Khaddam Files: Bush tells Hariri of intention to remove Saddam

In part 4 of a 7-part series, Al Majalla sheds light on a meeting between Rafic Hariri and George W. Bush. The Lebanese PM left with an understanding as to Saddam's fate and with a message for Iran.

Picture released by the Lebanese Prime Minister's office shows US President George W. Bush (R) shaking hands with Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri after their meeting in Washington on 17 April 2002.
Picture released by the Lebanese Prime Minister's office shows US President George W. Bush (R) shaking hands with Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri after their meeting in Washington on 17 April 2002.

Khaddam Files: Bush tells Hariri of intention to remove Saddam

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 several parties in the region, including Lebanon, where reformist Prime Minister Rafic Hariri was in power.

Among other things, the ‘Khaddam Cache’ details meetings between Bush and Hariri, in which the former suggested that Saddam would soon be gone.

Episodes 1, 2, and 3 showed how the Kurds, Iranians, and Iraqi opposition factions were involved in the run-up to the US invasion in March 2003.

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

Bush meets Hariri

On 17 April 2002, US President George W. Bush met the then Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, in which the former told the latter of his resolve to “get rid of Saddam”.

Alongside Bush was Vice President Dick Cheney, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, US Ambassador to Lebanon Vincent Patel, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, and David Scott from the National Security Council.

US President George W. Bush (L) walks from the Oval Office with Secretary of State Colin Powell (2nd L), National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice (2nd R) and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (R) in 2001.

Representing Lebanon were Finance Minister Fouad Siniora, Minister of Economy and Trade Bassel Fleihan, Lebanese Ambassador to the United States Farid Abboud, and the prime minister’s advisor Amal Mudallali.

Hariri later sent Damascus a copy of the meeting minutes, which were included in the Khaddam Files, which Al Majalla later obtained.

Bush asked Hariri if he wanted coffee. Hariri affirmed. This prompted Bush to joke about Lebanese coffee. Hariri responded in kind. “Mr. President, if you had Lebanese coffee, it would signify that things were going well between us!”

When the meeting turned to more important matters, Bush’s tone changed. “We will not tolerate al-Qaeda or its affiliates,” he said. “We will pursue them one by one. We will track them down.” Hariri said: “We stand by you until the very end in this matter."

Bush leapt in. “I meant what I said about the Axis of Evil. I’m not pleased with Iran’s support for Hezbollah. I don’t like Hezbollah. They are terrorists. We will make it clear to Iran that we will not tolerate or condone it.”

Bush told Hariri that he was determined to remove Saddam. “I don’t yet have a clear plan on how to do it, but we will find a way. I wish it didn’t require financial resources.”

Before discussing North Korea and the Middle East, he emphasised the shared responsibility of all governments in laying the groundwork for peace. He urged them to fulfil their obligations, with Arab states playing their part.

“I’m the first US president to advocate for the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. I conveyed this to (Ariel) Sharon. However, Arafat’s performance is lacking, and neighbouring countries are performing well in this regard.”

I don't yet have a clear plan on how to do it (remove Saddam), but we will find a way. 

George W. Bush to Rafic Hariri

Fighting terrorism

According to the minutes, Bush said Bashar al-Assad "seems to be getting a handle on his new role" two years after he assumed the presidency in 2000 following the death of his father, Hafez.

Yet Bush said the new Syrian president "must do better in dealing with Hezbollah", adding that "a single attack could escalate tensions throughout the entire region".

He expressed concern that any attack in southern Lebanon could trigger a larger conflict, with Israel retaliating and the US potentially unable to intervene.

Hariri said Bush's "dedication to peace in the Middle East is a pledge to a righteous cause, an obligation to your allies, and US interests in the region.

"When President Bush Sr. sent your sons to the Gulf, it wasn't solely to defend Kuwait's sovereignty, but also to safeguard the interests of the United States and its allies.

"We are interconnected in our pursuit of stability and security, which serves our interests. This cannot be achieved without your involvement."

Hariri continued candidly. "Mr. President, your allies in the region face significant challenges, largely due to Sharon's actions. Before the establishment of Israel, we coexisted peacefully—Jews, Muslims, and Christians.

Security guards flank Israeli right-wing opposition leader Ariel Sharon (C) as he leaves the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem's Old City on 28 September 2000.

"Even today, there are 100 Jews in Lebanon. Their property and synagogues remain untouched. We do not discriminate based on religion; we respect all faiths, believing that religion belongs to God while the homeland is for everyone."

Peace and security

Hariri said: "In Lebanon, political stability is synonymous with a secure state. Over the years, more than 1,200 ceasefire agreements were brokered, none of which lasted due to the lack of political consensus.

"Security requires continuous effort and cannot rely solely on external interventions. The US should not solely focus on security matters; its role should be different.

Bush asked if peace was achievable. Yes, said Hariri. "Historically, Arabs and Jews have coexisted, like during the golden age in Spain... If Israel practised Buddhism, it might pose a challenge."

The law of Lebanon prohibited Hariri from engaging with Israel, Hariri said, but added that he "maintained connections with American Jews".

The US president then asked about Syria's role in Lebanon and why it had not yet withdrawn. He added that Lebanese Americans lobbied him on this.

"They desire Syria's departure. Syrian presence is not permanent. They will leave," said Hariri. "However, it has played a constructive role in securing Lebanon.

"As Mr. President is aware, when we assumed power in 1992, militias remained active, and the security situation demanded reinforcement. Syria supported Lebanese security forces and the army.

"Additionally, the presence of Syrian forces contributes to Lebanon's security and stability", he added, especially considering the 350,000 Palestinians in Lebanese camps.

In this picture taken on April 19, 2023, a young Palestinian refugee in Lebanon walks beneath Fatah flags and posters along an alley at the Shatila camp for Palestinian refugees in the southern suburbs of Beirut.

Hezbollah and Iran

On Hezbollah, Hariri said the organisation "emerged following the Israeli occupation... Addressing Hezbollah poses a challenge. They possess arms and have played a pivotal role in the liberation of southern Lebanon.

"Mr. President, as you may recall, there was a confrontation during President Bendjedid's era in Algeria, which continues to present problems."

"Our goal is a smooth transition. Currently, there are 11 deputies in parliament aligned with Hezbollah. Given that they have constituents who elected them, we aim to transform them into a political party seamlessly post-peace."

When President Bush expressed his "concern" regarding Iran, Hariri said: "They are distant from us. We are dealing with Khatami. He is an intellectual who advocates dialogue among civilisations. I've had two meetings with Khamenei."

"Next time, convey to him that President Bush is serious," Bush insisted.

Hariri said: "During my meetings with Khamenei, exchanges are limited. The visitor speaks, and then he talks. There is no exchange of ideas or viewpoints. There is no genuine dialogue or consensus."

Following the meeting, Hariri and Bush spoke privately about the Arab Peace Initiative, which was unanimously approved at the Beirut summit in March 2002.

Hariri described it as "advocating for peace with Israel and seeking a just resolution to the Palestinian refugee issue, along with Israel's withdrawal to the 1967 borders, encompassing territories occupied from Lebanon and Syria".


Next: The fifth episode introduces a familiar face: Joe Biden, who was a US Senator at the time of the US invasion of Iraq.

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