The CIA's bungle in Baghdad

Last year George J Tenet headed a US bid to destroy Saddam. 300 people died when it failed ... and next week he gets promoted. Patrick Cockburn reports

In five days George J Tenet, Deputy Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, will appear before the Senate Intelligence Committee in Washington to be confirmed as Director of the agency, which has thousands of employees and an annual budget of $30bn (pounds 18bn).

Mr Tenet, 44, an affable former Senate staffer, is expected to survive the hearings with ease, which is surprising, since he presided last year over one of the most disastrous operations in the history of the CIA.

It took place in Iraq and by the time it ended last September some 300 Iraqis, most of them in the pay of the CIA and some at the hands of those who were, were dead. They died because of a failed CIA plan to foment a military coup against Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi leader, whom it believed was weakened by dissent within his own family. To carry out its plan the CIA used an Iraqi opposition group, the Iraqi National Accord (INA), which claimed to have many supporters in the Iraqi army and intelligence services.

But President Saddam struck last June, before the coup was launched. His security forces arrested hundreds of officers, many of whom were executed, or died under torture. Two months later the Iraqi leader sent his tanks into Iraqi Kurdistan, rolling up a vast CIA network established after the end of the Gulf war.

Iraqi intelligence was triumphant. As CIA operatives were evacuated to Guam, the CIA officer in charge of the INA operation in Amman, the Jordanian capital, received a telephone call from Baghdad from a man who asked for him by name. In the conversation which followed, according to a Washington source familiar with the intelligence world, the caller, presumably an Iraqi security officer, displayed an extensive knowledge of the CIA's plan for a coup in Iraq and the names of those involved. He concluded by suggesting the CIA pack its bags and go back to Langley, its headquarters outside Washington.

The overthrow of Saddam Hussein had been the agency's ambition since Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990. But in May 1995, plans to get rid of the Iraqi leader received a boost when John Deutch, formerly the deputy Defense Secretary, became Director of the CIA.

In the wake of the scandal surrounding the unmasking of Aldrich Ames, a long-time member of the agency, as a Russian spy, the agency was desperate for a success. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the only target in the world whose elimination would help rebuild its reputation was Saddam Hussein.

The CIA normally refuses to comment on operational matters. But a Washington source says that when Mr Deutch told members of the agency's Operations Directorate who were experienced in Iraqi affairs about his plans to overthrow President Saddam they rated the chances of success as low.

Despite their misgivings, the Washington fortnightly newsletter Counterpunch says other officers were found "ready and willing to carry out the appointed task. Their champion on the seventh floor of the CIA headquarters at Langley was George Tenet, then Deputy Director of the CIA."

Mr Tenet's background was on Capitol Hill, where he worked as a Senate staffer for 10 years. This included four years as staff director of the Senate intelligence committee, before becoming head of intelligence at the National Security Council.

When Mr Deutch brought him to the CIA as Deputy Director in the summer of 1995 he had all the skills of a Washington civil servant. But these were of little use in the treacherous world of Iraqi politics.

It seemed a good moment to renew the attack on President Saddam. Within months of Mr Deutch and Mr Tenet taking over the CIA, the Iraqi leader's two sons-in-law, Lt Gen Hussein Kamil and Col Saddam Kamil, fled to Jordan. In Amman they denounced their father-in-law and said they had escaped because they feared Uday, the President's murderous elder son.

King Hussein, once closely allied to the Iraqi leader, turned on his old friend in Baghdad. Kamran Karadaghi, an Iraqi commentator, says: "The CIA convinced King Hussein that he should only support the Iraqi National Accord." The INA was allowed to set up its own lavishly-equipped headquarters in Amman.

In January 1996, according to US press reports never denied by the Administration, President Bill Clinton covertly authorised $6m in aid for the INA. A similar or greater amount of money was given by Saudi Arabia and other Arab states. A meeting of American, British, Jordanian and Saudi intelligence officers in Saudi Arabia, also in January, decided that the INA was a suitable vehicle through which to recruit Iraqi officers willing to overthrow Saddam.

Perhaps only intelligence officers would have thought the INA really stood a chance against the Iraqi leader.

The INA was set up in 1990 by Iyad Mohammed Alawi, once a member of the ruling Iraqi Baath party who fled to London in 1971. It sought to attract Iraqi army and intelligence officers from the ruling elite. But other Iraqi opposition groups said it was riddled with Iraqi government spies.

There were other flaws in the CIA's protege. For several years the National Accord had been sending bombs to Baghdad and other Iraqi cities from its bases in Iraqi Kurdistan. The aim was to show the INA's foreign financial backers that the organisation had a long reach. One bomb went off in a cinema. Another, according to the Iraqi official press, exploded in 1994 outside the office of al-Jumhuriyya newspaper, killing a child and injuring 13 people.

Iraq issued no figures for the total number of Iraqis killed and wounded by the INA bombers. But one 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."

Surprisingly, a great deal is known about the details of the INA's bombing campaign. This is because in early 1996 Abu Amneh al-Khadami, their chief bomb-maker, sat down in front of a video camera in his office in the Kurdish city of Sulaymaniyah, to complain that his superior officer had kept him short of money and supplies and was working with Iraqi intelligence.

Abu Amneh sent copies of his video to Iraqi opposition leaders abroad, one of whom gave a copy to The Independent, which published excerpts. Abu Amneh was very much a gun for hire. At one moment he complains: "We blew up a car and we were supposed to get $2,000, but Adnan [his commanding officer] gave us $1,000."

He gripes at the lack of bomb-making equipment. At a supply dump meant to contain 2,000kg of explosives, he had received only 50kg, the man in charge saying the rest had been stolen. He says: "I had to buy clocks from the soukh [market] and turn them into timers."

There are frequent references to American involvement. Abu Amneh says he was recruited by an INA official who got him released from prison - he had apparently tried to kill a member of another opposition party - in Salahudin, the headquarters of the Kurdistan Democratic Party. He quotes the official as saying: "I made the American in Washington telephone Massoud Barzani [the Kurdish leader] to say 'Let Abu Amneh out of prison.'"

There is some evidence that the CIA was nervous about the bombing campaign. At one moment he says the US thought he was "too much the terrorist" and his superior feared "the Americans will cut off financial aid to us."

Abu Amneh's obsession, apart from money, is that the INA was full of Iraqi government agents. His suspicions were soon to be born out. But in the early months of 1996, basking in the support of King Hussein and the CIA in his new headquarters in Amman, Mr Alawi, the INA leader, was confident of success. "We think that any uprising should have at its very centre the armed forces," he told the Washington Post in a interview published on 23 June last year. "We don't preach civil war. On the contrary, we preach controlled, co-ordinated military uprising, supported by the people, that would not allow itself to go into acts of revenge and chaos."

The exact date of the article is important, because the INA later claimed the article's revelations about its CIA support led to a pre-emptive strike by President Saddam before they could launch their coup.

In fact, the Iraqi leader appears to have known their every move. In one statement the INA later admitted he had started to arrest suspected officers on 20 June, even before Dr Alawi boasted of his planned coup. As the purge in Baghdad gathered pace INA communiques acquired a panicky note. They report that Qusai, Saddam Hussein's second son, was heading a special committee in charge of interrogations and that two officers have already died under torture. Another 100 army officers were under arrest, facing death or imprisonment.

There was worse to come. One Iraqi commentator believes that the ease with which Saddam Hussein crushed the impending coup in June gave him the confidence to send his tanks into Iraqi Kurdistan in September for the first time since 1991. He captured the Kurdish capital, Arbil. The CIA was caught by surprise. It failed to warn the Iraqi National Congress [INC], another opposition group backed by the CIA, of the Iraqi advance. "We believe we lost 100 people killed at Qushteppe [in the front line]," says Ghanim Jawad, a veteran of the INC. "Another 19 people were executed in one of our offices in Arbil."

For the militants of the INA and the INC there was no alternative but flight from Kurdistan. Almost hysterical with fear and clutching their sub-machine guns they waited in Salahudin for their evacuation. CIA officers who had helped organise them were said to have already fled. In Jordan King Hussein has today returned to more friendly relations with Iraq.

A total of 300 Iraqis may have died in the CIA-backed bomb attacks on Baghdad, the failed coup and the massacres in Kurdistan. John Deutch is said to feel that the strength of the INA was misrepresented to him. He resigned as CIA Director after Mr Clinton refused to make him Defense Secretary. As he stepped down, Mr Deutch gave a ringing endorsement to George Tenet, who, with him, shares the responsibility for last year's debacle.

1990 Saddam Hussein invades Kuwait. CIA starts to give support to Iraqi opposition groups.

1991 After Gulf war and Kurdish uprising Saddam Hussein loses control of his three northern provinces forming Iraqi Kurdistan. They become haven for CIA-backed dissidents.

1994-96. The Iraqi National Accord (INA), composed of former Iraqi officials and soldiers and backed by CIA, engages in bombing campaign against civilian targets in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities.

1995 John Deutch, former US Deputy Defence Secretary, confirmed as director of CIA. Committed to overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Brings with him George J Tenet as deputy director. In August Lt Gen Hussein Kamel, Saddam Hussein's son-in-law, flees to Jordan. CIA persaudes King Hussein to allow INA to set up headquarters in Amman.

1996 In January President Clinton gives $6m in aid to INA. Aim is to foment military coup against Iraqi leader. In June Saddam Hussein strikes first. As many as 80 officers may have been executed or died under torture. In August Iraqi tanks intervene in Kurdish civil war, catching and killing 120 members of CIA-backed dissident group.

1997 John Deutch steps down from CIA where he is likely to be replaced by the director-designate, George Tenet, next week.

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