International Papers

Birthday Boys?

Several weeks after the fall of Saddam Hussein, Iraq is mired in three typical postwar preoccupations: forming a transitional authority, exposing secrets, and making covert deals.

The deal-making came out in a story from London’s Sunday Times, which reported that former Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz will be transferred to Britain this week for debriefing by British intelligence, before settling into a million-dollar home, probably in Oxfordshire. On Monday, the London-based Al-Hayat headlined with the Times story, noting that the U.S. and British governments would pick up the tab for Aziz’s residence and security. In exchange, they would demand information from him in three key areas: Saddam Hussein’s whereabouts, Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, and the war crimes Saddam was involved in, as well as on the millions of dollars that disappeared from Iraqi state coffers. Reports of Aziz’s sweetheart deal made Kuwait’s daily Al-Rai al-Aam ask, in a headline, “Was Aziz the Primary Coalition Traitor in Baghdad?” The paper cited Con Coughlin, who authored a recent book on Iraq, speculating that Aziz might have been the high-level source who told U.S. intelligence where Saddam was on March 20, leading to the so-called “decapitation attack.” Coughlin revealed that on the eve of the war, the Iraqi regime detained Aziz’s family as it was losing trust in him.

London’s Sunday Telegraph focused on exposing secrets, particularly those found in documents discovered in Iraqi intelligence headquarters. The documents allegedly prove that Saddam’s regime had ties with al-Qaida since they describe the March 1998 visit to Baghdad of an envoy of Osama Bin Laden’s. The paper affirmed that “the purpose of the meeting was to establish a relationship between Baghdad and al-Qa’eda based on their mutual hatred of America and Saudi Arabia.” The get-togethers ended with discussion of a possible Bin Laden visit to Baghdad. While the documents contradicted Iraqi denials of an al-Qaida connection, they may be less significant than they seem: The meetings took place five months before the bombings of two U.S. Embassies in East Africa, which is before the Clinton administration placed Bin Laden at the top of its most-wanted list. It was also peculiar that the documents were found “inside a folder lying in the rubble of one of the rooms of the destroyed intelligence HQ,” after Iraqi agents “attempted to mask out all references to bin Laden, using white correcting fluid.” If the Iraqis feared exposure and knew their time was up, outright destruction of the documents would have been more likely. (This is the second time in a week that British journalists have claimed to find hot docs lying in Iraqi rubble.)

London’s Guardian exposed a few secrets of its own, having discovered the hitherto unknown Abu Hattem, the Shiite head of the Marsh Arabs, whose ancient lifestyle Saddam destroyed when he drained Iraq’s southern marshes after the 1991 Gulf War in order to deny shelter to his enemies. Abu Hattem fought the Baathist regime for 13 years and has suggested he might do battle again:

Asked if he would mount an armed campaign against the US if it stays on, he said: “It depends on the nature of the US presence in Iraq and the time of such a presence. Then, if the people will decide and if the people ask us to fight, we will be the first to take up arms. We did not fight Saddam to have US colonialism.”

With this in mind, the Bush administration has made the formation of a transitional Iraqi authority a priority. Monday, the U.S. civil administrator, Jay Garner, met with representatives of Iraqi society to discuss the country’s future. This followed the arrest on Sunday of the self-appointed mayor of Baghdad, Muhammad Mohsen al-Zubaidi, a move designed to underscore Garner’s intention to tighten administrative control over Iraq. In its Sunday edition, Al-Hayat focused on a timetable for setting up a transitional authority, noting that while Garner had promised one by the end of this week, the Pentagon later said he had misspoken. Instead, “American officials said that the new objective agreed in White House meetings this week … is for the proclamation of a transitional Iraqi authority as of the end of May.” This suggested a much accelerated timetable compared to that outlined in earlier administration statements.

Oman daily Al-Watan claimed that Garner would be celebrating his 65th birthday Monday on a date familiar to Iraqis, since April 28 is also Saddam’s birthday. The only problem with the story is that Garner celebrated his birthday almost two weeks ago. Nice try at a parallel, though.