that the game was effectively over.


    Was the Iraqi government aware of that meeting?


    The Iraqi government had given up hopes that the UN could work to end the war. They viewed the war as the culmination of US and British efforts, despite the feelings and convictions of the rest of the Security Council.


    Communications were completely cut between us and Baghdad towards the end of war.


    But we - as an Iraqi delegation - continued to try until the last minute.


    But many Iraqis feel a compromise could have been reached and that Baghdad could have worked more in tandem with the UN and the US to ease suffering and prevent the war.


    Towards the end of the 1990s, Iraq made everything public, to the point where we jeopardised our sovereignty and national security to win the trust of the UN but it was to no avail.


    I am really surprised to hear people ask, "who launched the war? Iraq or the US?" How could Iraq have avoided the war? Did [George] Bush, the US president, not issue an ultimatum to President Saddam Hussein and then later state that even if Saddam left Iraq, the US military would still invade?


    Have you ever met Saddam Hussein, or received direct instructions from him?


    I did not meet the president in my whole life, and never talked to him. My point of contact was the minister and ministry of foreign affairs.


    Iraqi workers handle a missile examined by UN
    inspectors at a factory in December 2002 [EPA]

    Did the US authorities try to arrest you after the war as one of Saddam's men?


    Firstly, I reject and denounce your use of terminology ...'Saddam's men'. This was a common description widely used by western corporate media before the war.


    For your information, I was not one of Saddam's men; I was an honourable Iraqi official who worked under the leadership of Saddam Hussein, who happened to be the president of an honourable country.


    Saddam Hussein was a head of a state not a gang leader ... you cannot describe his government officials as 'Saddam's men'.


    We know this language is preferred even inside Iraq by the occupation's collaborators, but I would like to tell the world, we were honourable civil servants of our country; we did not rob our country and worked hard for the sake of our people.


    The UN delegation I headed was routinely targeted by offers to defect and betray our country, but we never did.


    All my delegation members were honourable people who turned down generous offers, although we had become very poor under the sanctions. In many instances, even our salaries used to be paid very late. 


    But to answer your question, no, the US military did not arrest me.


    I and those who worked under me maintained the highest sense of discipline during our terms at the UN. I left the US in a dignified manner.


    Several US ambassadors and officials escorted me to the airport and we had long conversations about the situation back then. 


    What is the future of the US presence in Iraq?


    I believe the US went to Iraq with the intention to stay and never leave.


    So the occupation will continue. Of course, it is not hard for them to invent ways to stay, but they will try to stay.


    I also believe Iran will continue to fight to stay in Iraq, and the US appears to have no problem with that. The US and Iran are in harmony when it comes to Iraq although they disagree on the nuclear issue.


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