Iraqi agents hunt down coup plotter: Charles Richards recalls meeting an Iraqi activist murdered this week by Saddam's men

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THE Iraqi regime showed once more the length of its arm by killing a prominent Iraqi opposed to Saddam Hussein in Beirut on Tuesday night. Lebanese authorities said two employees of the Iraqi embassy, one declared as a cultural attache, the other a commercial attache, were being held in connection with the death of Shaikh Taleb al-Suhail, 81, shot through the heart as he opened the door of his home in Beirut.

The two Iraqis were named as Khaled Khalaf and Muhammad Kadhem. Taleb knew he was at risk since the attempted coup against Saddam Hussein by units of the Iraqi army was foiled in July: he was one of the plotters. Once his name appeared in the Western press, he had to take extra precautions.

Last autumn he invited me to lunch in his home in the Jordanian capital, Amman, to deny the reports of coup plots. His was a sumptious home, befitting the head of one of the leading Iraqi tribes, the Shia Muslim Bani Tamim, whose 500,000 members come from Abu Ghraib and the region west of Baghdad. It had been his home since he fled Baghdad after the 1968 revolution.

He was respected in the Jordanian capital. A guest at the wedding of one of his seven daughters in November was the Jordanian Prime Minister, Abdel-Salam al-Majali. But Jordan was no longer safe for him. Most of the population, Jordanian and Palestinian, supported Saddam Hussein. Iraqi agents entered freely.

In December 1992 Iraqi agents shot an Iraqi nuclear scientist who was seeking asylum in the West. Taleb told me the Jordanian security service had informed him they could no longer guarantee his safety. He was leaving the next day, after 23 years, for Lebanon, where his wife came from.

The coup attempt in which he became embroiled, in spite of his protestations of innocence, was a botched job. He and a contemporary, Jassem Mukhles, flew to London a year ago to meet Saad Jabr, another Iraqi dissident and two low-level CIA operatives who came in from headquarters in the US. Mukhles, 72, a former minister from a prominent Sunni Muslim family in Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, was arrested on 15 July, two days before the intended coup, with other plotters from the top echelons of the army. He was one of scores executed last autumn.

Taleb said he had only been seeking a visa to the US for Mukhles, who needed treatment for his eyes. He insisted that although he had long opposed Saddan Hussein there was no outside support for the coup attempt. None of the countries which fought Iraq in the Gulf war - the US, Britain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Egypt - offered help. 'They want to get rid of Saddam Hussein, but they don't want to do anything about it, ' he said.

He said the coup leaders sent a request for the US to bomb the military base of As- Suwaira, to cut off Iraqi radio and television broadcasts, and to ensure neither the Kurds nor the Iranians took advantage of the chaos. Jabr said the Iraqis sought US aerial support in suppressing Iraqi helicopter gunships, once the coup attempt was launched. They wanted two Iraqi bases, Taji and Rasheed, to be bombed.

According to Jabr, the Americans considered the request, then turned it down. They told him they did not wish instability in Iraq to threaten the Arab-Israeli peace talks. The plotters decided to go ahead. But two days before Iraqi Army Day, Saddam's henchmen moved.