Clinton backed Baghdad bombers

Patrick Cockburn unearths video evidence that the US, while decrying Hamas attacks in Israel, was at the same time backing a ruthless group operating in Iraq
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The Independent Online
At the same time that President Bill Clinton was denouncing the Hamas suicide bombers at an "anti-terror" conference in Egypt two weeks ago, the US was supporting an equally violent organisation in Iraq which carries out bomb attacks in Baghdad and other cities.

The Iraqi opposition campaign, aimed at destabilising President Saddam Hussein and his government, has hitherto remained secret. It includes using car bombs and smaller explosive devices smuggled from Iraqi Kurdistan, which is outside government control.

Iraq issues no figures for people killed or injured in explosions but an opposition member said: "I estimate that more than 100 civilians have been killed by the bombs in Baghdad in the last three or four years. There is zero concern about civilian deaths among those behind the bombing."

The body mainly responsible for attacks is the Iraqi National Accord, one of the main resistance groups, described by another opposition leader as "heavily sponsored by the US and under the influence of the CIA". Last year the CIA asked Congress for $15m for covert operations against Baghdad.

Evidence that at least part of this funds a bombing campaign has become available recently through Abu Amneh al-Khadami, one of the National Accord's chief bomb-makers. To justify his conduct and explain his grievances to opposition leaders abroad he made a video - the Independent obtained a copy - describing how he made and sent bombs to Baghdad.

He also recounts conversations with his superior, who fears "the Americans will cut off financial aid to us". He says he was originally recruited by a National Accord official who got him freed from jail in the Kurdish headquarters at Salahudin, northern Iraq. He quotes him as saying: "I made the American in Washington telephone Massoud Barzani [the Kurdish leader] to say let Abu Amneh out of prison."

The video was made in Abu Amneh's office in Sulaymaniyah, eastern Kurdistan. He says his motive is to denounce his immediate superior, Adnan Mohammed al-Nuri, a former Iraqi brigadier who defected to the opposition and whom he accuses of stealing money meant for him and of working with Iraqi intelligence.

He had reason to fear his colleagues. Late last year an explosion in a headquarters building in Salahudin of the Iraqi National Congress, one of the opposition groups, killed 28 people. Members of the National Accord are under arrest for planting the bomb, say Kurdish sources.

Abu Amneh's account is often rambling, but there is no doubt about its authenticity. He often complains of being underpaid. At one point he says: "We blew up a car and we were supposed to get $2,000 but Adnan gave us $1,000."

During his monologue, recorded on 25 January, his anger never flags against Mr Nuri and his superiors for keeping him short of explosives and fuses and for giving unreasonable orders: "I had to buy clocks from the soukh [market] and turn them into timers." Once he reads a letter from Mr Nuri asking him to "send me explosive materials you have prepared so that we can send them from here to Mosul". Mosul is a large city on the upper Tigris.

What makes the disclosures about the bombings politically sensitive is that on 13 March Mr Clinton assembled 28 world leaders at Sharm el- Sheikh, in Egypt, to denounce terrorism in the aftermath of the four bombs in Israel which killed 62 people. He said: "We must be clear in our condemnation of those who resort to terror."

The countries represented at Sharm el-Sheikh are to attend a follow-up meeting on counter-terrorism at the US State Department in Washington on Thursday and Friday. Among topics to be discussed will be the flow of funds to terrorist groups.

After watching the video, an Iraqi opposition figure said: "The people in the State Department will crawl under their desks when they see what Abu Amneh has revealed about the groups they are supporting and co-ordinating."

Laith Kubba, an Iraqi intellectual active in the opposition to President Hussein, reacted to the tape "with fear and disgust. If this sort of casual violence continues in Iraq, then the country will have no political future even after Saddam. It will become like Afghanistan". He says there is no way a few bombs in Baghdad will help bring down the government.

The bomb-maker does not come well out of his film. He apparently considers planting bombs to be very much a business, often giving the cost of each operation - $600 (pounds 400) to get a bomb to Baghdad, for example - and complains about inadequate pay. He is evidently frightened and embittered; he says he fears his superior officers and Iraqi intelligence will try to kill him and says that he does not even have enough arms to defend himself and the 12 men who form his inner group in Sulaymaniyah.

Nevertheless, sitting at his desk, with his face to the camera, occasionally holding up old orders he has received, Abu Amneh gives a coherent account of attacks he has initiated over the past year.

Other opposition members say that he is a Shia Muslim from the Khadamiya district of Baghdad who arrived in Kurdistan after the uprising against President Saddam in the wake of the Gulf war.

He explains how he joined the National Accord, headed by Iyad Mohammed Alawi, after Mr Nuri, one of its senior members, got him out of jail with American help. Abu Amneh says that he was in prison in Salahudin, a former holiday resort in the Kurdish mountains, because he distributed a leaflet criticising an opposition party.

Other Iraqis say he was jailed because he tried to kill a political rival. He says Mr Nuri used to say to him: "I was the one who released you from prison, so you have to do everything I say." Abu Amneh was told to move with his men to Sulaymaniyah, two hours' drive from Salahudin, from where "we caused several explosions in Baghdad".

Although Abu Amneh complains about money, the video shows him operating from offices that are well-appointed if not plush. At one moment the cameraman shoots through the window, showing a busy city street and in the background the blue smudge of the Kurdish mountains.

He drew his explosives from an arms dump farther north, in the Kurdish stronghold of Shaqlawa. An aim of the bombs in Baghdad and Mosul, say other members of the Iraqi opposition, was to show that "those who planted them had a long reach inside Iraq and were worthy of financial support from outside".

Operations in Baghdad were not confined to bombs. Abu Amneh also had his men distribute leaflets and take pictures of themselves doing so to prove they had not thrown them away. He says: "These leaflets cost us more than a bomb. A bomb somebody just takes it and plants it. Leaflets need two people: one to take photographs and the other to distribute the leaflets." In either case it was dangerous: anybody caught would be tortured and killed by Iraqi security forces.

It is not known how many ordinary Iraqis died in the explosions. The media is tightly controlled and does not normally mention bombings for fear they would show the government losing control. But there are exceptions: last year Babel, a daily belonging to Uday, son of President Saddam, mentioned 10 bomb explosions in Baghdad, as part of a campaign to discredit his uncle Watban Ibrahim al-Tikriti, then interior minister.

Abu Amneh wanted to explode bombs when they were most likely to damage the Iraqi government. He hoped to step up attacks in October in the days leading up to a referendum designed to endorse Saddam Hussein as Iraqi president. He was also angered when his superiors vetoed a plan to let off a bomb and say a group supporting Hussein Kamel, President Saddam's son-in-law, who defected in August, was responsible. He rejects objections, apparently from the US, that he was "too much a terrorist". He says, not unreasonably, that "Saddam Hussein has ruined the whole country, so how can anybody say we are terrorists?"

Abu Amneh made the videotape in order to survive. It is a plea to the leadership of his own party and a denunciation of Mr Nuri, whom he accuses of betraying him. Few bomb-makers, outside a courtroom, can have been so forthcoming about their work. He may, however, have done little to improve his chances of survival. In one and a half hours he reveals too many secrets about the bombing of Baghdad, the rivalries of the opposition and their reliance on US support. "He is naive to think this will help him," said one Iraqi familiar with opposition politics. "I don't think he will live very long."