How America bombed in Iraq

Patrick Cockburn examines the disastrous track record of the man who would run the CIA
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The Independent Online
When an intelligence agency has a sudden fit of honesty, wrings its hands and publicly admits to doing wrong, outside observers usually count their fingers and check their wallets. Some did so last month when America's Central Intelligence Agency admitted failure at a rare press conference at its headquarters in Langley, Virginia. It said it had known about an Iraqi nerve gas depot in 1991, but had still allowed the US army to blow it up, possibly endangering American troops.

"This is the chapter that lays out some not-so-pretty news," said Robert Walpole, the CIA's expert on Gulf war disease. "I'll give that apology - we should have given out that information sooner."

With a reputation for almost excessive probity thus established, George J Tenet, the acting director of the CIA, goes before the Senate Intelligence Committee next week with every expectation that he will be confirmed in the post. There is no sign that the committee, of which Mr Tenet was staff director for four years, will ask to open other, more embarrassing chapters in the history of the CIA's involvement in Iraq.

If they did so, they might like to ask how it was that the CIA's network in northern Iraq, one of its largest operations, was liquidated after a series of blunders in which some 300 Iraqis died. When Iraq captured the Kurdish capital of Arbil last August, the CIA was just as surprised as it was in 1990 when Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi leader, invaded Kuwait. Within hours of the attack, Iraqi execution squads massacred 120 Iraqis working for the CIA-backed Iraqi National Congress. It was the last chapter in a disastrous attempt by the CIA to overthrow Saddam.

The CIA had long supported some factions of the Iraqi opposition, though without much enthusiasm. Between 1992 and 1995, the money spent on its covert operations against Baghdad dropped from $40m to $15m. But in the summer of 1995, John Deutch became CIA director, with George Tenet as his deputy. American esteem for the agency had fallen after the arrest as a Russian spy of Aldrich Ames, one of its senior officers. Almost immediately an opportunity to restore the agency's reputation beckoned in Iraq.

In August 1995, Lt Gen Hussein Kamel, Saddam's son-in-law, fled to Jordan. He said that he had escaped because he feared that Uday, Saddam's eldest son, would kill him. The core of the Iraqi regime seemed to be fragmenting, and for the first time in years the Iraqi leader looked vulnerable.

The instrument chosen by the CIA to foment a coup in Baghdad tells a great deal about American policy towards Iraq. It was the Iraqi National Accord (INA), one of the most conservative of the opposition organisations. Led by Dr Iyad Mohammed Alawi, a physician from Baghdad who had fled to London in 1971, it recruited army officers, intelligence officials and members of the ruling Ba'ath party. It wanted to replace Saddam with a minimum of disruption. Brigadier Adnan Mohammed al-Nuri, one of the INA's military leaders, resigned from the organisation last year, complaining of its rejection of radical change. He said: "I do not accept exchanging one Saddam for another."

This was exactly what the CIA wanted to do. It is not exactly, as ordinary Iraqis believe, that the US wants Saddam to stay in power. But it is determined that his fall should not benefit Iran, which supports Iraq's Shia Muslims, a majority of the population. In 1991, President George Bush allowed the Iraqi government to use helicopter gunships against Shia rebels.

The CIA was already channelling money to the INA. And to show its long reach, the INA was exploding bombs in Baghdad and other cities in 1994- 96. This was not difficult to do. "There are plenty of destitute Shia young men," says one Iraqi opposition leader. "They don't have a life and they don't have a future. It is easy to pay them to do something very dangerous like planting a bomb in Baghdad."

As many as 100 civilians may have been killed by the bombing campaign. At first, little was known about it. Iraq admitted that 10 bombs had exploded in Baghdad, but gave no casualty figures. But early in 1996, a strange video was smuggled to Europe, made by the INA's chief bomb-maker, Abu Amneh al-Khadimi, in his headquarters in the Kurdish city of Sulaymaniyah. He filmed himself because he wanted to charge his superior officer with underpaying him and betraying him to Iraqi intelligence.

Abu Amneh, who comes across as a deeply unpleasant and dangerous man, recounts how he has been reduced to buying "clocks from the souk and turn[ing] them into timers". He complains that he was paid only $300 for causing an explosion in Baghdad which had cost him $600. He commends British- made time fuses. He appeals repeatedly over the head of his superior officer - this was a purpose of making the video - to Dr Iyad Alawi, the head of the INA. He says: "For the bombs we detonated in Baghdad, Dr Iyad, all the operations we performed inside, we are now owed about $5,000."

Such sums were about to become chicken-feed for the INA. As a result of the defection of Lt Gen Hussein Kamel, King Hussein of Jordan turned against his old friends in Baghdad. He made contact with the Iraqi opposition. The CIA persuaded the King to allow the INA to set up a well-funded headquarters in Amman. They bought a radio station for $3m from Croatia, which they named al-Mustaqbal, or "the Future". In January 1996, President Clinton agreed to pay $6m towards the INA's operations in Amman. Saudi Arabia and other Arab states paid a similar sum.

It all ended in disaster six months later. Dr Alawi talked happily in Amman about his plans for a coup. But, as so often in the past, Saddam struck first. There was a wave of arrests in Iraq as he purged the army. As many as 80 officers, alleged to be working with the INA, were executed or died under torture. On 31 August 1996, the Iraqi leader sent his tanks into Kurdistan to wrap up the CIA operation.

This was one of the great disasters in the 50-year history of the agency. So far it has attracted little attention in the US, and the full extent of the debacle has not emerged.

The CIA is also protected by the demonic reputation of its adversary. To many Americans, an attempt to overthrow Saddam, even if a humiliating flop, seems worthwhile. Some 300 Iraqis may have been killed because of the CIA's failed operation, but the dead do not vote, and most died obscurely in underground torture chambers or before Iraqi firing squads.