Goodwill Envoy Hughes Claims Saddam Hussein Gassed ‘hundreds of Thousands’ of Iraqis
By Chris Brummitt, Associated Press, October 21, 2005
JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) – U.S. envoy Karen Hughes on Friday defended Washington’s decision to go to war against Iraq in front of a skeptical audience, saying Saddam Hussein had gassed to death “hundreds of thousands” of his own people. A State Department official later said she misspoke about the number.
Hughes, undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, made the comment before a group of Indonesian students who repeatedly attacked her about Washington’s original rationale for the war, Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction. No such arms were ever discovered.
“The consensus of the world intelligence community was that Saddam was a very dangerous threat,” Hughes said days after the ousted dictator went on trial in Baghdad on charges of murder and torture in a 1982 massacre of 148 Shiites in the town of Dujail.
“After all, he had used weapons of mass destruction against his own people,” she told a small auditorium with around 100 students. “He had murdered hundreds of thousands of his own people using poison gas.”
Although at least 300,000 Iraqis are said to have been killed during Saddam’s decades-long rule – only about 5,000 are believed to have been gassed to death in a 1988 attack in the Kurdish north.
Hughes twice repeated the statement after being challenged by journalists. A State Department official later called The Associated Press to say she misspoke. The official, who was traveling with Hughes, spoke on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to talk publicly to the media.
Hughes, a longtime adviser to President Bush, was visiting the world’s most populous Muslim nation as part of Washington’s effort to enhance the U.S. image abroad.
Students from Indonesia’s oldest Muslim university pounded her with questions on U.S. foreign policy, in particular the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and Washington’s support of Israel.
One said the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks should be taken as a warning to America for interfering in the affairs of other countries.
“Your policies are creating hostilities among Muslims,” a female student, Lailatul Qadar, told Hughes. “It’s Bush in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine and maybe it’s going to be in Indonesia, I don’t know. Who’s the terrorist? Bush or us Muslims?”
Hughes, who has also faced tough questions in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey since taking up her post two months ago, said she was not surprised by the level of hostility.
“I understand that there are a lot of young people around the world, and a lot of people in our own country, who don’t agree with what we did in Iraq,” she told reporters. “We have to engage in the debate. That is what America is all about.”
Hughes also said the video of alleged desecration of the bodies of Taliban fighters in Afghanistan by U.S. soldiers was “abhorrent.”
“The important thing that the world needs to know is that it is a violation of our policy,” she said.
There has been no public reaction so far in Indonesia to the video, broadcast by Australia’s SBS television network, but clerics in other Islamic nations expressed outrage and warned of a possible violent anti-American backlash.
Indonesia is a moderate Islamic country with significant Christian, Hindu and Buddhist minorities. It has a long tradition of secularism. Many of the 16 students selected to debate with Hughes on stage were women, all in brightly colored headscarves and some in tight jeans.
Anti-American sentiments have risen sharply in Indonesia – seen by Washington as a close ally in the war on terror – since the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.
The two countries have had close ties since the mid-1960s when a pro-U.S. military dictatorship seized power in Jakarta. This was replaced by a democratic government in 1999.
Hughes wraps up her three-day visit Saturday with a visit to the tsunami-wracked province of Aceh.