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Dealing With Saddam

In an exclusive TIME interview, Kofi Annan defends a pact made with "difficult customers"

By Kofi Annan

TIME magazine

(TIME, March 9) -- TIME: Given this man's murderous record and his record of frustrating the arms inspectors, what did you mean when you said Saddam Hussein was someone with whom you could "do business"?

Annan: I had to deal with him to avoid a tragedy and to save lives. In fact, when I said that, I had in fact done business with him. I found a man who was very calm, very monotonous in his voice, with no theatrics. Once I got through to him and explained what was at stake, and what he could do for his nation and his people, and what he would face if he did not agree, he got focused. Once that contact was established, he reacted very quickly. Had I not gone to him and done that, I would still be in Baghdad talking.

TIME: Was there a moment when you realized you had got through to him?

Annan: When he said, "I know you are a courageous man," I realized he was probably warming to me, but otherwise I saw no sign. It was at that point that I moved into the critical issues.

TIME: Do you think he misunderstood what was at stake?

Annan: He may or may not have. There were lots of leaders and lots of people around the world who did not want the use of force, and if you are not careful, you can get lulled into the idea that you have lots of support. I had to get across to him that these supporters are wonderful verbally, but that if it came to the crunch, they could do nothing for him, and that after the strike, they would say, "Well, we told him, and he didn't listen." And then they will join the consensus, including even the bigger countries.

TIME: Did that surprise him?

Annan: It's difficult to know, because he shows no emotion on his face. His eyes moved slightly, perhaps a bit of slight smile, but difficult to read.

TIME: Did you find him mentally quick?

Annan: When we were with his colleagues, he talked for a long time. He had no talking points. He obviously had a full grasp of the facts.

TIME: Do you think his goals are now different from what they were?

Annan: [The Iraqis] are very keen to get rid of the sanctions. I made it very clear to him that the only way to do that is to cooperate with [the U.N. Special Commission] and get the job done expeditiously so that it is in their hands. Without their cooperation, it is not going to happen. They built the nation and had it destroyed and rebuilt it. So I asked him whether he wanted to destroy all these wonderful edifices, because that is what will happen.

TIME: Has the agreement shifted the decision-making process to your office?

Annan: Not really. I used my good offices to deblock an impasse so that the arrangements we have remain intact. The reporting lines will be the same. What we need to do is to put mechanisms in place to ensure that conflicts can be resolved. Next week I'm going to appoint a special representative of the Secretary-General to have a political presence in Iraq. It's a shame I have to admit that we haven't done this. I have also mentioned to Richard Butler that within his own organization, on the ground, he should strengthen the mechanism to resolve conflicts. If you don't deal with it, little problems become a drama, and before you know it, you have a big crisis on your hands.

TIME: Did you really call the UNSCOM inspectors cowboys?

Annan: I was very upset by that because it is not my style to call anybody cowboys. Something very unprofessional happened. In the Security Council, I was asked why we set up a special regime for the palaces. In the explanation, I said the Iraqis tell us that some of the inspectors come in and behave like cowboys and throw their weight around. I have worked with the inspectors from Day One. I appointed Butler. I know the work they have done. They have destroyed more weapons than all the bombs did in Desert Storm. I have a great deal of respect for these men, who have done courageous work. I was reporting what the Iraqis said. Of course, the Iraqis have not been angels. They are difficult customers. But they have promised to behave themselves and cooperate, and we have said we will be sensitive to their concerns of dignity and sovereignty. The next few months will tell. This settlement is qualitatively different from previous ones in that this is the first one Saddam himself has negotiated. In regimes like that, the psychology really comes from the top.

TIME: What do you think of the reactions coming out of Congress?

Annan: I think it's unfortunate, because my sense is that they probably don't have all the facts. Some of the assessments have been hasty. I think it's only in the U.S. that we have this problem. Everywhere else, according to the reports coming from other capitals, everybody is relieved and very happy that we have avoided this tragedy. I don't really know what is driving some of the statements coming out of Washington.

I hope this agreement will hold, and we are going to test it. And I think it should become clear in the next three or six months whether this is really going to work. Of course, if Iraq were to break this agreement, I think that the attitude on the Security Council will be quite different and that it may be much easier for the U.S. to get a consensus to strike. And I think Iraq knows that too.

TIME: You spoke English, and he spoke Arabic?

Annan: Yes, and he had an interpreter. Unfortunately, I made a mistake. I should have had my interpreter too. But, anyway, we did get the result.

In TIME This Week

Cover Date: March 9, 1998

Caught In The Town's Most Thankless Job
Everyone's Talking Trash
Can This Deal Work?
Uncovering Iraqi Intrigue
Dealing With Saddam
A Star Turn For The Peace Broker
What Asian Crisis?
Notebook: Bill Paxon Drops Out Of The Political Ring

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