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Joerg Haider and Saddam Hussein: Not-So-Strange Bedfellows

Growing support for Iraq among far-right extremists in Germany and Austria is cause for increasing concern. The nexus of support for Iraq centers around Joerg Haider, the Austrian far-right politician and Freedom Party head, who has made three trips to Iraq thus far. Haider met with Saddam Hussein and the two reportedly discussed the "Zionist and US conspiracy" against Iraq. Along with other members of his Freedom Party, Haider is a member of the Austrian-Iraqi Society, dedicated to "the promotion of the cultural, scientific and economic relations between the Iraqi people and the Austrian population."

Haider also has ties to Abdul Monheim Jebara, reportedly an Iraqi arms dealer who acts as a liaison between Saddam Hussein and sympathetic far-right groups in Europe. Jebara may have arranged Haider's first trip to Iraq. In addition, Abdul Jebara works with a number of far-right extremists in Europe who have started an initiative known as "SOS Iraq." The group claims that it is seeking funds to stop the "genocide" in Iraq and provide assistance to Iraqi children. ADL is developing more information on the trend of increasing ties between Iraq and extremists in Europe.

Saddam Hussein now counts among his allies the high-profile European extremist Joerg Haider, the unofficial leader of Austria's xenophobic and ultra-nationalist Freedom Party. ADL has learned that Haider not only supports Saddam Hussein, but has met repeatedly over the years with Hussein and other high-ranking Iraqi government officials. Iraq and the government of Saddam Hussein enjoy support from a spectrum of far-right groups across Europe - particularly in Germany and Austria -- that appreciate the Iraqi leader's hostility to both the United States and Israel.

As recently as a few years ago, the Freedom Party was sharply critical of Hussein and the Iraqi regime. When the Austrian government granted Ezzat Ibrahim al-Douri, then the second most powerful Iraqi leader, a one-month visa in 1999 for medical treatment, the Freedom Party protested the visit. Peter Westenthaler, one of the Party's top leaders, accused the interior ministry of letting a "war criminal" secretly enter Austria without informing the Austrian people.

Developing a Relationship, Meeting by Meeting

By 2002, Haider had formed a strikingly different opinion of Iraq and its leader. Haider was now open to the potential of finding friends in the Muslim world, even among its most controversial members. By that time, the governor of the Austrian state of Carinthia had already visited Muammar Qaddafi in Libya twice, while Qaddafi's son, Seif-al-Islam, visited Haider in Vienna. In the wake of the September 11 attacks in 2001, Haider traveled to Egypt, Kuwait, Syria, Libya (a third time), and Iran. Haider and several other prominent Freedom Party figures became members of the Austrian-Iraqi Society, an organization dedicated to the "promotion of the cultural, scientific and economic relations between the Iraqi people and the Austrian population."

In early 2002, the Iraqi embassy in Austria contacted Haider and invited him to Iraq. According to the weekly newspaper Format, the person responsible for arranging the trip was Abdul Jebara, a former Iraqi arms dealer who was sentenced to over six years in prison in the late 1980s for attempting to smuggle military helicopters to Iraq. After his release from prison, Jebara moved to Carinthia, where he claimed to know Haider "very well." In fact, a parliamentary investigation later revealed that Haider himself had signed a permit allowing Jebara to do business in Austria as an importer/exporter. Also allegedly involved in the arrangements for the visit was Dr. Sabri Aziz Izzat, a physician living in Austria who is a cousin to Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz. The invitation was not made public until February 11, when Peter Sichrovsky, the General Secretary of the Freedom Party, announced that Haider was visiting Iraq at the time.

In Baghdad, Haider met with Saddam Hussein and Tariq Aziz. Iraq's state-run news agency, INA, reported that Saddam Hussein wanted to "develop relations" between the Freedom Party and Iraq's Baath Party. In a joint appearance, Saddam Hussein delivered an attack on the U.S. that asked America to think about why the September 11 terrorist attacks had occurred in the U.S. and not Europe. Haider, in turn, expressed the "best wishes of the Austrian people and the Freedom Party as well as their solidarity with the people of Iraq and their wise leadership." According to Iraqi newspapers, Aziz and Haider called on European countries to oppose "international plots" led by the United States and "the Zionists" against Iraq.

When Haider returned, he held a press conference to discuss his trip, at which he said he and the Iraqis had had a "political dialogue" on the "fight against terrorism." He also said that he had given the Iraqis equipment for a blood bank in Baghdad. Haider said he supported the U.S. in its war on terrorism, but that "we should not link ourselves with the interests of those who need unrest somewhere on the planet to be able to rain down their bombs and war machines." Elsewhere, Haider defended Saddam Hussein from accusations that he had used poison gas against Kurds in Iraq, saying that it was not clear who had actually dropped the gas and implying that the U.S. had done it.

Causing a Stir

The trip created considerable embarrassment for Austria's government, already facing worldwide criticism for including the Freedom Party in a ruling coalition. Prior to Haider's visit, the only two prominent European politicians to have made similar "solidarity" visits to Iraq were the French and Russian far right wing leaders Jean-Marie Le Pen and Vladimir Shirinovsky. Haider received criticism not only from Austrian government officials and politicians, but even from within his own party, most notably by Peter Westenthaler.

Haider, however, not only weathered the storm of controversy, but thrived on it. By the end of February, he had announced that he was planning a second trip to Baghdad. Moreover, the Jerusalem Report revealed in March that Haider had invited prominent Iraqi leaders to visit Carinthia, including Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri and Petroleum Minister Amr Rashid. Also invited was Rashid's wife, Rihab Taha, whose work spearheading Iraq's biological weapons program garnered her the nickname of "Dr. Germ."

Haider's second visit to Iraq occurred in May. This time Haider met only with Naji Sabri, not Saddam Hussein. Radio Baghdad said that at the meeting, Aziz discussed the international conspiracies against Iraq being led by the United States and Zionism. Following the trip, he accused the United States of causing birth defects in Iraq through the use of depleted-uranium munitions in the Gulf War. Haider also invited Sabri to Carinthia; Sabri came in July 2002, where he described Haider as "one of my best friends."

In November 2002, Haider made an unprecedented third trip to Iraq, visiting Saddam Hussein as well as Naji Sabri and Deputy President Taha Yassin. "I am very often here," Haider said, "because I have some friends, like my good friend the Minister of Foreign Affairs, and we try to make our contribution so that a new war can be avoided." Haider again attacked the U.S. and Israel following the trip, accusing the United States of "warmongering."

Once more, Haider received widespread criticism, including from within his own party, with some even calling for his expulsion. Others, such as party leader and Social Minister Herbert Haupt, defended Haider, saying that the trip was for the promotion of Austrian business. The trips helped create electoral reverses for the Freedom Party and severe factional struggles ensued, leading to the ouster of some of the more moderate Party leaders. In late November, some Party activists circulated a manifesto condemning Haider's trips to Iraq and calling support for him a "personality cult." The infighting culminated at a highly unusual party congress in Salzburg in December 2002, at which Haupt was elected head of the Freedom Party - a victory for Haider.

Analysis: Wither Haider?

It must be clear to Haider that his defiantly close relationship with the Iraqi government is so controversial as to cause dissent even within his own party and that it may hurt the prospects of the Freedom Party, which has already suffered considerable reverses at the polls. At the same time, however, such activities put Haider-otherwise simply governor of a tiny state in a tiny country-on the world stage and give him considerable publicity.

Moreover, such ties in effect give him an indirect way to express anti-Israel and anti-U.S. sentiment by appearing with people who are more able to speak their mind than he is. This probably also explains Haider's visits to other Arab or Muslim countries, as well as his ties to Libyan dictator Qaddafi. It seems likely that the only scenario that might halt the continuation of such ties, including visits to controversial countries, would be if Haider was seriously threatened with the loss of control of his own party. So far, that has not happened. As a result, it may be expected that (unless a military conflict intervenes) Baghdad may again be a destination for Joerg Haider.

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