Only now are details emerging of one of the CIA's greatest failures since it was set up 50 years ago. It not only financed an Iraqi opposition group, which killed 100 people in a bombing campaign against civilian targets in Baghdad and other cities, but fomented a military coup which President Saddam bloodily crushed.
The CIA debacle in Iraq may yet tarnish the reputation of George J Tenet, the CIA's director designate, who as deputy director presided over the disaster. But one former US official said yesterday: "As in Somalia, the disaster in Iraq was so complete that nobody in Washington wants an inquiry into what went wrong."
Mr Tenet will undergo confirmation hearings next week in Washington. But questions about his handling of the Iraqi affair appear unlikely to result in his nomination being blocked.
The ease with which the Iraqi leader crushed a CIA-backed coup in June, during which some 80 Iraqi officers were executed or died under torture, may have given him the confidence two months later to send his tanks into Iraqi Kurdistan. A further 120 Iraqis on the CIA payroll were slaughtered because the agency had failed to foresee the attack.
In the wake of this series of disasters the CIA officer in Amman, the capital of Jordan, in charge of organising the coup against President Saddam, is said by a Washington source to have received a telephone call from Baghdad asking for him by name. The caller, presumably an Iraqi intelligence official, gave extensive details of the coup, including the names of those involved. He then suggested that the CIA official pack up and go home.
The attempt to overthrow Saddam Hussein was sparked off by the CIA's belief that the defection of Lt Gen Hussein Kamil, the Iraqi leader's son-in-law, in 1995, meant he was vulnerable. The CIA was eager for a success after the scandal over Aldrich Ames, the officer unmasked as a Russian spy. President Bill Clinton signed an order in 1996 for $6m (pounds 3.7m) in covert aid to be given to an Iraqi opposition group, the Iraqi National Accord (INA).
The INA was already on the CIA payroll and was mainly recruited from former Iraqi officers and officials from the ruling party. From bases in Iraqi Kurdistan it had carried out bombing attacks on Baghdad. Details of these were spelt out by Abu Amneh al-Khadami, the INA's chief bomb maker, who made a video - obtained by The Independent - of himself accusing his senior officer of keeping him short of money, arms and explosives as well as secretly working for Iraqi intelligence.
When Iraqi tanks rolled into Arbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan last August, they destroyed the remnants of one of the largest CIA operations in the world.
Several thousand Iraqis and Kurds who had worked for CIA-backed organisations had to be evacuated through Turkey to Guam for final relocation to the US.
Their flight brought to an end the CIA's attempt to rebuild its reputation by securing the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
John Deutch, the outgoing head of the CIA, is said by an Iraqi source to feel that the strength of the INA was misrepresented to him. He resigned as director of the CIA after President Clinton refused to make him Defense Secretary.
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