Former Jordanian Prime Minister Ali Abu Al-Ragheb revealed to Asharq Al-Awsat, and for the first time, the behind-the-scenes dealings related to the build up of the US invasion of Iraq in March 2003.
Jordan had repeatedly warned decision-makers in the West that chaos would reign in Iraq should the invasion go ahead.
Abu Al-Ragheb was prime minister from 2000 to 2003 under then new King Abdullah II. His time in office allowed him to be involved in developments related to the second and third Palestinian intifada, the war on terror that began after the September 11, 2001, attacks and later, the US invasion of Iraq.
Abu Al-Ragheb was acquainted with Saddam Hussein and had held numerous public and secret meetings with him over the years. Before and after the September 11 attacks, he was present at several decisive political meetings that would eventually fuel the United States’ conviction to change the face of the region. The war on terror became Washington’s top priority, along with the ouster of Saddam, who was accused of possessing weapons of mass destruction.
The claim was not based on accurate information at the time, Abu Al-Ragheb told Asharq Al-Awsat. The language of war, however, was more powerful than the voice of reason. Jordan failed in slowing the American drive towards the invasion, he acknowledged.
He recalled a meeting that was held between King Abdullah and US President George W. Bush, who frankly declared: “We will not accept neutrality. You are either with us or against us.” At that point, “I realized that the intention to wage war was stronger than efforts to calm the situation. The intensity of the reports claiming that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction were more powerful than Iraq’s actual arsenal,” he added.
“King Abdullah tried to warn Bush that the invasion would open the gates of Hell. He warned him that the alternative to the regime would be chaos, extremism and sectarian strife,” recalled Abu Al-Ragheb. Moreover, the invasion allowed “neighbors, who were silently waiting for the right moment, to seek vengeance against Iraq, which had stood firmly against Iran’s malign interests in the region.”
On the weapons of mass destruction, the former PM said Saddam’s son-in-law, Hussein Kamel, had relayed to American officials “exaggerated” information about the arsenal. Kamel had sought refuge from Saddam in Amman in 1996. Kamel had accepted the CIA’s help in his coup attempt against Saddam, but refused to work with the Israeli Mossad. When his dreams of succeeding Saddam were dashed, he returned to Baghdad, where he was shot dead by relatives.
Abu Al-Ragheb believes that the plot to “topple Iraq” took place throughout the 1990s and its finishing touches took place in the early years of the 21st century.
“The Pentagon was being provided with massive amounts of false information about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. More so, American Vice President Dick Cheney loathed Saddam and was pressuring Bush, who also shared the sentiment,” added the former PM. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who adopted the same hardline against Saddam as Cheney, completed the picture.
Saddam, for his part, did not send enough messages to ease the American position that was being misled. French and Arab efforts also failed in deterring the Americans.
Saddam had completely dismissed all warnings he had received after the invasion of Kuwait. He was urged to be flexible to avoid more war and destruction in Iraq. Instead, he continued to defy the US and Israel, said Abu Al-Ragheb. Saddam also surrounded himself with officials that “were swept up in their emotions and did not listen to reason and wisdom from their friends.”
The US used the excuse of weapons of mass destruction to tighten the siege on Iraq. “Jordan broke the siege by supporting the Iraqi brothers in everything, but weapons,” he continued. Abu Al-Ragheb was known to be close to Saddam. Throughout the 1990s, he had negotiated economic conditions with Iraq to raise the oil grant that Baghdad was providing Jordan. Moreover, he had played a role on several occasions in easing political disputes between Jordan and Iraq.
Even though he was close to Saddam and his circle, he was not fond of their “populist” statements. He repeatedly urged them to offer reasonable concessions to avert war on Iraq that was growing more imminent. At this point, he revealed that he had carried out a secret visit to Baghdad days before he was appointed prime minister.
He was tasked by King Abdullah to receive clarifications from Saddam over the causes of the differences between Jordan and Iraq. An angry Saddam cited security restrictions on Iraqi officials and Jordan’s hosting of Iraqi opposition figures. Abu Al-Ragheb managed to quell his anger, explaining that a security official at the time was stoking the tensions. He was later put on trial for economic crimes.
Throughout the early 2000s, Jordan sought tirelessly to ease the siege on Iraq and avert a war against it. When he first became prime minister, Abu Al-Ragheb visited Iraq where he met his counterpart Taha Yassine Ramadan. They discussed United Nations Security Council resolution 1284 that called for allowing inspectors to search Iraqi facilities ahead of a gradual easing of the siege in three to six months.
Ramadan adamantly rejected the entry of “spies to our homes.” Abu Al-Ragheb admitted that he was shocked at the response. He would later dismiss his meeting with Ramadan as “useless”, saying he offered no “reasonable” proposals to end the siege.
In May 2001, Arab kings and heads of state met in Amman. Abu Al-Ragheb recalled that the Jordanian, and Saudi delegations and the Arab League general secretariat sought hard to come up with a draft resolution related to reconciliation between Iraq and Kuwait. It also called for the Arab League to urge the UN to lift the Iraqi siege and demand that Baghdad pledge not to invade Kuwait again and to respect its sovereignty. This last article was a point of contention with the Iraqi delegation.
Kuwait welcomed the resolution and it appeared that the summit would yield reconciliation between Kuwait and Baghdad. Ultimately, the Iraqi delegation rejected the draft, leaving officials bewildered.
King Abdullah did not give up. Later that day, he tried to again persuade the Iraqis to agree to the draft, which would have been a breakthrough in lifting the siege. But the Iraqis were unyielding.
Abu Al-Ragheb told Asharq Al-Awsat that Iraq had lost a “golden opportunity” to end the siege and avert the 2003 invasion. “I did not and still cannot understand the Iraqi position at the summit,” he confided. The position only gave the Americans more ammunition to use against Iraq.
By late 2002 and early 2003, it was evident that it was “only a matter of time” before the US invaded Iraq, said the former PM. Washington increased its pressure and “everyone realized that it would not be deterred from its decision to wage the war.”
Shortly before the eruption of the war, Iraqi Vice President Izzat al-Douri visited Amman with an oral message from Saddam to King Abdullah requesting that Jordan kick off a mediation with Washington.
“I asked him about what Iraq had to offer to bridge the divide with the US. He kept on stalling and didn’t present any clear proposals. This was no way to handle a war that was imminently approaching,” said Abu Al-Ragheb. He urged him to offer something concrete, but al-Douri did not change his position. The next day he met with King Abdullah with the same vacant proposal and nothing came of their talks.
Ties with Saddam
Abu Al-Ragheb said he first met Saddam in the early 1990s and would continue to meet with him throughout his political career as he assumed various ministerial posts. Despite the tensions between Jordan and Iraq, “he was always positive with me,” recalled the former PM. “I knew Saddam and those around him. I enjoyed close ties with them, and I am still friends with some of them.”
“The Second Gulf War was a dangerous turning point in our region. It led to the siege on Iraq and caused instability in the Arab world, especially in wake of Iran’s vengeance against Saddam and the US. Iran managed to reap the gains of Iraq’s security, political and economic weakness.”
By 2003, everything was over, and it was clear that war was upon the region, said Abu Al-Ragheb. The situation in Iraq was difficult after 14 years of siege. Iraq’s military could not compare to America’s military might. “The Americans did not heed King Abdullah’s warnings that the war would lead to major disasters on the people of Iraq and the region. They disregarded his warning that the war and occupation would lead to civil conflict and violence in Iraq that would be difficult to contain. Moreover, the war would only offer Iraq on a golden platter to Iran and increase its influence,” said Abu Al-Ragheb.
“The American administration and neo-cons were insistent on the war and occupation... their only agenda was to strike Iraq, occupy it and seize the oil in the region,” he remarked. “Iraq would not withstand the onslaught. Officials there, however, stuck to their political positions and did not properly assess what was to come,” he continued.
“For our part, we were frank with the Iraqis. We told them that what was to come was going to be difficult and that the US planned on occupying Iraq and toppling the regime,” he said.
The invasion kicked off on March 19, 2003, and Baghdad fell on April 9. Abu Al-Ragheb said he was not surprised. “The indications on the ground pointed to this outcome. It was a difficult moment for all of us, but it was expected. We tried to stand by the Iraqi people in their suffering. We know the extent of the poverty and hunger that was caused by the yearslong siege.”