The Magazine

Saddam's Cash

From the May 5, 2003 issue: And the journalists and politicians he bought with it.

May 5, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 33 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Some of the transactions were straightforward cash payments, often in U.S. dollars, handed out from Iraqi embassies in Arab capitals--luxury cars delivered to top editors, Toyotas for less influential journalists. "This was not secret," says Salama Nimat, a Jordanian journalist who was jailed briefly in 1995 in that nation for highlighting the corruption. "Most of it was done out in the open."

Other transactions were surreptitious or deliberately complex--coveted Iraqi export licenses for family members of politicians, oil kickbacks through third parties, elaborate "scholarship" arrangements. In a region where leaders count their fortunes by the billion and workers by the penny, such payoffs are common. The Saudis, of course, have financed public works throughout the Middle East and Africa. But no one played the game like Saddam Hussein.

The Galloway affair was triggered when a reporter happened upon a slim, blue folder at one of the 23 Iraqi ministries--a snowflake in the avalanche of information loosed by the removal of Saddam Hussein from power. Some of the regime's records no longer exist. Iraqi officials destroyed some before the war began. Coalition bombs wiped out others. Looters made off with more. Still, Bush administration sources say they have recovered enough Iraqi government and Baath party documents to fill 100 semi-trailers. "We're overwhelmed with information," says one Pentagon official. "It's going to take a long time to go through it all."

That process is just now beginning--a fact that is surely rattling nerves around the world.

IRAQ IS WINNING the battles in the propaganda war with a modest media strategy, despite a multi-million dollar U.S. campaign featuring painstakingly choreographed briefings and Hollywood-style sets. Undeterred by America's elaborate media plan, Iraq is making its mark on the airwaves with its decidedly basic approach, media pundits say.

From a crude Baghdad set, Iraqi ministers each day knock down Western media reports and list their latest claims of conquest, sometimes wielding chrome-plated Kalashnikovs. Unlike America and its allies, theirs is a simple message delivered directly: "We will defeat the infidel invaders."

Despite poorly-lit surroundings and a sea of microphones often crowding the view, Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf has become something of a global television star . . .

Those words came from Reuters' European media reporter Merissa Marr on April 1, 2003, in a news report that despite the dateline apparently was not a parody. Marr either did not know or chose to ignore a crucial fact: Scores of journalists throughout the Arab world and Europe were on Saddam Hussein's payroll.

"For years, the Iraqi leader has been waging an intensive, sometimes clandestine, and by most accounts highly effective image war in the Arab world," wrote Wall Street Journal reporters Jane Mayer and Geraldine Brooks in an exposé published February 15, 1991. "His strategy has ranged from financing friendly publications and columnists as far away as Paris to doling out gifts as big as new Mercedes-Benzes."

That campaign continued until days before the regime was deposed. "If they're not bought and paid for, they're at least rented," says a top national security official, who adds that the administration has intelligence implicating big-name journalists throughout the Arab world and Europe.

"I could give you lots of names," says Tareq al-Mezrem. "Everyone knows them on the street. Everyone knows this information."

In a series of interviews conducted in Kuwait City and Washington in recent weeks, Arab journalists and media experts said the same thing. Several of those interviewed, with assurances of confidentiality, provided names, lots of them. If their reports are accurate, the Iraqi regime's "modest media strategy" so appealing to Reuters' Marr was actually an elaborate scheme to buy victory in the propaganda war with the United States.

"To lots of people, Saddam Hussein and his regime was a godsend," says a Washington-based columnist for a prominent Arabic-language newspaper. "Only a few journalists [in the Arab world] didn't take money from him."

Estimates of Saddam Hussein's personal fortune range from $2 billion to $40 billion. Over the past two weeks, coalition soldiers found nearly $800 million in U.S. cash stashed in a high-rent Baghdad neighborhood. With that kind of money at his disposal, it's no wonder Saddam Hussein could buy journalists in countries like Jordan, where the average per capita income is $1,630.

The boxes of money found in Baghdad last week were tied with ribbon stamped "Bank of Jordan," which doesn't surprise Salama Nimat, who spent much of his career exploring the shady financial ties between Saddam and the Jordanian elite.