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The Double Agents Who Brought Down Saddam By: Michael Ware
Time.com | Friday, October 17, 2003


Saddam Hussein didn't want to believe what his intelligence networks were saying. Before the war last spring, says a former colonel in the Iraqi intelligence service, Saddam's analysts presented him with classified reports predicting a decisive U.S. victory. The documents described how the Iraqi security forces, already outmatched, had been undermined by Washington's success in recruiting Iraqi spies and double agents. Internal intelligence reported to Saddam that Iraq's defenses would probably collapse. "We diplomatically suggested he should not stay here," the colonel says, "because we couldn't tell him outright that he had to step down." Even as U.S. troops moved into his capital, Saddam struck a resilient pose, appearing on Iraqi TV one day wading through a worshipful Baghdad crowd, grinning broadly, pumping his fist in the air, stopping to kiss a child.

Five days later, the Iraqi leader could no longer keep up his staunch facade. His orders largely unheeded, his soldiers declining to fight, Saddam went out for a look at his falling capital, a secretary who accompanied him recalls. Saddam stood on Zaitun Street, the boulevard decorated with monumental statues of two muscular forearms holding swords that cross above the roadway. As he turned to leave, he paused. Using an Arabic expression of utter disillusionment, he muttered, "Even my clothes have betrayed me."

Indeed, the quick and relatively painless U.S. overthrow of Saddam's regime was achieved not just by military means but also by betrayal. Before a shot was fired, the U.S. recruited and dispatched Iraqi collaborators to uncover Saddam's plans and capabilities, and hobble them. Deals were done; psychological warfare was waged; money was paid; and even blackmail was used. While the Bush Administration's post-Saddam planning has proved wanting, in this area of prewar thinking, Washington's strategies paid off. By the time the first U.S. tanks crossed the Kuwaiti border, top Republican Guard officers had been won over, and the secret police had been penetrated. Spies had infiltrated, and spotters had been dispatched to help guide American bombs. "You'd be surprised at what these guys achieved," says a Pentagon official in Iraq, referring to the Iraqi collaborators.

Even if Saddam was the last to know, many of those in his inner circle understood how deeply the Iraqi security services had been penetrated. At a funeral for two junior military officers midway through the war, mourners asked the commanders present how things were going. "They told us we were losing," one mourner remembers, "that there was a kind of treason in the army and the Republican Guard."

A side effect of the mass Iraqi desertions during the war has been that remnants of the regime survived to cause trouble in post-Saddam Iraq. Last week saw a fair share of mayhem. Suicide bombers drove an explosives-packed car into a Baghdad police station, killing eight people, and a Spanish diplomat was shot to death at the gate of his home in the capital. Resistance to the American occupation has been such that 188 U.S. troops have died in Iraq since President Bush declared an end to major hostilities on May 1. Still, the U.S.'s swift dispatch of Saddam undoubtedly saved both U.S. and Iraqi lives. This is the story of America's secret campaign to sabotage the regime from within and of the Iraqis who waged it.

INFILTRATING IRAQ
Al-Jaburi had the right connections to serve as an American spy. Stocky, fit and in his early 40s, al-Jaburi—who prefers not to have his first name published—served for almost a decade in the regime's most feared agency, the Special Security Organization (SSO). In the late 1980s, he was purged from the SSO after Saddam accused his clansmen of plotting a coup. In 1999 al-Jaburi defected to Jordan. There he joined an opposition group, the Iraqi National Accord (I.N.A.), which has a well-established relationship with the CIA.

According to Ibrahim Janabi, one of the I.N.A.'s main liaisons with the CIA in Amman, the CIA began ramping up for war in October 2002. "They asked us to contribute some tough, hardworking people to train for missions inside Iraq," says Janabi. "So I gave them al-Jaburi." The introduction, al-Jaburi recalls, was made in a coffee shop in Amman on Oct. 18. Al-Jaburi says CIA officers, with the aid of a lie detector, questioned him for days on a range of topics, including whether he was volunteering or being coerced to join. One question probed what he would do if he found his brother fighting against him. "I'd kill him," al-Jaburi says he answered. On Nov. 22, al-Jaburi says, he signed a contract guaranteeing him monthly payments of $3,000, with $9,000 paid in advance. Two days later he boarded a small jet bound from Jordan to Washington.

His class of 13 recruits, containing Iraqis and Lebanese, was flown from Washington to a secluded facility of temporary buildings hours away, al-Jaburi recalls. They were told they were in Texas. For two months they trained with some 20 instructors in physical fitness, intelligence gathering, report writing and surveillance. At a separate naval facility, recruits learned about explosives—how to sabotage armored vehicles, tanks, oil pipelines, electricity pylons and railways.

In February, al-Jaburi says, he flew to Kuwait, staying in a villa with his CIA handlers. They equipped him with $50,000 in American currency, a gps locator, satellite phones and a forged Iraqi identity card showing completion of military service so that he could move around Iraq unhindered. Al-Jaburi says he left for Iraq on March 11, guided across the border by smugglers arranged by Kuwaiti intelligence. "I'd been in the SSO, so I knew how dangerous this was going to be," al-Jaburi says. "But I also knew I had to do it."

The bulk of the $50,000 the CIA had provided al-Jaburi was for buying accomplices. He started with "Ahmed" (not his real name), an SSO officer in the main presidential compound whom al-Jaburi already knew. "I told him everything," says al-Jaburi. "I told him I'd listed his name with the CIA, and I had $5,000 for him." Ahmed proved an easy sell, replying, "What do you want from me?" The SSO man described where the Republican Guard had been posted in Baghdad and its environs, and revealed that it had been ordered to pull back into the city if attacked. In fact, after the U.S. bombed the Guard's positions early in the war, many of its officers abandoned their men, who then deserted en masse. Ahmed also identified the location of heavy-gun emplacements and missile batteries around the capital, targets the Americans hit with great effect during the air campaign.

Faced with the task of scouting the locations Ahmed had listed, al-Jaburi turned to an old friend and contact, A. Mashadani. Al-Jaburi had recruited Mashadani, a major in the mukhabarat, Iraq's main intelligence agency, soon after joining the I.N.A. For two years Mashadani, who had access to some of the mukhabarat's best secrets, had been feeding the CIA—through al-Jaburi—information on Iraqi missiles, antiaircraft systems and troop movements. Mashadani weighed the risks of helping al-Jaburi now. He had watched the execution of a colleague accused of spying for Iran. "Iran wasn't going to save that guy, or anyone," he says. "But we felt the U.S. could get rid of Saddam."

Using a mukhabarat sedan to which he had access as an officer in the organization, Mashadani and al-Jaburi visited as many of the locations Ahmed had identified as they could. Standing at the site, al-Jaburi would discreetly activate his gps locator, which searches the sky for satellites to triangulate its position, and then note the coordinates. At an appointed hour each night, he would use his satellite phone to contact the CIA and relate what he had found out. This required caution. Just possessing a satellite phone could result in death under Saddam's regime.

From the beginning, al-Jaburi's primary mission had been to scope out Saddam International Airport, one of the keys to taking Baghdad. Ahmed had a way in. He had a friend, "Mahmoud," who he says commanded the SSO's 3rd Battalion and was in charge of airport security. Ahmed knew Mahmoud had cursed Saddam privately, so he took him out for drinks, drawing him out on his views. The airport commander was sufficiently negative about Saddam to warrant a three-way drinking date with al-Jaburi. At a third session, al-Jaburi asked Mahmoud to cooperate and offered him $15,000. The commander, al-Jaburi says, agreed to help.

At sundown on March 23, with the war raging in the south and Baghdad under nightly bombardment, the airport commander drove al-Jaburi, in a military uniform, and Mashadani, bearing his mukhabarat ID, into the airport compound. In an SSO car, the trio crisscrossed the tarmac, mapping every building and bunker, counting every soldier and weapon they could see. Following the CIA's instructions, they repeated the exercise three times over three nights to confirm their sketches. By the time they had finished, U.S. battle planners had a detailed picture of the situation at the airport, from the weak points in the Iraqi defenses to the safest landing zones for American choppers.

On March 26 an exhausted al-Jaburi took a break to visit his family in his hometown near Tikrit. The next day his brother, an engineer at the Bayji oil refinery, was summoned to the plant to remove documents before the Americans got there. Al-Jaburi decided to go too, hoping to get papers of use to the U.S. It was a trap. Saddam's secret police surrounded al-Jaburi's car. He learned later that they had acted on a tip from one of his relatives eager to collect a reward. Taken to Baghdad's notorious Abu Ghraib prison, the last stop for many of the regime's opponents, al-Jaburi was sure he was going to die. His jailers, he said, placed a hood over his head and hung him from the ceiling by his arms, which were bound behind him. They hit him repeatedly with wire cords and clubs, smashing his feet.

Meanwhile, Mashadani was informed by his superiors that they had a special duty for him. At the meeting place, a mukhabarat facility, he says, "I found my duty was facing a lot of hands with guns." For six hours, Mashadani was grilled about his dealings with al-Jaburi. "All the senior bosses were coming to my interrogation," he says. "Everyone went crazy that a mukhabarat officer had been meeting a spy." At daylight, his jailers took him to see the beaten al-Jaburi. Both say they admitted nothing.

For four days, al-Jaburi says, his jailers tortured him: beating him, shocking him, smashing his hand. Mashadani gives a similar account. At one point, interrogators dragged al-Jaburi's mother and wife into the prison for questioning. Al-Jaburi could hear them wailing through the cell door. The sessions went on for six to eight hours at a time. Al-Jaburi says he was grilled about other spies, information he had relayed before his capture, gps coordinates he had sent. He says his CIA training prepared him to give away nothing of importance. But he feared that time was running out. With the regime collapsing, Saddam's execution squads were working double time, plucking five to ten men from their cells every hour. "It was like a slaughterhouse," says al-Jaburi.

As the war's front changed, al-Jaburi and Mashadani were moved from Abu Ghraib to prisons in Fallujah and then Ramadi. On April 11 the last guard at the Ramadi jail fled the advancing Americans, and locals came to set the two men free. Half-crippled and waving a white flag, they staggered up to an American unit. "I told them that we had just got out of prison and that we worked for the CIA," says al-Jaburi. A military-police humvee whisked them to Baghdad airport, which was under U.S. control. A CIA officer appeared with open arms. "Don't touch my back," al-Jaburi yelped, the wounds from his interrogation still fresh. He remembers the officer saying, "You are the heroes of the airport, the keys to Baghdad. Your future is assured."

ENTICING THE GAMBLERS
As an underground operative of the opposition Iraqi National Congress (I.N.C.), Wael Abu al-Timman spent years hiding from Saddam's henchmen. Now, with the war fast approaching, al-Timman was recruiting them. His instructions from the I.N.C., which worked closely with the U.S. before and during the war, were to find men not only willing to provide information about Iraqi defenses but also willing to see to it that the Iraqi forces failed to fight. Having served as a captain in the Republican Guard, al-Timman, who was based in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq but traveled often to Baghdad, turned to his old comrades. He was astonished by how many were willing to switch allegiances. "They knew it was their last chance (to join the likely winners)," he recalls. "We called them the gamblers."

Once the U.S. began bombing Baghdad, al-Timman's mission changed. He raced from one bomb site to the next, noting the physical damage and assessing casualties, keeping an eye out for leadership figures among the dead and wounded. At an appointed time each night, using a satellite phone, he called in his assessments to an I.N.C. contact, who passed them on to the Americans, who could then decide whether to hit old targets again or move on to others. "I considered it the most important thing I could do because it would bring an end to the war sooner," al-Timman says. On April 7 he milled with bystanders as rescuers dug through the rubble of several destroyed houses in the Baghdad suburb of al-Mansur. The Pentagon, thinking Saddam was inside, had struck the buildings. But the rescuers told al-Timman that Saddam had just been there briefly to inspect the damage and offer condolences for those killed. Al-Timman made sure that Saddam's body was not among those retrieved, then phoned in what he had learned so the hunt for Saddam could continue.

THE BLACKMAIL CARD
The operations chief for the I.N.C. goes by the name of Abu Ranin. His job before the war was to crack the mukhabarat. His tactics were hardball. The I.N.C. had done surveillance on Iraqi missions around the world, making educated guesses about who was an intelligence agent. From these lists, the I.N.C. narrowed down its targets. "We chose them for their weaknesses, setting out to get something on them and force them to work for us," says Abu Ranin, who was then based in Jordan.

In a West European capital, Abu Ranin says, he collected evidence on a mukhabarat station chief who was selling government property on the black market. When Abu Ranin threatened to alert Baghdad, he says, the officer rolled over. Abu Ranin would not say what information the man provided. Abu Ranin's greatest coup, he says, was in Romania. As he tells the story, he discovered a mukhabarat officer in Bucharest who had two useful qualities: he oversaw the regime's East European agents, and he had a weakness for prostitutes. Posing as a wealthy businessman based in Europe, Abu Ranin befriended the officer. He rented a villa and threw a private party with five prostitutes and ample alcohol. The mukhabarat officer brought four colleagues. Abu Ranin secretly audiotaped their drunken boastings and cajoled them into a few snapshots with the women. Blackmail, however, proved unnecessary. When his guests were distracted, Abu Ranin grabbed the officer's cell phone and downloaded its address book.

Over ensuing weeks, Abu Ranin called the names in the address book and concluded that he had the identities of 65 agents—either Iraqis based abroad or their contacts in foreign intelligence services, particularly Syrian and Palestinian. He then traipsed around the Middle East, arranging meetings with the Iraqi agents on various pretenses. Once, for example, he posed as a diamond trader looking to sell gems. Instead of showing up for the assignations, he would hide near the meeting place and surreptitiously photograph the agents. When his dossier was complete, he forwarded it up the I.N.C. chain of command. Exactly what use was made of his work, Abu Ranin isn't certain, but the data would have offered scores of prospects to the Americans working on turning Iraqi agents. And as the story of al-Jaburi, Ahmed and Mahmoud illustrates, one spy can beget another who begets another and so on.

A SINKING SHIP
As war approached and the Iraqi collaborators intensified their work, the underpinnings of Saddam's regime began to quiver noticeably. In the offices of Saddam's son Qusay, commander of the Republican Guard, "a lot of officers told us the coalition had called them or their families, telling them to surrender and offering money," says a former staff member who asks to be called Mohammed. It was the same at the mukhabarat. "Many told us they had been offered money or guarantees of safety or promises of positions of authority in the new government," says a member of the staff in the mukhabarat director's office. More telling was the number of officials who did not report the calls. "We know the Americans called virtually all the senior officers and a lot of the lesser ranks right down to lieutenants, but most of them did not come and tell us," says Mohammed.

When it came to war, most of Saddam's armies either chose flight over fight or were neutered by commanders who had agreed to accommodate the coalition. Colonel Ali Jaffar Hussan al-Duri was not one of them, but his ultimate superior was. Once the fighting had begun, Hussan's division of the al-Quds army, an official Iraqi militia, received what he called "an incredible" order to send half the men home on leave. He challenged the edict with his brigadier, who was equally bemused. They attempted to verify it, but communications had been cut. So they dismissed half the unit and watched the other half vanish soon after. "One top commander, a traitor, can make the whole army disappear," Hussan says, ashamed of his comrades' performance. With the U.S. briefed on the locations of many of Saddam's forces, the Americans devised novel ways to intimidate troops who might have stood their ground. "They broke into our (field) radio and told us they knew our precise locations," says a junior Republican Guard officer.

In Baghdad, Mohammed, of Qusay Hussein's office, was ordered a few days before the capital fell to tour the antiaircraft batteries in the area that had, by and large, stopped firing. When Mohammed asked soldiers sitting in their bunkers why their guns were silent, they answered, "Our general told us not to shoot." Mohammed told them Saddam had ordered that any crew failing to fire that night would be executed. In the morning he returned, bellowing at the units to explain why they had not fired at the U.S. jets. "Because straight after you left yesterday, the general came around," one man replied. "He told us not to listen to you guys."

DAY-AFTER GRUMBLES
Not all the secret agents got away with subversion. "Sultan," a captain in the SSO, says he became suspicious of a man claiming to be a mukhabarat official who was telling colleagues that the Iraqi army was losing and that the Americans were everywhere. Sultan suggested the man come and speak to his unit. "We took him to real mukhabarat officers. They sniffed him out immediately and took him," says Sultan proudly, sipping tea in a back-street cafe in Tikrit.

The suspected spy probably met the same fate as an undercover I.N.C. man called Lieutenant Ali, a close friend of al-Timman's. He was caught when the man who smuggled him to Baghdad from Kurdistan sold him out to the regime. After the war, al-Timman learned that Ali was imprisoned for weeks before being taken to Ramadi, where he was propped against a wall and shot on April 9, the day Saddam's statue came down in Baghdad's Firdos Square.

Some undercover agents who helped the U.S. are dissatisfied with the price they have paid. Disillusioned by their prospects in the new Iraq and threatened by an increasingly bold resistance movement, they feel abandoned by the Americans, for whom they risked their lives and betrayed their country. A mukhabarat colonel who spied for the I.N.C. now sits in a bare office. He has a nominal position with a minimal income and no real authority. He is bitter, claiming he was promised more. "If they don't give the Iraqi groups power, we can liberate ourselves from the Americans and engulf Iraq in fire," he threatens.

Al-Jaburi and Mashadani, the CIA's heroes of the battle for the airport, feel left out in the cold as well. Al-Jaburi says he was paid $75,000 for his efforts, Mashadani $60,000—good money in a country where the average yearly income is $2,500, as well as in the U.S., where the per-capita income is $23,000. Still, the two men feel that they are highly exposed and that the U.S. is not doing enough to protect them. Al-Jaburi's name has appeared on a death list—obtained by Time—kept by the remnants of the Fedayeen Saddam militia. Two of his relatives were shot dead while driving his car. He complains that the U.S. has not given him a license to carry a gun to protect himself. Without such a permit, Iraqis with arms are subject to arrest at U.S. checkpoints.

"The Americans are good-hearted. When they love you, they really love you," says al-Jaburi, "but when you finish your job, they forget you." Replies an officer of the CIA, who would not comment on the contributions of any particular Iraqi: "The people who have worked for us have been well treated. If there's some unhappiness, I suspect that it is from people who are either exaggerating their role or inventing promises that were never made." The greatest pledge the U.S. made to these people, of course, was that it would take down Saddam. That it did, with their considerable assistance.

— With reporting by Timothy J. Burger/ Washington




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