Iraqi political figure Ahmed Chalabi said yesterday that a double agent had tipped off the U.S. administration about the whereabouts of Saddam Hussein, then told him of the imminent U.S. “decapitation” strike, allowing the Iraqi dictator to escape.
“We believe that Saddam was aware of the decapitation strike against him. And we also believe that he took measures to make it appear he was somewhere; in other words, there was evidence he was in control of the operation,” Mr. Chalabi told reporters and editors at a luncheon at The Washington Times.
Asked whether a double agent had given away the U.S. military game plan to eliminate Saddam during the strike March 19, which marked the beginning of the Iraq war, Mr. Chalabi answered, “This is a complicated situation, but the short answer is yes.”
“The long answer is complicated and cannot be revealed at this time,” he said.
He said Saddam had also escaped a second U.S. attempt to kill him, a restaurant bombing in Baghdad on April 8.
Mr. Chalabi, a 58-year-old former exile and fervent U.S. supporter, insisted that he remained a player in Iraq, despite recent reports that he had been sidelined by the United States from the political process.
He said he and other political leaders were still in negotiations with the U.S. occupation authority on Iraq’s political future.
Mr. Chalabi leads the Iraqi National Congress (INC). Other groups that opposed Saddam’s rule include the Iranian-backed Shi’ite Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, and the two main Kurdish parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. These groups make up the Iraqi Leadership Council, which played a prominent role in the Pentagon’s planning for a post-Saddam Iraq.
“There is no breach here. It’s a dialogue,” said Mr. Chalabi, who has been backed by Pentagon hawks.
U.S. military forces conducted several missile and bombing attacks in Iraq that targeted Saddam and his sons, Uday and Qusai.
The first was a large-scale cruise missile and guided aerial bomb attack March 19 against a residence that U.S. intelligence agencies said was where Saddam had been sleeping.
The second major attack occurred April 8 in the Mansour district of Baghdad. A U.S. B-2 bomber was diverted in midflight to attack a building in the district after U.S. intelligence received information that Saddam was holding a meeting in a bunker beneath the building.
According to Mr. Chalabi, there was a concerted effort by the United States to try to develop links with Iraqi military officers and tribal leaders as early as June last year.
The INC found out about the effort from contacts in Iraq and Jordan, he said, adding: “We quickly determined that Saddam also was aware of this.”
Mr. Chalabi, a major figure in the Iraqi exile community, was flown by the Pentagon into southern Iraq at the end of the war and was the first exiled politician to arrive in Baghdad after it fell to coalition forces.
The INC has since opened more than 40 offices around the country, and Mr. Chalabi contends that he has wide support among the Iraqi people. Critics say he has not been well-received by the population, which is uneasy about Iraqis who have been out of the country for decades.
L. Paul Bremer, Iraq’s civilian administrator, appeared to have sidelined Mr. Chalabi and other political parties formed in exile when he announced that he would pick about 30 Iraqis to serve as a political council to the U.S. occupation authority.
The Bush administration had been working with local and formerly exiled Iraqi leaders on plans to establish a broad-based interim Iraqi government. But Mr. Bremer’s decision marks a major shift in course.
The decision, Mr. Chalabi said, “removes the high moral ground that the U.S. forces came under, which is liberation, and … gives ground to elements who had opposed the war earlier, in Iraq and outside Iraq in the Arab world.”
Mr. Chalabi insisted that Iraqis were ready to take over the reins of government in nonsecurity areas such as agriculture and education and were capable of setting up an effective police force.
U.S. soldiers, he warned, are “sitting ducks” for anti-American elements who are threatening to turn the U.S. military victory into a “body bag issue.”