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Secret History of the Iraq War
Early Steps --
The Loss of Deterrence
There is a unique, and exceptionally well-defended upper-class compound in the al-Jazair neighborhood of Baghdad. It is a retirement community, but its residents are no ordinary senior citizens. They include retirees from Iraqi intelligence, former senior security officials, and a host of terrorists, most of them Arabs, who have cooperated with Baghdad over the years.
Since 2000, Sabri al-Banna -- better known as Abu Nidal -- had been one of the preeminent members of this community. Then, on the night of August 16, 2002, a few gunmen made their way through the well-protected gates and into a three-story house where they swiftly killed Abu Nidal and four of his aides. They then walked out without uttering a word. None of the guards or security personnel attempted to interfere with the assassination, because the assassins, like the guards themselves, worked for the Mukhabarat -- Iraq's internal security and intelligence service.
Abu Nidal had been one of the world's most brutal terrorist leaders since rising to prominence in the 1960s. His people were involved not only in countless assassinations and bombings, but also in comprehensive support operations for diverse terrorist groups all over the world -- from Latin America to Northern Ireland to Japan. He was the mastermind of some of the most lethal terrorist strikes in history, and his organization was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of civilians around the world.
Over the years, Abu Nidal closely cooperated with any number of intelligence services, including those of the Soviet Union, Romania, North Korea, Pakistan, Libya, Egypt, and Iraq. But in August 2002 the sixty-five-year-old murderer was old and infirm, bound to a wheelchair by heart disease and cancer. There seemed to be no logic to Baghdad's decision to assassinate Abu Nidal at the height of its crisis with America; at the very least, the assassination reminded friends and foes alike of the shelter and sponsorship the Iraqi government provided to the world's terrorist elite.
Like all aspects of the war in Iraq, the undercurrents surrounding the assassination are far more important than the action itself. And like many other facets of this crisis, they still leave more questions than answers. Quite simply, Saddam Hussein, who personally authorized the assassination of his longtime personal friend, had little reason for doing so. The act was merely an attempt to please two close allies, Hosni Mubarak and Yasser Arafat, who were desperate to ensure that American forces entering Baghdad would not be able to interrogate Abu Nidal.
Mubarak was anxious to conceal the fact that during the late 1990s Egyptian intelligence used Abu Nidal's name to run a series of covert assassinations and "black operations" against Egyptian al-Qaeda elements. Posing as Abu Nidal's terrorists, Egyptian intelligence operatives ruthlessly destroyed British and other intelligence networks standing in their way. They killed Egyptian Islamists Cairo knew to be spying for some of Egypt's closest allies and benefactors. At the same time, Egyptian intelligence was receiving comprehensive assistance from the CIA. Egypt had sworn that it was not involved in these black operations, since the United States considers them illegal and the CIA is not permitted to cooperate with any country performing them, even indirectly. Egypt also adamantly denied that Abu Nidal was being sheltered in Cairo at the time, although he was receiving medical care in return for his cooperation with Egyptian intelligence.
Arafat was desperate to conceal the long-term cooperation between his Fatah movement and Abu Nidal's Black June organization. Ion Pacepa, the former chief of Romanian intelligence, disclosed that in the late 1970s Hanni al-Hassan, one of Arafat's closest confidants, took over Abu Nidal's Black June organization on Arafat's behalf so that Arafat could "have the last word in setting terrorist priorities" while enhancing his own image as a moderate. Arafat was anxious to hide his terrorist connections and maintain the charade that he was a peacemaker. Desperate to distance himself and the Palestinian Authority from the specter of terrorism (and thus exempt himself from the American war on terror), Arafat could not afford to allow Abu Nidal to reveal their quarter-century of close cooperation, during which Arafat was actually the dominant partner.
But there was a darker facet to the Abu Nidal story. In the weeks prior to the assassination, Iraqi intelligence received warnings from the intelligence services of several Gulf States that Abu Nidal was trying to reach an agreement with Britain's Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), which the Arab world respects and dreads far more than the CIA. Unhappy with the medical treatment he was getting in Baghdad, Abu Nidal had offered to divulge secrets in exchange for superior medical treatment in England. When London was cool to the original offer, Abu Nidal professed that he could provide the latest information about Iraqi cooperation with international terrorism generally, and al-Qaeda in particular.
Iraqi intelligence was reluctant to accept these reports because it knew the ailing Abu Nidal had few aides left, and most of these were actually working for Iraqi intelligence. After extended consideration, Saddam and the Mukhabarat high command concluded that the warnings had actually been a crude disinformation effort by the CIA or the SIS -- a sting aimed to manipulate Baghdad into exposing its growing cooperation with bin Laden, giving the administration an excuse to strike. The Iraqis, it turns out, were correct: the SIS was indeed trying to provoke the Iraqis into reckless actions, using its allies in the Gulf States as conduits for the flow of "chicken feed" to Baghdad.
The assassination destroyed all remaining hopes in Washington and London for extracting information from Abu Nidal. Baghdad further capitalized on the event by delivering a message to the Western intelligence services. On August 21, Mukhabarat chief Taher Habush appeared in a rare press conference, showing grainy pictures of a blasted and thoroughly bandaged body he claimed was Abu Nidal's. Habush admitted that the longtime terrorist had been hiding in Baghdad, but alarmed at his recent discovery by police, he had committed suicide rather than face Iraqi authorities ...Secret History of the Iraq War. Copyright © by Yossef Bodansky. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.