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May 31, 2003  

Flash Back: How the CIA found and groomed Saddam


WASHINGTON: US forces may now be searching high and low for Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein but in the past he was seen by US intelligence as a bulwark of anti-communism, reports UPI.

American intelligence operatives used him as their instrument for more than 40 years, according to former US intelligence officials and diplomats.

UPI interviewed almost a dozen former US diplomats, British scholars and former US intelligence officials to piece together the following account. The CIA declined to comment.

While many have thought that Saddam Hussein became involved with US intelligence agencies from the 1980 Iran-Iraq war, his first contacts date back to 1959 when he was part of a CIA-authorized six-man squad tasked with assassinating then Iraqi prime minister General Abd al-Karim Qasim.

In July 1958, Qasim had overthrown the Iraqi monarchy. According to US officials, Iraq was then regarded as a key buffer and strategic asset in the Cold War with the Soviet Union.

For example, in the mid-1950s, Iraq was quick to join the anti-Soviet Baghdad Pact which was to defend the region and whose members included Turkey, Britain, Iran and Pakistan.

Little attention was paid to Qasim's bloody and conspiratorial regime until his sudden decision to withdraw from the pact in 1959.

Washington watched in marked dismay as Qasim began to buy arms from the Soviet Union and put his own domestic communists into ministry positions of real power.

In the mid-1980s, Miles Copeland, a veteran CIA operative, said the CIA enjoyed "close ties" with Qasim's ruling Baath Party.

In a recent public statement, Roger Morris, a former National Security Council staffer in the 1970s, confirmed this, saying the CIA chose the authoritarian and anti-communist Baath Party as its instrument.

According to another former senior State Department official, Saddam Hussein, while only in his early 20s, became a part of a US plot to get rid of Qasim.

According to this source, Saddam Hussein was installed in an apartment in Baghdad on al-Rashid Street directly opposite Qasim's office in Iraq's ministry of defence to observe Qasim's movements.

Adel Darwish, a Middle East expert and author of "Unholy Babylon," said the move was done "with full knowledge of CIA" and that Saddam Hussein's CIA handler was an Iraqi dentist working for CIA and Egyptian intelligence.

The assassination was set for October 7, 1959, but it was completely botched. One former CIA official said the 22-year-old Saddam lost his nerve and fired too soon, killing Qasim's driver and only wounding Qasim in the shoulder and arm.

Qasim, hiding on the floor of his car, escaped death, and Saddam Hussein, whose calf had been grazed by a fellow would-be assassin, escaped to Tikrit, thanks to CIA and Egyptian intelligence agents.

He then crossed into Syria and was transferred by Egyptian intelligence agents to Beirut.

While in Beirut, the CIA paid for Saddam Hussein's apartment and put him through a brief training course. The agency then helped him get to Cairo.

During this time Saddam made frequent visits to the American Embassy where CIA specialists such as Miles Copeland and CIA station chief Jim Eichelberger were in residence and knew him.

In February 1963, Qasim was killed in a Baath Party coup. Morris claimed that the CIA was behind the coup, which was sanctioned by President John F. Kennedy.

The CIA quickly moved into action. Noting that the Baath Party was hunting down Iraqi communists, the CIA provided the submachine gun-toting Iraqi National Guardsmen with lists of suspected communists who were then jailed, interrogated, and summarily gunned down, according to former US intelligence officials with intimate knowledge of the executions.

Many suspected communists were killed outright, these sources said. Darwish told UPI that the mass killings, presided over by Saddam Hussein, took place at Qasr al-Nehayat, literally, the Palace of the End.

Saddam Hussein became head of the Baath Party's intelligence apparatus.

The CIA/Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) relation with Saddam Hussein intensified after the start of the Iran-Iraq war in September 1980. During the war, the CIA regularly sent a team to Saddam Hussein to deliver battlefield intelligence to aid the effectiveness of the Iraqi armed forces.

A former CIA official said that Saddam Hussein had assigned a top team of three senior officers from Iraq's military intelligence to meet the Americans.

According to Darwish, the CIA and DIA provided military assistance to Saddam Hussein's ferocious 1988 assault on Iranian positions in the al-Fao peninsula by blinding Iranian radars for three days.

The Saddam Hussein-US intelligence alliance of convenience came to an end on August 2, 1990 when 100,000 Iraqi troops invaded Kuwait. America's one-time ally had become its bitterest enemy.

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