Fighting Words

Into the Fray

Christopher Hitchens responds to a former Iraqi official’s missive.

How nice to have tempted such a distinguished former servant of Saddam Hussein’s out of his hidy-hole (see the “Fraywatch” of June 14). I choose to assume that this is indeed the real Wissam al-Zahawie, since there would be no point in anyone claiming to be him unless they actually were him, and since his rhetoric is so characteristic. My understanding has been that he now lives in Jordan and advises some royal Jordanians. The Fray does not ask its correspondents for an address, but we know this posting originated in Amsterdam, which is well within the realm of the probable.

Well, then, Wissam, my new correspondent, thank you first of all for writing. Thank you also for confirming that you represented Iraq at various meetings of the International Atomic Energy Authority and at various U.N. meetings that had to do with nuclear matters. (As to the specific roles that you played on those occasions, you can believe me when I say that I have caused many questions to be asked and have found the IAEA to be a difficult bureaucracy to deal with. But rest assured that I shall keep trying.) My first question arises naturally from your admission. Do you still claim, with even this modest background in nuclear diplomacy, that you told the truth to Hassan Fattah of Time when you claimed not to know that Niger even produced uranium yellowcake?

Until you say yes or no to this and stop dancing about and trying to impersonate an Iraqi version of a suave James Bond clubman, everything else is moot. You may spare me your deep reading in (or at least your ostentatiously extensive citation of) Jewish anti-Zionist polemic. I have read all that myself—and even written some of it—and was a personal friend of Israel Shahak. The propaganda of the government you served was something rather dissimilar: It railed against Jews as Jews and—when it went beyond propaganda—openly financed the suicide-murderers who murdered Jews, Israeli Arabs, and Palestinians. I feel quite tainted even discussing this question with someone who worked for the Baathist gangsters who fleeced and slaughtered the Iraqi people.

Your assertion—true as far as I know—that you were not yourself a Baathist makes this worse rather than better. To have accepted several senior paid positions when—as you say—you might have avoided them makes your current suavity into something rather disgusting and opportunist. As for the “nuclear mujahideen,” perhaps you were not paying attention when the Iraqi News Agency reported a meeting between Saddam Hussein and Dr. Fahhel Muslim Al-Janabi, chairman of Iraq’s Nuclear Energy Authority, in which Saddam addressed his scientists as “warriors” and Al-Janabi responded by saying: “As time goes on, your sons the Mujahideen become more determined and energetic, not only to overcome difficulties, but also to invent new and more advanced ways of accomplishing their work.”

In any conflict of evidence between you and Ambassador Rolf Ekeus, a distinguished Swedish socialist and venerated international civil servant, there cannot be an honest person in the world who would even split the difference, let alone take your word over his. I do not propose myself as Ekeus’ spokesman, but I wonder if you would ever consent to appear on a platform where both of you might be questioned by an independent chairman? I can probably manage to pass on your acceptance if you choose to take me up on it. Meanwhile, it’s degrading to mention you even in the same breath as the man who helped disarm your fascist boss after the destruction of Kuwaiti statehood had been reversed in 1991.

If you now want to say that Joseph Wilson can’t be relied upon even to tell the difference between you and the well-known Nizar Hamdoon, then you are taking a stand upon much firmer ground. (Except that you oddly rely on his account, rather than yours, to say that you don’t recall the last meeting between Saddam and a U.S. ambassador. Have you no memory or diary of your own?) You are also wise to have avoided reading his ludicrous book. Wilson is one of the great clowns of our time, and proves it every day. By the way, he has recently spoken highly of you as “a world-class opera singer” who “went to the Vatican as his last post so that he could be near the great European opera houses in Rome.” (See Craig Unger’s piece in theJuly 2006 Vanity Fair.) If you think he doesn’t know you well enough even to know your face, let alone to discuss your operatic accomplishments, then complain to him, not to me. I would love to be the one who put you two (back?) in touch. I certainly never said that you were actually an opera singer, though there’s something minor-key operatic about your long moans and sobs of self-pity on the Wagner question. I took care to say that a liking for Wagner—which I share—is no condemnation.

If you really insist, I shall try to believe you when you say that your reappointment to the Iraqi Embassy at the Vatican was the result of a sentimental chat between his holiness the pope and the disgusting war criminal Tariq Aziz. (How one pictures that affecting scene!) Will you just remind me of what other full embassies Saddam’s Iraq was maintaining in Europe in 1994? A time of international U.N. sanctions, no-fly zones, and the utter isolation of your government? A perch in Rome might have been worth having, arias or no arias.

Finally, I repeat my original question. You have claimed that you only went to West Africa in 1999 to try some ordinary sanctions-busting and to attempt to induce regional African governments to end the legal isolation of your genocidal chief. This seems discreditable in itself, but why on earth would such a lowly task fall to the Iraqi ambassador to the Holy See? Can you perhaps understand why Italian and British and French intelligence, given your IAEA background, raised an admonitory flag? Can you defend your assertion in Time magazine that you knew nothing of Niger’s main product and export? Will you not admit that the awareness of your trip predated any attempt at any later forgery by whomever it was attempted or for whatever motive? Have you read the two independent British reports, confirming the validity of the initial intelligence? These are the real issues, and you only call renewed attention to them by your heavy efforts to be amusing.

Always happy to debate one of Saddam’s toadies, however un-Baathist (“my dear fellow, much too vulgar for an aesthete like myself”) he now claims to be.

Until your response,
Christopher Hitchens