Trevor McDonald: Into the Lion’s Den

Trinidadian broadcaster Trevor McDonald tracked down President Saddam Hussein in Baghdad just before the Gulf War

The ITN crew poses for the ritual photograph. Photograph courtesy ITNTrevor McDonald with Saddam HusseinTrinidad born journalist Trevor McDonald

It’s strange now to recall that for a few months in late 1990 the President of Iraq held the world in terror. Going back on a solemn undertaking to Arab leaders, he overran Kuwait in a blitzkrieg of men and tanks; he ransacked the country, set the oilfields ablaze, and detained hundreds of hostages. It seemed a fatal miscalculation. The president’s bluster and missiles were no match for the army that the west sent against him; the man who boasted that American blood would flow like rivers in the sands of Arabia was humiliated by the high technology of Desert Storm.

But when I went to Baghdad two months before the battle started, Saddam’s pronouncements still commanded international attention. Everything he did was news. Every statement was analysed for clues as to what he might do next. Saddam was the ogre of international politics, and my company, Independent Television News (ITN), was anxious that I should get the first British interview.

It proved to be a long and bizarre process, complicated by the difficulty of working through the impenetrable layers of Middle Eastern politics and bureaucracy. At times it was like trying to grasp a mirage.

It began in London. With a spring in my step and hope in my heart I embarked on a series of visits to the Iraqi Cultural Centre. This had been the target of some displeasure because of President Saddam’s actions in Kuwait, and had become a secure and unprepossessing fortress. The discreet bell on the front door which had once summoned eager attendants had now fallen silent. Entry was only possible after sustained hammering; one morning I actually bruised my knuckles, and after that I always arrived armed with a heavy coin.

Inside, conversations about the proposed interview were always oblique, and accompanied by too much coffee for one lifetime. Every direct question about the interview was met with the same response: “Baghdad is working on it. I will send another telex this afternoon.” On good days it was: “Don’t worry, I have recommended that ITN get the interview. You will get it. I have been assured by Baghdad.” I patiently drank more coffee as the conversation drifted into generalities.

This went on for months. Then one weekend my Iraqi contact phoned me at home. Baghdad would like me there as soon as possible. I stammered something about not having a visa yet, but he quietly explained that he was the official who granted visas, and that Monday would be soon enough. “As soon as possible” was not as urgent as I imagined.

Nor did it seem to be when I arrived in Baghdad.

There, I embarked on another series of meetings, beginning before I even checked into my hotel. The disturbing thing about that first encounter with officials from the Ministry of Information was that they could not confirm if the interview would take place at all. They certainly had no idea of when.

Then one afternoon, several meetings later, I was summoned to the Ministry. It was urgent. My hopes rose. But not for long. The Director General merely wanted his staff to meet me. He explained, by way of soothing my pained expression, that they had all done their degrees at British universities, and they knew and admired my work as a television journalist. I had been summoned to be put on display. Remembering Kipling’s warning about the folly of “trying to hustle the East”, I tried to disguise my exasperation with a weak but appreciative smile.

The next summons proved to be nothing more urgent than an invitation to dinner, still with hardly a word about the interview. My irritation was becoming difficult to hide.

Then one morning, during our regular vigil at the Ministry, an official told us that we should return to our hotels and not leave our rooms. At the time, the Iraqis were holding foreign hostages in hotels against their will, so we did not find this injunction comforting. But the official added: ” . . . so that I know where to find you.” Back at the hotel, a call came telling us to pack a small overnight bag. Impatience turned into a kind of terror.

And so it was that at about five o’clock one afternoon I found myself sitting in the back seat of a car driven by two Iraqi army officers. With me was my ITN producer Angela Frier. Another car carried the film crew. Angela and I quickly grasped one fact: our driver had no idea where he was going. At every turning, every set of traffic lights, every roundabout, he was given terse instructions by a senior officer in the passenger seat.

Forty minutes later we arrived at one of President Saddam Hussein’s guest houses. It was well appointed, and our hosts were a model of charm and kindness. Food was no problem. But we had been isolated. Phone calls were impossible. And, worse still, nobody knew anything about the interview.

We spent the night there, and most of the next day, pacing around the rooms of the presidential guest house.

At about six o’clock that evening, things started to happen. The mind-numbing boredom of the guest house was suddenly broken by a rush of activity. We were told to be ready in five minutes. I imagined it was to meet the president, but still nobody would say.

We drove through the falling darkness in a convoy of cars and came to a stop at what seemed to be the appointed place. We trooped obediently into a building ringed with troops and bristling with security devices. One by one we went through metal detectors to be strip-searched. Everything was taken. My ring, my watch and even my notes for the interview were taken away. Still protesting, we were driven away to the Presidential Palace for another series of body searches. This time the security guards took a keen interest in the soles of my shoes.
President Saddam entered the room nearly three hours after we had left the guest house. It was a large room with a high ceiling, richly carpeted in yellow and gold, and with huge comfortable armchairs. The first thing he did was have us pose with him for a photograph.

As I sat opposite him, the president neither smiled nor looked angry. The room was filling up with Cabinet ministers. They had clearly been summoned to listen. Many of them, I assumed, had never heard the president challenged about anything.

I began by asking the president whether “invading a neighbouring country with such calculated brutality” was an Arab thing to do”. He forced a smile, but he did not expect the question and did not do too well. His ministers looked on, aghast. I began to feel a bit better, having delivered myself of that opening salve.

We went through the entire western charge sheet against Iraq. The dismemberment of pregnant mothers in Kuwait, the torture of prisoners, the western hostages being held by Iraq. Throughout, the president stuck to his country’s line. He was even gracious when I contradicted his version of what was going on inside Kuwait away from the eyes of the press. He argued that without impartial reporting it was difficult for him to convince me.

President Saddam struggled to explain how invading Kuwait was intended to help stateless Palestinians. He refused to believe that his men and tanks would be driven out by American-led forces. There was real sadness here. He had convinced himself that America would never strike. If his ministers thought otherwise, they were too scared to speak.

When the interview ended, the president got up and said he wanted to have a word with me. My fear returned. I had never felt in any personal danger, but I thought he was about to say that my questions had been irreverent. Instead, he lectured me for twenty minutes on what awful people the Kuwaitis were. Unable to see the firestorm gathering over his country, he was obsessed by Kuwait’s wealth.

That obsession, fed by his isolation, was to lead directly to the confrontation a few weeks later.