WASHINGTON » As the U.S.-led ground offensive in the first war with Iraq got under way on Feb. 24, 1991, Saddam Hussein directed his frustration at an unlikely target: the Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev. Saddam had dispatched his foreign minister to Moscow in an 11th-hour bid to head off a ground war.
After prodding by Gorbachev, Saddam had offered to withdraw Iraqi troops from Kuwait in 21 days. But the United States appeared to be moving ahead with its land campaign.
“The situation is now is getting worse,” Saddam had written the previous night in a emotional letter to the Soviet leader. “Our nation and army are confused. We are asking ourselves which one is more significant: the Soviet Union’s proposal or the Americans’ threats?”
Speaking to trusted aides, Saddam was less diplomatic, denouncing Gorbachev as a “scoundrel” who lacked the will or influence to stay President George Bush’s hand. “He tricked us,” Saddam said. “I knew he would betray us!”
The disclosures about Saddam’s closed-door deliberations that first day of the Persian Gulf land war are documented in an extraordinary Iraqi archive, which includes 2,600 hours of recorded meetings and millions of pages of documents, that was captured by U.S. forces after the 2003 invasion.
On the 20th anniversary of Operation Desert Storm (the air campaign began on Jan. 17, 1991), three transcripts of Saddam’s fateful decisions are being released to coincide with a symposium in Texas on Thursday with Bush and members of his war cabinet. Only a small portion of the archive, stored in digital form at the National Defense University, has been declassified and opened to outside researchers. (A 2008 government report drew on the three Feb. 24 transcripts, but until now they have not been available in their entirety.)
The war’s history has been well documented, but the three transcripts provide gripping new details of what went on inside the Iraqi command, including Saddam’s anger at Gorbachev and his misinterpretation of the United States’ military actions.
With only fragments of information coming from the battlefield and a room full of subordinates eager to applaud the faintest glimmer of success, Saddam was convinced that the United States lacked the resolve to wage a grinding ground war, the transcripts show.
Even if the Americans suffered just one casualty for every four Iraqi casualties, he boldly predicted, the United States would falter. He lectured his aides that igniting Kuwait’s oil fields to hinder the allied warplanes was a valid military tactic that would not enrage the world. And he and his aides kept misreading the signals about whether the ground assault had even begun.
Studied along with a parallel archive of declassified transcripts at the George Bush Presidential Library at Texas A&M University, the captured Iraqi records depict Gorbachev as eager to engineer a solution that would protect the Soviet Union’s former Iraqi client and make the Soviets an equal partner with the United States in international diplomacy, but unwilling to jeopardize his relations with the Bush administration.
Bush emerges as a leader who sought to mollify Gorbachev even as the United States stuck to its demand for the unconditional withdrawal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait.
“It is your neighborhood, and some of them are your friends,” Bush told Gorbachev in a phone call on Feb. 22, 1991. “We recognize Soviet interests in the area. I want to get our forces out of there as soon as possible. I know how the Iranians and others feel.”
Jeffrey A. Engel, a professor at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M, noted that the exchanges showed that “despite heated discussions at the height of war with Iraq, Bush and Gorbachev were fundamentally concerned with safeguarding the future of Soviet-American relations.”
Iraq’s invasion and occupation of Kuwait on Aug. 2, 1990, was followed by months of demands that Iraqi forces leave the Persian Gulf nation, resolutions in the United Nations Security Council and a buildup of military might by the Americans and their allies in the region.
After the air campaign began in January, preparations for a possible ground attack in Iraq were stepped up. With the ground war just days away, Gorbachev mounted a peacemaking effort. Tariq Aziz, the Iraqi foreign minister, arrived in Moscow on Feb. 21. Later that day, Gorbachev told Bush in a phone call that he sensed a “serious shift” in Iraq’s position, according to a transcript in the Bush Library.
Iraq, Gorbachev said, was no longer demanding that resolution of the Gulf crisis be linked to other issues in the Middle East. And although the Iraqis had initially demanded that they be given six weeks to leave Kuwait, the Soviets had insisted that the schedule be shortened to 21 days. That timetable still fell short of Bush’s demands that Saddam unconditionally remove his troops and pay reparations to Kuwait and that a plan be worked out to deal with Iraq’s poison gas, biological weapons and nuclear arms programs.
Gorbachev’s diplomatic efforts were undermined Feb. 22 when the Kuwaiti oil well fires that Saddam had ordered set — and which he saw as a defensive measure — were described by Bush in his conversation with the Soviet leader as a “scorched-earth policy” and a reason to not delay military action. Bush said it should take the Iraqis no more than seven days to pull out of Iraq, and he issued them an ultimatum to take action before noon the next day.
On Feb. 23, just minutes before the noon deadline, Bush and the Soviet leader spoke by telephone. Gorbachev argued that joint American-Soviet action through the United Nations would establish a model for dealing with other crises.
In Baghdad on Feb. 24, Saddam waited anxiously for word from his foreign minister, who had left Moscow.
“When will Comrade Tariq arrive?” the Iraqi leader asked. Told that Aziz had yet to return to Baghdad, Saddam demanded: “What do you mean he has not arrived?” He read aloud a headline: “Tariq Aziz Arrives in Baghdad.”
As he waited for the minister to show up, Saddam instructed his subordinates to read a letter he had sent to Gorbachev the night before, asking the Soviet president why he was not doing more to oppose Bush’s decision to start the ground war. “We trusted you,” Saddam wrote.
“In typical fashion, he suspected that Iraq had been stabbed in the back, this time by disingenuous Soviet mediation efforts,” said David Palkki, the deputy director of the research center that houses the Saddam archives.
Gorbachev’s reply was not reassuring. He wrote that Bush did not agree with the Soviet proposal and that if Saddam wanted to avoid a ground war, he should immediately issue a statement saying that Iraq would withdraw its forces within nine to 10 days.
When Aziz finally arrived to see Saddam, the Iraqi leader greeted him with a laugh: “Are you up to surprises like Bush?”
To elude U.S. warplanes, Aziz had returned via Jordan and traveled by road to Baghdad. Like two teenagers discussing the latest muscle car, Saddam and his foreign minister talked about how fast it was possible to drive on Iraq’s roads.
“We were going 220 on the highway,” Aziz said, referring to kilometers. That translates to more than 130 mp.
Neither official put much hope in getting help from Iraq’s neighbors.
“We are done dealing with the Iranians this time,” Aziz said.
Added Saddam: “Like all new revolutions, they talk too much.”
With little accurate intelligence, Saddam and his command failed to grasp their adversary’s strategy. The Iraqis believed a U.S. amphibious landing was likely.
And Saddam initially mistook some probing actions by the U.S. military as signs that a major attack had been mounted and contained.
“If this is the initial shock,” Saddam said, “then the attack has failed.”
But as the day wore on, the seriousness of the predicament became more apparent. Frustrated at their inability to negotiate a compromise on their terms, the Iraqis speculated that casualties would lead Bush to soften his demands
“Let them come to Karbala city,” Saddam said. “It will become their cemetery.”