EIGHTEEN months ago MI6 conducted a joint operation with the CIA to stage a military coup d'etat in Baghdad. It was crushed by Saddam Hussein who executed up to 80 Iraqi officers and arrested hundreds of others. It is one of the biggest fiascos in the history of British foreign intelligence since the war.
The coup attempt was organised through Amman, the capital of Jordan, and was to be carried out by the Iraqi National Accord led by Dr Iyad Mohammed Alawi, once a member of the ruling Iraqi Baath Party, who fled to London in 1971.
The aim of the conspirators was to recruit Iraqi army and intelligence officers. But the Iraqi National Accord had a well-earned reputation for being riddled with double agents from Iraqi security. As the coup collapsed an Iraqi intelligence officer, in a final humiliating gesture, telephoned the CIA station chief in Jordan and told him to go home.
The extent of MI6's involvement in the failed conspiracy was revealed by the Los Angeles Times at the weekend in an article based on interviews with CIA officers critical of the lack of support from the White House for their efforts to overthrow Saddam Hussein. It confirms that "the CIA program [to stage a coup], operated jointly with MI6, the British intelligence service, was based in Jordan, using a front organisation called the Iraqi National Accord".
Despite its dubious reputation among Iraqis, the Accord was favoured not only by MI6, but by the London station of the CIA, according to former agency officials. London, a centre for Iraqi exiles, was also a fertile recruiting ground for former members of Iraq's military and political elite whom the Accord wanted to attract.
There is an element of farce in the attempts by Western intelligence to overthrow the Iraqi government. At one moment the FBI was called in by the acting head of the CIA to investigate his own agents for attempting to assassinate Saddam Hussein (the assassination of foreign leaders being illegal under United States law). And Washington only knew what its own agents were up to in Iraqi Kurdistan because the NSA, its code-breakers, had intercepted a message from Iranian intelligence officers to Tehran explaining what the CIA was doing.
From the moment President George Bush signed a finding in May 1991 telling the CIA to overthrow Saddam Hussein, some of the agency's most experienced officers were dubious about their chances. Frank Anderson, the head of the CIA's Near East Division, told ABC television: "We didn't have a single mechanism or combination of mechanisms with which I could create a plan to get rid of Saddam at the time."
At first the CIA operated through an umbrella organisation called the Iraqi National Congress led by Ahmed Chalabi, a former banker, based in Iraq's three Kurdish provinces from which the Iraqi army had withdrawn. He wanted to build up an opposition army which, in alliance with the Kurdish factions, would begin to fight the Iraqi army, recruiting men through desertions and mutiny.
Separately, General Wafiq al-Samarra'i, the former head of Iraqi military intelligence, who joined the opposition in 1994, had a plan to assassinate Saddam Hussein as he passed over a bridge in his home town of Samarra. Both the military offensive and the assassination bid were supported by the leader of the CIA team in Kurdistan, codenamed "Bob". It is a matter of dispute how much Washington knew.
"Bob" and Mr Chalabi decided the latter should tell Iranian intelligence officials what was going on - it was hoped they would cooperate in an attack on Iraqi government forces in south Iraq. He did so. But when they reported back to their headquarters their message was intercepted by the National Security Agency, the American code-breaking organisation. Informed in this roundabout way about what was happening Tony Lake, the National Security Adviser, sent a message to the CIA team in Kurdistan saying that it did not support the assassination or a military attack on the Iraqi leader.
It is at this point that MI6 and the London station of the CIA developed an alternative strategy by producing the Iraqi National Accord. Brigadier Adnan Nuri, one of its leaders, was already on the CIA payroll. Through him the CIA was authorised by the White House to fund the Accord in a campaign of planting bombs in Iraq. Much is known of this because Abu Amneh al-Khadami, its chief bomb-maker, made a video, seen by The Independent, denouncing Brigadier Nuri as an Iraqi agent.
The new American and British strategy was to foment a military coup in Baghdad. General Hussein Kamel, the son-in-law of Saddam Hussein, fled Iraq for Jordan in 1995. The regime in Baghdad looked vulnerable. King Hussein, once close to Iraq, was turning against his old ally. British participation would be important because Dr Alawi and the Accord were based in London and Jordan was one of the handful of Arab states where Britain still had significant influence.
Disaster followed swiftly. In January 1996 American, British, Jordanian and Saudi intelligence officers met in Saudi Arabia to coordinate plans. Dr Alawi moved to Amman. He also began to give interviews broadcasting his intentions. He emphasised that he wanted a coup not a revolution.
Saddam struck before he did. In late June and early July news began to filter out of Iraq of the arrests of 160 military officers, including 12 from the elite Republican Guard and three from the Special Republican Guard which protects the Iraqi leader himself.
Going by the execution lists, the conspiracy against Saddam Hussein had some serious recruits. Among those to die were Staff Colonel Khamis Hadi Ni'mah, commander of the 6th Brigade of the Presidential Guards Division, Brigadier General Ja'afar al-Tayyar, director of training at the Defence Ministry, and many junior and middle-grade officers. A hero of the Iran- Iraq war, General Tali Ruhayyim al-Duri, fled to Turkey.
The failure of the CIA and MI6 against Saddam Hussein in 1996 marked a turning point in his fortunes. In August he dared send his tanks back into Kurdistan. A year later he felt strong enough to challenge the UN weapons inspectors and provoke the present crisis.
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