It’s 2003, we just invaded Iraq and I am standing in a classified vault, a secure room at CIA headquarters, starring at a whiteboard with the synopsis of our analysis. The floor is a disaster, there are tortilla chips, paperclips and paper punch holes everywhere, a few of us were up all night answering a policymaker question. I was part of the CIA’s Iraq Branch in the Office of Terrorism Analysis, focusing on defining whether or not Iraq had a role in the attacks carried out by al Qaida on 9/11. We had already delivered the bottom line assessment to the White House that Iraq wasn’t involved in 9/11. Tomorrow I was leaving for Baghdad.
The next morning, I climbed into the C-130 and sat down in the row of seats along the wall. I put on my seatbelt, which seemed sort of pointless. A small Toyota pickup was strapped down in front of me, as we took off it started bouncing within a few feet of my knees. As I stepped off the C-130, it was suffocatingly hot. We climbed into the back of a pickup with our belongings heading to Saddam’s personal VIP terminal at Baghdad International Airport, my new home. The green zone was in the nascent stages of being pulled together at the time, it largely didn’t exist. After all the discussions about chemical weapons, I was handed an escape hood that you normally would use to get out of a house fire.
I had unfettered access to some of the highest level Iraqi government officials in US custody, including the former deputy Prime Minister of Iraq, Tariq Aziz. I was first introduced to Aziz during a discussion on Iraq’s WMD program. I was there to ask questions and clarify our position on Iraq’s ties to Terrorism. Aziz was pushing to be interviewed on US television stating that Iraq did not have a sophisticated WMD program and that the funds had been diverted previously. He was deemed as cooperative at this point. The next day, Aziz had suffered a heat stroke and I went to check on him at the hospital. He was partial to Marlboro’s and oranges, so I came bearing both. The makeshift hospital had cots for beds and intermittent air conditioning. The room was small and the cots were close together.
As Tariq Aziz sat across from me on his hospital cot, I sat on one facing him, our knees inches apart, he proclaimed that my mother should have named me Nadia instead of Nada because of my Czech heritage. He went on to tell me the meaning of my name in Arabic, he said it was ‘the dew on the morning grass.’ I had only heard this and ‘your name means nothing in Spanish’ approximately 1000 times, but I played along. His signature glasses had left a dent on the bridge of his nose after wearing the same boxy, thick style for years. Aziz untied his robe, he wasn’t used to the 120 degree heat after years of air conditioned palaces, and before I realized it, I was sitting across from the eighty year-old former Deputy Prime Minister of Iraq in his boxers. I tried to pretend not to notice. As he was flapping his robe, my colleague, a man, asked him to respect having a woman in his presence. Aziz had made his point and closed his robe with a sheepish smile. He reminded me of a belligerent patient in a nursing home, taking satisfaction in shocking the staff to make the time pass.
I took this hazing as an open door to ask him everything I had been curious about when it came to Saddam’s regime. First I asked him what it was like being the only Christian in Saddam’s cabinet, he responded with sincerity that religion was not a prominent issue for Saddam until the last few years. Only then had he used it to try and galvanize support from the region. Aziz said he was free to practice his own beliefs, but the irony is that most Chaldean Christians had been pushed out of Iraq by that time. Then I asked him what it was like in the last few days before the invasion. His immediate laughter took me by surprise. Aziz responded with, “what could I do? Saddam had his last inner circle meeting a few days before the US crossed the border and ordered everyone to find a place to hide. Saddam was clearly nervous and obviously paranoid, more than Aziz had seen him before. Saddam said, ‘everyone needs a plan for a place to hide until they leave.’ ‘Where could I go? I was the most recognized politician besides Saddam, it was laughable, I stayed in my house.’ I figured that way I was at least in my own bed when the US found me. I had told Saddam, you go ahead and hide, I am staying home.”