Iraq: Sacrificed: students who were pawns in Saddam's game

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The Independent Online
Iraq surprised and infuriated Jordan last month by executing four Jordanian students accused of small-scale smuggling. The Independent has learnt that President Sadddam Hussein hanged them because he believed Jordan was plotting with a senior Iraqi general to overthrow him. Patrick Cockburn reports exclusive details of the quarrel between the two former allies.

In early December, Jordanians, most of whom sympathised with Iraq in the Gulf war, were shocked to learn President Saddam had executed four Jordanian students in Baghdad. Their crime was to have smuggled car parts worth pounds 530 into Iraq.

Relations between Amman and Baghdad were good and King Hussein had appealed to the Iraqi leader to spare the students.

Angered by their execution, he ordered the expulsion of Iraqi diplomats.

Now the Independent has learned why the students were executed. Their death had nothing to do with their crime: it was retaliation for what President Saddam believed was Jordanian involvement in a conspiracy against him. It followed interception by Iraqi security of a letter from Jordan to Maj-Gen Talib al-Sadoun, an Iraqi general, giving details of a plot.

Gen Wafiq al-Sammara'i, former head of Iraqi military intelligence now in exile, told the Independent: "Iraqi intelligence intercepted a letter from the Iraqi opposition to Gen al-Sadoun about a month ago. Saddam Hussein thinks the Jordanian government knew about the plot. Therefore he killed the four students to send King Hussein a message."

Gen Sammara'i says Gen Sadoun, who worked in the headquarters of the ruling Baath party, was executed two weeks ago. There had been 10 other arrests, but he does not know the names of those imprisoned. Gen Sadoun came from a clan in southern Iraq. During the uprising against President Saddam in southern Iraq at the end of the Gulf war in 1991 the clan, which has many members in the army and intelligence service, remained loyal to him.

The Jordanians executed on 8 December were under arrest over smuggling car parts at a moment when the Iraqi leader wanted to vent his anger against Jordan. Gen Sammara'i says: "Saddam thought King Hussein was behind the plot." A Jordanian government statement read out on television after the students died refers to the failure of Jordan's effort "to dissuade the Iraqi authorities from carrying through their unfair decision to execute four of our citizens on a charge, which, if true, would not be punishable by more than a fine."

The parliament in Amman referred to the executions as an "inhuman" act in "flagrant disregard" for human rights. A Jordanian helicopter flew the remains of Rizq Bishara Riz, 32, one of those executed, to Amman. Two of the other Jordanians who died, Saad Yousef Doji, 35, and his brother Salah, 32, were buried in Baghdad, where their families live. Jordan said a fifth Jordanian, held on murder charges in Iraq, was executed the previous week.

President Saddam had reason to be suspicious: Jordan was an ally of Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s and King Hussein remained sympathetic during the Gulf crisis and war. The road from Baghdad across the desert to Amman is Iraq's main life-line. But in 1995 King Hussein gave sanctuary to Hussein Kamel, President Saddam's lieutenant and son-in-law, who fled to Jordan (later returning to Baghdad, where he was murdered).

In 1996 the CIA persuaded King Hussein to allow Amman to be used as the base for a coup against President Saddam organised by an opposition group backed by the US called the Iraqi National Accord.

The plot was crushed before it got off the ground. As with Gen Sadoun, Iraqi security is believed to have intercepted messages between the plotters in Amman and Baghdad. In June the same year there were mass arrests of suspected officers. Success apparently gave the Iraqi leader the confidence to send his tanks back into Iraqi Kurdistan a few months later, forcing foreign intelligence services and Iraqi opposition forces to flee.

With President Saddam re-establishing himself in northern Iraq, Jordan became the only centre from which opponents of his regime could easily communicate with Baghdad. There is a continual flow of traffic across the Iraqi western desert. It may also be that, during the crisis in November over Iraq's confrontation with the US over the right of UN weapons inspectors to operate, Western intelligence services were particularly eager to make contact with dissident members of the Iraqi elite.

Gen Sadoun would be the type of officer whom foreign intelligence services would like to cultivate. A Sunni Muslim, like most of the Iraqi establishment, he had held senior positions within the army and ruling Baath party. Gen Sammara'i says: "He had many contacts in the army, military intelligence and Mukhabarat (general security)." Gen Sadoun must have known what would happen to him if suspected of treachery. But Rizq Bishara Riz and his fellow students, making a little money from smuggling, could not have guessed they would pay with their lives for a plot about which they knew nothing.