A former special forces officer who became a guerrilla leader is being treated for thallium sulphate poisoning in Britain. Major Safa al-Battat, 31, fell ill in December after a visit to his headquarters in Kurdistan. After first diagnosing typhoid fever, local doctors recognised that he had the same symptoms as two other opponents of the regime poisoned several years ago.
After leaving Iraq through Syria, Major al-Battat is recovering in Cardiff. Another member of the opposition Iraqi National Congress died from the poison last Saturday, according to an Iraqi source.
Major al-Battat, in a telephone interview with the Independent, said he believed he was singled out for assassination because "I was operating in the south of Iraq in the marshes around Basra. All members of my group used to be officers in the Iraqi armyso we were dangerous to them." He had gone north to Shaqlawa, a town under the control of Kurds where the Iraqi opposition has a headquarters to receive fresh orders, when he was poisoned - probably in his food.
Major al-Battat, from southern Iraq, says he joined the resistance to Saddam Hussein in 1987 but stayed in the army until the Gulf war in 1991. Since then he has led a guerrilla unit, which specialised in intelligence but sometimes made attacks in and around the marshes where the Tigris and Euphrates meet. These are being drained by the government to try to stamp out resistance.
Last November, Iraqi intelligence appears to have begun a campaign to eliminate its Iraqi opponents, particularly those who thought they had found safety beyond the Iraqi lines in Kurdistan. Two other former officers training opposition troops, Abbas Sharara and Bashir al-Mosuli, were killed, one was shot in the head, the other tortured.
Iraqi agents have infiltrated opposition camps. One, intercepted with a file of thallium, was planning to poison Ahmed Chalabi, leader of the INC, which is based in Shaqlawa. Major al-Battat says he thinks he was poisoned on or about 3 December, but willnot say if he knows by whom.
The time taken for thallium to kill depends on the dose. At first, the victim feels deep lethargy and then gradual loss of control over his body.
"At first I had a pain in the abdomen and I also passed blood," said Major al-Battat.
"In Syria I had convulsions but the doctors did not know what to do so they gave me morphine and valium. I lost control of my bodily functions. Every day I though I would die."
In the past, Saddam Hussein has gone to great lengths to show that his arm is long enough to assassinate opponents wherever they go.
His government faces no serious military threat in the marshes of the south or the Kurdish mountains but his security services are keen to target army officers who have joined the resistance or come from army families.
Doctors who decided Major al-Battat had been given thallium did so because three years ago they had treated two brothers of the al-Jaburi clan from Mosul in northern Iraq, which has provided many senior army officers, for the same poison.
"In the past Saddam Hussein depended on money and terror to hold power," says Laith Kubba, a long standing opponent of the regime. "Now he is without money because of oil sanctions, he must increase the amount of terror." Last June the government introduced mass mutilation -the amputation of a hand or ear followed by branding on the forehead - to prevent Iraqis avoiding military service and to discourage crime.
Thallium poisoning appears geared to show that, even when they think they have reached safety, the Iraqi leader is still to be feared.
Iraqi security forces have long favoured thallium, a heavy metal compound sometimes used as a base for rat poison, against its enemies. It is absorbed by fatty tissue and causes nerve damage and kidney failure.
In 1987 and 1988 it was used extensively against the Kurds, on one occasion being mixed with a yoghurt drink by a woman working as an Iraqi agent.Reuse content