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BOOK MARK : They Met in Paris, Fell in Political Love and Built a Death Machine

December 22, 1991|Kenneth Timmerman | Kenneth R. Timmerman is publisher of MED-NEWS, a newsletter covering Middle East security issues. Saddam Hussein's "death machine" was the result of the "greed" of Western businesses, misguided foreign-policy analyses and the indifference of regulatory officials, the author contends. An excerpt

It was a magnificent early autumn afternoon when Saddam Hussein's Boeing 707 touched down at Orly airport in Paris, decked out for the occasion with the eagle of Saladin, Iraq's national symbol. The date was Sept. 5, 1975. Jacques Chirac, the French premier, was on hand to greet his visitor. A long red carpet led into the VIP lounge, where champagne and cocktail sandwiches awaited the Iraqi guests. "I welcome you as my personal friend," Chirac told his visitor. "I assure you of my esteem, my consideration and my affection."

Touched by this reception, Hussein replied with characteristic modesty. "We hope that the relations France maintains with (other) Arab countries will benefit from the same warmth and cordiality as you have shown today. The relations between our two countries will assuredly improve as a result of my visit, which, I hope, will be beneficial for world peace in general."

What Hussein didn't say was that his notion of world peace was one that many in the West would have shunned. For him, and his fellow ideologues in the Baathist Party, peace meant total victory over his enemies, real or imagined; it meant transforming the Middle East, once again, into a killing field.

Like many prophets before them, the early Baathists believed that their prayers would become flesh in the body of a great leader, a man destined to rule the Arab nation with an iron will. Under his leadership, 50 million Arabs would rise up and expel the Jews and the colonial powers from the Middle East. Until then, the Arab world would remain fragmented, weak and submissive.

Hero worship was not the only similarity between the Baathist and Nazi ideologies. Both believed in racial identity, in foreign devils and in war as purification. As Michel Aflak wrote on the eve of his party's creation, when the ashes of the Nazi dream had not yet gone cold: "Real struggle can never be destruction, negativeness or inaction. It is creativeness, building, a fruitful and positive action." War was great, the young Baathists surrounding Hussein believed: Long live its purifying fire.

Hussein thus had come to France to seal a strategic pact that would soon translate into massive sales of French arms and the transfer of critical nuclear technologies to Iraq, dramatically accelerating the Middle East arms race and marking the start of Hussein's ambitious program to acquire nuclear weapons.

Although the 38-year-old Hussein was nominally only second in command of the Baathist regime, the French accorded him all the honors of a head of state. They lodged him at the sumptuous Marigny Palace in Paris, where visiting kings and state presidents stayed. They threw a gala reception in his honor at Versailles. President Valery Giscard d'Estaing invited him to state lunches at the Elysee, and Chirac stuck to him like glue. The five-day trip was a succession of champagne panegyrics. The French wanted Hussein as desperately as Hussein wanted them, for the Iraqi had something they needed to keep their economy afloat: oil. French media pundits, taking a tip from the spin doctors at the Elysee, called it "a marriage of reason." Today it has become a cliche to speak of arms-for-oil deals, but this is where it all started, as a love affair between France and Iraq.

Chirac had prepared a surprise for his guest: a bullfight through the ruined streets of the medieval town up on the cliffs. The site was sealed off from tourists, bleachers were set up and a large, well-protected bullpen was erected among the crumbled buildings. The village boys trained for days for the jeu de taurillons , which is something of a Provencal tradition. Unlike Spanish bullfights, it involves no bloodshed. It is more of a game, pitting young bulls against the local boys, who scamper around the ring trying to pluck a bright flower from behind the ear of the bull.

"Hussein caught on almost immediately," an observer recalled. Three times, he bet on the bulls and even promised a prize of one million francs to the boy who could beat the next bull. A few weeks later, an emissary from the Iraqi embassy in Paris came into his office and delivered three checks, each for one million francs. Hussein had come through for the local boys. Soon he would come through for the big boys as well. Over the next 15 years, he would spend $20 billion on French arms. For Hussein, it was the price of independence from the Soviets. For the French, it was a bonanza.

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