Khaddam Files: US-Iran backchannels ahead of Iraq invasion

Before it invaded Iraq in 2003, the US was trying to reassure Iran that it would not be targeted next. In part 3 of a 7-part series, Al Majalla publishes private discussions held in Damascus.

Britain's Foreign Secretary Jack Straw (L) meets with Iranian foreign ministry official Mohsen Aminzadeh at Tehran's Mehrabad airport 09 October 2002.
Britain's Foreign Secretary Jack Straw (L) meets with Iranian foreign ministry official Mohsen Aminzadeh at Tehran's Mehrabad airport 09 October 2002.

Khaddam Files: US-Iran backchannels ahead of Iraq invasion

When Syria’s former Vice President Abdul Halim Khaddam left for Paris in 2005, he took reams of papers, reports, notes, and files with him.

A trusted insider to the al-Assads for decades, the documents give rare insight into the heart of government from Khaddam’s first-hand accounts. He died in March 2020.

Among the more intriguing geopolitical periods of his time in power was the year leading up to the United States' invasion of Iraq in March 2003.

In the months before, the Americans had been working closely with the Kurds in Iraq’s north. The Kurds were certainly no friends of Saddam Hussein and wanted him gone as much as Washington did.

Two of the key Kurdish leaders were Jalal Talabani of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Masoud Barzani of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). They coordinated with both Damascus and Tehran.

Among other things, the ‘Khaddam Cache’ reveals Iran’s stance and the difference between what it conveyed to Damascus and the Iraqi opposition.

For the first time, Al Majalla reveals the conversations that would have such a lasting impact on the Middle East, the effects of which are still felt today.

Post-CIA debrief

In Germany, Talabani and Barzani agreed to follow up their visit to the CIA by briefing two allies: Syria and Iran. Specifically, they conveyed the message that the US was determined to topple Saddam.

Barham Salih, a leader in the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), visited Damascus on 8 June 2002 to brief Khaddam on the visit’s outcomes and Talabani’s discussions in Iran.

Salih told Khaddam that his meetings with the Americans were “long, detailed, and focused”, as President Bush had “asked the security agencies to prepare detailed plans and options” for regime change. He said the Americans had ruled out a military coup.

Iraqi Kurd prime minister of Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), Barham Salih, speaks during an interview as a portrait of (PUK) leader Jalal Talabani is seen hanged on the wall 22 October 2002.

“Therefore, they must look to us, the Democratic Party, and other parties like the Supreme Council – namely Baqir Al-Hakim – and pay attention to the Shiite of Iraq. This constitutes a message of reassurance to the Iranians.”

Khaddam asked, “How do they seek to reassure Iran when they consider it part of the Axis of Evil?” Salih described this as “more of a pressure tactic than a calculated step to confront Iran”.

The PUK man, who was in Damascus on behalf of Jalal Talabani, the head of the PUK, said: “Iran is in a complex position, as the Jewish lobby works to fuel the campaign against it.

“Personally, I think (Israeli Prime Minister Ariel) Sharon and the Jewish right in the United States want to keep the situation in Iraq as it is and focus on Iran at this stage.”

Two kinds of war

Salih told Khaddam that Talabani “met with the heads of intelligence agencies in both Germany and France, telling them: ‘Should the Americans decide to strike Iraq, there is nothing we can do but give our blessing.’

“He made an important statement: there is a need to prevent Turkish intervention because it will exacerbate the situation in the region. We welcomed this opinion.”

Other options presented to Bush included “a military operation like Afghanistan, with troops on the ground assisting the opposition, working to foment rebellion in the army... or a comprehensive invasion, staying in Iraq for about five years”.

Salih said the most likely option was a “limited intervention due to regional and domestic American requirements”.

Khaddam said a US military victory and regime change were perfectly achievable. “War is not the most dangerous issue. Rather, the danger lies in what comes after the war. Will the US wage war in Iraq under the cover of the United Nations?”

Later in the evening, Khaddam asked Salih what the Americans expect from the two main Kurdish leaders: Talabani and Barzani.

Should the Americans decide to strike Iraq, there is nothing we can do but give our blessing.

Salih to Khaddam

Salih said the US wanted them to participate in the American plan "against Saddam politically and militarily, and in matters concerning the future of Iraq"

Khaddam felt that Talabani had "firmly sided with the war, and the important thing is to overthrow the regime regardless of the consequential impacts on Iraq".

He said: "Liberating Iraq from Saddam Hussein's rule and his tyranny has placed many in positions that fundamentally were not theirs to begin with."

On 12 October, a meeting between Khaddam and Barham Salih marked "a shift Talabani's policy towards the Americans", Khaddam's notes record.

Salih, who was there on behalf of Talabani, said: "In my view, the American factor in Iraq will be decisive and important, though, ultimately, any foreign entity cannot persist."

"The decision to change the Iraqi regime is final. All American agencies—military, security, and diplomatic—are committed to operating within this framework. However, the details of the future of Iraq remain a subject of debate and contention."

Salih continued, asking: "Should we stand by as mere spectators? Can we say that we oppose, thus weakening our impact on events?"

"Previously, we said the most dangerous thing is to be pushed by our principles or other entities into a position no one envies us for. Out of concern for our position and yours, I say we must advocate for change based on our principles and interests."

When dealing with the world's superpower, he said, "Our ability to influence is linked to our on-the-ground strength at the political, economic, and military level."

Former Iraqi President and Secretary-General of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan Party, Jalal Talabani, in Damascus, November 2, 2002.

Kurds in Baghdad

Khaddam agreed that Saddam had put the region "in a difficult position – whether in his war with Iran or his invasion of Kuwait – but I will reiterate what I said previously: there were problems in the region before the Americans intervened."

Salih said: "We must collaborate to confront the worst-case scenarios instead of wasting time analysing US intentions. We need to consider the possible outcomes. Regarding change in Iraq, how can we influence the future of Iraq, both for you and for us?

"Our (Kurdish) presence in Baghdad may alter the situation. We are stakeholders, and we have the right to participate in our country's government. If we are in Baghdad, we will be a supportive force for our friend, Syria."

Salih continued, saying Syria "has friends in the Iraqi opposition. The Kurds understand the importance of Syria's role, and as we do not know American intentions, we must consider all possible scenarios instead of shying away from them.

"Syria has the right and the duty to work with us to enhance our presence and influence on events in the Arab and Islamic arenas."

Khaddam replied, saying: "When we reach a point that requires decisive action, we can discuss and agree on how to deal with it, but we cannot accept a position that encourages America to strike Iraq or to make changes and set up shop in Baghdad."

Meeting with Talabani

Khaddam hosted Talabani on 2 November 2002. Talabani said: "We are with Syria not only politically but emotionally, too. We always felt grateful to Syria. We will not forget the aid it provided us in the toughest circumstances."

Talabani continued to shower his hosts with praise, saying the Syrians "pulled the Kurds to your side and prevented them from aligning with Israel and the Shah".

The Kurdish leader said Syria "understood Iran and did not stand by Iraq in its war against it, a decision later acknowledged by Arab countries," adding that it "protected Christians in Lebanon so they wouldn't resort to colonial powers for assistance".

Later, Talabani handed Khaddam documents, including "an agreement between his party and the Iraqi Communist Party, another between his party and the Iraqi Islamic Party, and a draft speech between the Kurdistan National Union and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and Iran regarding Iraq".

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (right) shakes hands with Persian His Majesty Talabani during their meeting at the Royal Palace in Damascus, January 14, 2007.

He added that there was "an agreement with a group of Iraqi Ba'athists." Khaddam read the political speech, asking: "Is Iran in agreement?" Talabani replied, "Iranians speak differently with us than they do with you".

He said: "Baqir (Al-Hakim)'s relationship with Khamenei is related to (President Muhammad) Khatami. He coordinates with Khamenei before coordinating with us, you, or others.

"The Iranians have relationships with the Americans through various channels, the latest being British Foreign Minister Jack Straw."

US-Iran backchannel

He continued: "The Americans are trying to reassure Iran that it is not being targeted and that they are satisfied with Khatami's reformist wing and that they are planning to establish relations with Iran in the future.

"The Iranians, for their part, are trying to help Americans in their campaign against Iraq. Iranians are against the strike and the invasion, but they wish to remove Saddam as soon as possible, so they want to strengthen the opposition to take power in Iraq.

"They have provided (Badr Forces) with weapons, missiles, and artillery to head to Baghdad when the regime falls.

"Mr Al-Hakim's opinion is that cooperation should be established between us, him, Syria, and Iran, and action should be taken when the regime is on the brink of collapse.

"Iran has experience in Afghanistan. Coalition forces requested the Northern Alliance not to enter Kabul, but the Northern Alliance did not comply, and when it entered, it imposed its views and took the lion's share of power."

Talabani said Baghdad's three million Shiites would take control of the city if Saddam's regime weakened. "Then America will not be able to oppose or resist them... This is the essence of the Iranian approach."

In Iran, Talabani said he spoke to Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani and Saif Allah, the former Minister of Intelligence.

He told Khaddam that Al-Hakim, whose family were based in Najaf, "wants to reassure Sunni Arabs in Iraq that he does not want a Shiite Iraq in the future".

Talabani said: "We have made an agreement with the Iraqi Sunni Party, which did not bother Al-Hakim. Instead, he said he was ready to proceed with this course of action."

When dealing with a superpower, our ability to influence is linked to our political and military strength on the ground.

Salih to Khaddam

One-way ticket

Salih told Khaddam that an American delegation was in northern Iraq, "consisting of members from the Special Forces, Pentagon, State Department, and CIA, who said they'd booked a one-way ticket so they had to return to Washington through Baghdad."

He said the Americans had said "the strike is imminent... a matter of weeks", adding that they wanted to "understand our demands".

Salih said he "understood from them that the plan is not an invasion, but rather one that involves special forces and an air strike", with the special forces "relying on a military coup and an airstrike leading to the regime's disintegration".

He told Khaddam that the Kurds had "a relationship with hundreds of Sunni Arab officers who fear for their fate... They contacted us and requested protection against a potential Shiite threat".

Salih said that senior officers from the Republican Guard and the army were "orchestrating a coup, and they believe they can control Baghdad after 2-3 days... They fear internal fighting, looting, killing, losing control of the streets".

Khaddam asked Salih about the Americans' plan for Iraq. "They have a plan for the east," he replied. "I think there won't be a geographical change but a political one. They want a peaceful Iraq for its people and its neighbours."

If a coup does occur, I cannot tell what the future holds. I believe they will bring someone associated with America.

Barzani to Khaddam

"They aim to disarm it of its weapons, which pose a danger for Israel. Iraq is rich in oil. If they control Iraq's oil, they would control China, Europe, and Japan.

"As for Iran, they are trying to reform Khamenei's regime on the pretext that it is elected. They are attempting some democratic reforms. With you, they are trying—allow me to use the term—gentrification."

On 17 November 2002, Khaddam met Barzani to discuss Iraq, asking the Kurdish leader if he thought the war was imminent or likely to be postponed.

"Everything is possible," Barzani replied. The Americans have decided to change the regime to clean up the scene and extend their control over the region."

Later that day, they met again in the presence of Azad Barwari, a member of Barzani's party's Political Bureau. The trio discussed 'what if' scenarios.

Barzani said he was "not in favour" of an invasion but was not able to prevent it. "We will not be at the forefront of the American army, nor will we be in its vanguard, nor will we cooperate with it."

"If a coup does occur, seek refuge in God; I cannot tell what the future holds. I believe they will bring someone associated with America."

"Under the best circumstances, they will tell us they advised him to deal with us and that we should go and negotiate with him, all the while portraying him as a hero."

Doubts over coup

Barzani said he did not think a coup would succeed "because Saddam has immunity and knows how to protect himself" from coups before telling Khaddam a story of Saddam's security precautions.

Sara Loane

Read more: How the fall of Baghdad changed the world

"In 1991, I received a call from (Field Marshall) Izzat Ibrahim (al-Douri, vice-chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council) informing me that the President wanted to meet me and that we would go to meet him together.

"We were staying at a guesthouse in Jadriyah. Izzat came, and we left together. I thought I knew Baghdad well, but it was bigger than I had known before.

"We entered a house where there was an officer and some servants. We waited for half an hour, then a car came and they said, 'Please proceed.'

"Izzat left his car and his companions, and we got into the car together, accompanied by Saddam's secretary. After about an hour's drive, we reached a modest house where we met Saddam. Even Izzat did not know where the location was.

"We cannot prevent the coup if it happens, but if they come to us for consultation or assistance, we will have to take action."

'We need guarantees'

Barzani said: "My unchanging opinion here is that dealing with the issue of change is easier than confronting the new situation (that would result from that change). To the possibilities we cannot prevent, we say sufficient unto us is God.

"We need guarantees regarding Iraq's unity, no regional intervention, no sectarian actions or acts of revenge, and we need to respect the opinion of the Iraqi people and formulate a constitution that recognises citizenship rights not on a sectarian basis.

"If Saddam falls, what would our role be? We will not be at the forefront of the American army. The Americans are here today and will be here into the future."

"We do not want the record to reflect that we were at the forefront of the US army. I know the sentiments of the Arab nation. Neither our ideas nor our stance are new to the Americans."

"The possibility of sectarian war in Iraq is serious. The crucial point is not so much the regime; it's about ensuring that Iraq is not demolished under the pretext of Saddam."

"We all wish for the regime to be overthrown, but we also care about the safety of Iraq, its people, and its infrastructure. The Americans say clearly that they support the will of the Iraqi people and respect it, and that they will not harm the Iraq people."

"A serious strike would not be met with serious resistance. We are in contact with the army, Baathists, some national figures, and tribes. If a strike occurs, not a single shot will be fired from the Kurdish areas at Iraqi military units. We will be a refuge for it."

Khaddam said: "I agree with you. In the Americans' minds, it is about regime change. In my opinion, they want to change the leadership of the regime because having a democratic system in Iraq would prevent them from governing the country.

"They need a strong regime that can pressure all parties, and in order for them to change the regime, they would presumably undertake a military action – invading the territory. And no one expects you to be able to stop it."


Next: Episode 4 of the Khaddam Files looks at George W. Bush's views of Saddam and the start of the Bashar al-Assad era in Syria.

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