Skip to comments.Baghdad leaders reveal that coup plot duped MI6
Posted on 02/07/2004 4:39:52 PM PST by Valin
Baghdad leaders reveal that coup plot duped MI6
Julie Flint explains how rumours of Saddam's overthrow caused British intelligence to miss vital information about Iraq's weapons programme
British intelligence took its eyes off Saddam Hussein's weapons programmes because it had been duped into believing a military coup would leave Sunni Muslims in power in Iraq.
Sources in the country say what they missed was a push to convert chemical and biological organisms into dry agents that could be hidden until pressure on the regime was lifted. 'From the second half of 2000, the focus of the British was not on finding weapons,' says a member of Iraq's Governing Council. 'They wanted to avoid war by making a coup. M16 went out of their way to make a coup.'
Once-exiled leaders now back in Baghdad say M16 and the CIA were led to believe that the head of the Mukhabarat, the most powerful of Iraq's three intelligence agencies, would lead a coup against Saddam that would safeguard Sunni power and keep Iraq's Shia majority on the political sidelines. The link men were two Lebanese from the Beirut suburb of Haret Hreik - Issam abu Darwish and Imad el Hajj.
'Abu Darwish and El Hajj went to Baghdad to contact and turn the head of the Mukhabarat, Tahir Jalil al Habbush,' says one source. 'They told M16 and the CIA they made contact with Habbush. M16 thought they could penetrate Saddam Hussein's intelligence at the highest level. They were stupid on Iraq.'
Days before American and British forces invaded Iraq, as Habbush remained loyal to the regime, El Hajj brokered an eleventh-hour attempt by Saddam to avert war without stepping down. Washington rejected the overture.
Habbush, a member of Saddam's Tikriti clan and sixteenth in the United States's pack of 55 most wanted Baathists, is still at large. Abu Darwish's son, Mohammed, now enjoys a lucrative contract as head of security at Baghdad airport.
M16 does not comment on its undercover activities. A Foreign Office spokesman says encouraging coups 'would be just one of a range of things they would be looking at', then added: 'It's nothing we would want to comment on.'
Iraqis who were cultivated by the intelligence community say interest in Saddam's weapons programmes only returned to centre stage in April 2002 - as President Bush began planning for war in Iraq after failing to capture Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. M16's first port of call was the Iraqi National Accord, a London-based group funded by the CIA.
The INA's leader, Ayad Allawi, has acknowledged passing a number of reports to M16 'in the spring and summer of 2002' - among them, the claim that Saddam Hussein had battlefield WMD that could be fired in less than 45 minutes.
'M16 went on a fishing expedition for weapons,' says one of Allawi's colleagues. 'Their political bosses wanted justification for war. Ayad said M16 was knocking at his door all the time. They were clearly under pressure to get information.'
Iraqis say that what M16 missed in seeking information that would justify an invasion were efforts to convert VX and anthrax, Saddam's biological and chemical agents of choice, into stable, dry forms that could be concealed until Iraq's WMD capability was rebuilt and work on weaponisation could continue unhindered. (Before UN inspections destroyed it, Iraq's main chemical and biological weapons facility covered 25 sq km. Such establishments are not rebuilt overnight.) At the same time, Iraq's refusal to admit UN inspectors between December 1998 and November 2002, and the decision by some exile groups to encourage the overthrow of the regime in the framework of 'the war against terror', shut down past information flows about weapons activity.
Iraqis who interacted with Western governments are reluctant to talk publicly about weapons today. Accused for years of passing on self-serving and incorrect information, they do not want to be accused now of withholding information that might have undercut the argument that Iraq was, as Tony Blair put it, a 'present' threat.
'We wanted the Americans to remove Saddam,' says one. 'We had no interest in making an inspections regime work. The worse it got, the better it was for us.'
Speaking on condition of anonymity, however, one source says the expulsion of UN weapons inspectors in December 1998, and the establishment of a new inspection regime a year later, prompted feverish efforts to make and store VX salt and powdered anthrax - forms that are much safer to keep and easier to hide.
'Saddam was trying to dry anthrax and aerosolise it for delivery as a terrorist weapon,' he says, citing scientists who were involved in weapons programmes after UN inspectors were expelled in 1998. 'There were plans to disseminate it from crop-dusters and from canisters placed on top of high buildings in an American city.'
After 9/11, he adds: 'Saddam hid everything in anticipation of being hit.'
VX is a nerve agent so powerful that a single drop on the skin can result in death in 15 minutes. Once fired, it remains toxic for at least several days. In salt form, stabilised, it can be preserved for centuries. Anthrax, a biological agent, kills by causing extensive haemorrhaging. In dry, powdered form, it can be stored for decades.
Western experts doubt that Iraq succeeded in weaponising VX salt. 'The chemistry for VX is incredibly difficult,' says Ron Manley, a British inspector. 'Transferring it to a weapon and making it would be very difficult. But I can quite believe Iraq would have tried it because that's their nature. It was a "suck it and see" culture.'
But experts say Saddam's reported attempts to weaponise powdered anthrax confirm existing concerns.
'In 2002, 25 metric tons of aerosil were ordered for, allegedly, the Samarra Drug Industries - far in excess to what SDI could use,' says Richard Spertzel, head of Unscom's biological weapons section from 1994-99. 'SDI was involved in CW and BW activities in the 1980s. Aerosil is used by the pharmaceutical industry for inhalant medication, but can also be used in powdered BW products and in "dusty" chemical agents that will penetrate many protective suits. Where is it now?'
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