Did Iraq really plot to kill Bush?: Patrick Cockburn in Washington on how a lowly male nurse brought missiles raining down on Baghdad

BILL CLINTON'S decision to launch a cruise missile attack on Baghdad was based on the claims of Wali Abdelhadi Ghazali, a male nurse from the Iraqi city of Najaf. The raid was in retaliation for a plot to assassinate George Bush during a visit to Kuwait. But most of those alleged to have taken part were whisky smugglers, and all but Mr Ghazali deny knowing anything of the plot.

Twenty-three Tomahawk cruise missiles were fired at the Iraqi intelligence headquarters eight days ago, killing at least eight people, some of them civilians. Two hours later, President Clinton went on television to blame President Saddam Hussein and his security forces for plotting to kill Mr Bush. 'This attempt at revenge by a tyrant against the world coalition that defeated him in war is particularly loathsome. We could not and cannot let such action go unanswered.'

At the United Nations, Madeleine Albright, the US ambassador, produced evidence to justify the raid, which focused on an Iraqi intelligence attempt to explode a car bomb on the streets of Kuwait. The Americans say the bomb was aimed at George Bush.

The trial of the 14 men accused of the plot, which resumed in Kuwait yesterday, presents a scheme devised in the week before Mr Bush arrived in Kuwait for the Gulf victory celebrations in April. One of the accused is Raad Abdel Amir al-Assadi, 33, who owns the Marbed Coffee Shop in the southern Iraqi city of Basra, 70 miles from Kuwait. Mr Assadi says the Marbed is 'a cafe for smugglers' - a flourishing occupation in Basra, where Iraqi bootleggers can buy alcoholic drink legally and sell it profitably in Kuwait, which is 'dry'.

Mr Assadi says an Iraqi intelligence officer named Mohammed Jawad asked him to guide somebody into Kuwait City on 9 April in return for 13 cases of whisky and 15,000 Iraqi dinars, worth about pounds 130. The officer also gave him 10 sticks of dynamite and told him that he was to blow up Kuwait car shops and showrooms. He says he agreed to go because he needed the money and was frightened of Iraqi intelligence, but he never took his mission as a saboteur too seriously. He was more interested in selling the whisky, and he buried the dynamite in the desert before he reached Kuwait.

He also says that neither Mr Jawad nor anybody else told him about a plan to assassinate Mr Bush. He says he did not even know the former US president was in Kuwait, and the first he knew about the plot was when he was told about it by his Kuwaiti police interrogator.

But Mr Ghazali, 36, says he was told to kill Mr Bush. A male nurse, he works in a hospital in Najaf, a holy city of the Shia Muslims, close to the Euphrates between Baghdad and Basra. On 8 April, only a day before they were due to cross the border, Mr Ghazali was approached in Basra by an Iraqi intelligence officer called Abu Rafed. Mr Rafed asked him if he knew why sanctions had been imposed on Iraq and why Iraqi children went hungry. 'The international resolutions?' ventured Mr Ghazali. 'No, it's Bush,' said Mr Rafed. 'He is the reason for sanctions, the reason for the destruction. We are sending you to Kuwait.' Mr Ghazali did not like the idea. He told Mr Rafed he had five children, and that his wife was in hospital.

Mr Ghazali was to take a Toyota Land Cruiser containing a 180lb bomb and park it in Kuwait University, where Mr Bush, his family and James Baker, the former secretary of state, were being honoured by the Kuwaitis. There was a remote control device and, if that failed, a timing device.

Mr Rafed said that when Mr Bush's car 'comes close to it from a distance of 200 or 300 yards, you push the button and the car will explode and Bush's car also'. The Iraqi intelligence man also gave him an exploding belt which, if the car bomb failed, could be used by Mr Ghazali to blow himself up, and Mr Bush as well. It is this evidence which is the basis for the US claim.

Even if Mr Ghazali had obeyed all his instructions, he would not have succeeded in killing the former president. Mr Bush and his family were in an armour-plated car, so the Toyota Land Cruiser would have had to be parked very close to kill him. Iraqi intelligence had also got his itinerary wrong. Mr Bush did not visit Kuwait University, but went to another university.

From its conception, the plan fell apart. Kuwait intelligence claims it had prior knowledge of an attack dating from March, but has yet to produce evidence of this. Mr Ghazali and Mr Assadi, accompanied by other Iraqis, most of whom appear to be smugglers, crossed the border into Kuwait and were arrested on 13 April. Their morale was low. Iraqi intelligence gave Mr Ghazali a 9mm pistol and two grenades, but he says he was so frightened 'that I began praying as soon as I reached Kuwait'.

They hid the Toyota in a sheep pen to go on a reconnaissance, and stayed with two Kuwaitis also involved in smuggling alcohol. When they returned to the Toyota, they found it surrounded by policemen. Mr Ghazali escaped, throwing away his exploding belt, and he and three others stole a car to try to return to Kuwait. When it broke down, they started to walk across the desert, but were seen and arrested.

The Kuwaitis said they had discovered a conspiracy to kill Mr Bush. Ever since the Kuwaiti government returned to the emirate after the Gulf war, it has frequently alleged Iraqi interference in its affairs, including a claim that an Iraqi naval force invaded the Kuwaiti island of Bubiyan and was repelled by Kuwaiti forces. Investigation revealed that the invasion force consisted of Iraqi fishermen looking for scrap.

Only in early May did the FBI and CIA begin to think that Baghdad might have made a serious effort to kill Mr Bush. President Saddam is notoriously vindictive. He had killed Iraqi, Kurdish and Palestinian opponents in foreign capitals. In Kurdistan, from which the Iraqi army has withdrawn, Iraqi intelligence has exploded a series of bombs in the past 18 months.

In Washington there were some doubters, particularly in the Pentagon. They said that the way the Kuwaitis had interviewed their prisoners made their testimony useless.

The implication is that the 14 men under arrest were tortured, though the FBI, which later interviewed them, denies this. Human rights organisations say there has been a decrease in torture over the past year, but they have no direct access to the men on trial. The trial itself opened before the heavily guarded state security court on 5 June, the first time the accused had been seen by anybody except the police since their arrests. The prosecution accused 12 men of plotting to kill Mr Bush. Two Kuwaitis are accused of harbouring the plotters and smuggling drugs and alcohol.

Their chances of a fair trial do not look good. Middle East Watch says that 16 people sentenced to death in Kuwait by the state security court in June mostly 'complained of severe beatings inflicted on them to elicit confessions for alleged crimes of collaboration'.

Was there an assassination attempt, and was it ordered by Saddam Hussein? Washington emphasises that the circuitry, electronics, timer and explosives in the Toyota Land Cruiser closely resemble Iraqi car bombs found elsewhere. This helps to prove that Iraqi intelligence planted a bomb in Kuwait, but not that they planned to assassinate Mr Bush.

Incompetence does not rule out an assassination attempt, but the recruitment of a gang of whisky smugglers to plant a bomb at the wrong university does make it more difficult to take seriously.

(Photograph omitted)

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