In the aftermath of the fall of Saddam Hussein, a group of young men organised a bonfire in the courtyard of a two-storey building in Baghdad. They were destroying the intelligence files that detailed the regime's murderous and ruthless reach.
After the burning party had departed, a man entered the courtyard and carefully recovered files that had not been touched by the flames. The bulk of the retrieved files were in white, pink and blue folders tied with shoelaces.
The salvage operation was carried out by Hamad Shoraidah, an officer of the Iraqi National Congress (INC), the long-time opponents of Saddam's regime who had previously been forced into exile.
The files were last week being pored over by Iraqi and American experts. They tell a fascinating story.
Some of the files the INC claims it recovered - seen by The Sunday Times - apparently reveal how Iraqi agents infiltrated the Al-Jazeera television station, dubbed "the CNN of the Arab world", in an attempt to subvert its coverage of Saddam's regime. The station, claim the documents, was an "instrument" of the regime.
Al-Jazeera is a media phenomenon. The September 11 attacks - and the subsequent focus of world attention on the Arab world - catapulted it from obscurity to its current status as one of the world's most famous news networks.
Many Iraqi exiles, though, have been angered at what they claim was a bias in favour of the Iraqi regime before the war. The files appear to confirm their suspicions, detailing the efforts of the Mukhabarat, the Iraqi intelligence service, to influence Al-Jazeera's coverage.
The files cover a period from August 1999 to November 2002 and include:
*Iraqi intelligence reports on three alleged agents working inside the network. One was involved with the station's international relations.
*The claim that Al-Jazeera, was "mobilised and employed" by Iraqi intelligence.
*A report on how Iraqi intelligence obtained two letters written by Osama Bin Laden from one of its contacts inside Al-Jazeera.
*Details of how the intelligence service claimed to have successfully influenced the content of the network.
Al-Jazeera's correspondents are accustomed to attacks on their integrity and independence. As Faisal al-Qassem, one of the station's leading presenters, has said: "We have been accused of all sorts of things over the years and the criticism comes from everywhere - Arab governments as
well as the US.
"I have personally been accused of being an agent for every intelligence service in the world, apart from the Ivory Coast and Burkina-Faso."
Al-Jazeera executives are naturally suspicious of any documents originating from the INC, which has had a troubled relationship with the network.
These documents, however, raise serious questions. The allegation that the Iraqi secret service had agents working inside the network threatens to undermine Al-Jazeera's claim to be an independent voice in the Middle East.
ON the outskirts of Doha, the capital of Qatar, a blue-roofed complex serves as the headquarters of Al-Jazeera. The staff in this building, though, are responsible for a Middle East media revolution. Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president, once drily remarked during a visit: "All this noise from a matchbox like this."
The network was set up in 1996 by Sheikh Hamad Bin-Khalifah Al Thani, the emir of Qatar. He wanted Al-Jazeera to put the former British protectorate on the map and to break the protocol of partisan and sycophantic reporting in the Middle East.
The channel proved to be an irritant to East and West alike. Its robust reporting of dissident opinion infuriated many Arab regimes. In turn, the American administration accused the channel of allowing coded messages to be sent to Al-Qaeda terrorists by broadcasting Bin Laden's
On November 13, 2001, during the war in Afghanistan, the Al-Jazeera bureau in Kabul was bombed by the Americans. A mistake, said the military. Calculated retribution, said Al-Jazeera's more cynical devotees.
Since it broadcast the first video of Bin Laden after the September 11 attacks, the network has grown into one of the most widely watched stations in the Arab world, with audience estimates ranging between 35m and 50m worldwide. It has more than 50 correspondents in more than 30
By the time President George W Bush was preparing for war with Iraq, Al-Jazeera was a player on the world stage of global communications.
At the Doha HQ, an Iraqi involved with international relations at Al-Jazeera was allegedly a key figure in Baghdad's drive to obtain favourable coverage.
According to the documents seen by The Sunday Times, he was an Iraqi agent who supplied the Baghdad government with inside information. He allegedly helped the regime gain more favourable coverage and provided it with two letters written by Bin Laden.
The intelligence officers reported that they were so impressed with his efforts they gave his wife a gift.
One of the documents is a registration form for the Iraqi intelligence service which names him. His codename was Jazeera 2.
The document, on Iraqi embassy headed paper, states: "Jazeera 2 has been helping out and giving us special facilities to get our people on The Opposite Opinion (an Al-Jazeera discussion programme). He provides us with detailed information of all that takes place in the channel.
"I made him aware of the appreciation of his efforts. He has been presented with a set of gold jewellery for his wife."
Last night Al-Jazeera issued a statement saying that his employment had been "terminated some time ago".
Another document details how Jazeera 2 provided the Iraqi regime with two letters written by Bin Laden in September and October 2001. A document dated April 6, 2002, purports to reveal how Jazeera 2 gave advice on how the Iraqi regime could most effectively plant pro-Iraq voices on the station's programme.
The files also detail how intelligence officials targeted Al-Jazeera's other Iraqi employees to recruit them as agents. Knowing Saddam's ability to murder his regime's opponents in foreign countries and his capacity for revenge on the families of those who refused his bidding, both they and Jazeera 2 would have been in an invidious position.
In addition to Jazeera 2, the intelligence officers apparently notched up two other successes at Al-Jazeera's headquarters, both of them cameramen.
Neither of them would have been able to wield any significant influence on the channel's overall coverage but, according to the documents, one of the agents was used to provide information on his colleagues' views at the station. The other provided the regime with some film of the Iraqi military in the 1991 Gulf conflict, state the files.
Perhaps the most prized target of the intelligence officials was Mohammed Jasim Al-Ali, the station's managing director. They reported contacts with him, although there is no evidence that he was recruited as an agent or acted under their influence.
The files state his network was an "instrument" of the regime, but such extravagant claims have to be viewed with caution, in the context that junior intelligence officers often sought to impress superiors by exaggeration.
Al-Ali is an experienced executive who worked on Qatar Television before joining the Al-Jazeera board. "You should bring them the truth," he says regularly, "not false information."
The documents appear to show Al-Ali's relationship with the service in a letter to Saddam's presidential office in December 1999. The circulation of this correspondence at such high levels indicates the regime's determination to influence the network.
This letter was subsequently forwarded to the ministry of culture and information. In a scene worthy of a spy spoof, the agents then decided they needed to retrieve the letter because it would be hugely embarrassing for Al-Jazeera if it was leaked.
An intelligence document dated January 15, 2000, reads: "Our letter goes into the detail of our relationship with the Al-Jazeera satellite channel and all the efforts undertaken by the channel to foil American aggressive moves against the country.
"Should a copy of our letter remain in the ministry of culture and information, this would place in danger our relationship with Mohammed Jasim Al-Ali because the letter could leak to the enemy. It could be used as a point of pressure against the channel and might lose them as an instrument employed by us."
Another document claims: "In an earlier meeting with Mohammed Jasim Al-Ali of Al-Jazeera, he said that in no way would his channel execute American policy.
"He said they are at least neutral in their attitude, but in reality they lean towards the Iraqi side because they know the truth of the aggression that Iraq is subjected to."
In October 1999 an Iraqi intelligence document boasted that it allegedly prevented the broadcast of footage of a chemical attack by the Iraqi regime on the Kurdish city of Halabja in March 1988.
The document states: "The American embassy in Qatar sent that video to Al-Jazeera and requested (they) display that video cassette. We have succeeded in preventing their attempts to broadcast the programme through our influence in Al-Jazeera."
In response Al-Jazeera said last night that it had broadcast several programmes on Halabja, the last just before the outbreak of the Iraq war.
There have long been suspicions in some sections of the Iraqi community that the news network was a conduit for Saddam's propaganda. Arab critics have referred to the Qatar-based network as "Baghdad television".
The channel denies, however, it is influenced by Baghdad. Ibrahim Hilal, its editor-in-chief, told Channel 4 News last night it was highly unlikely Iraqi agents were working at the channel, but added: "You can never guarantee that any person working in a newsroom cannot be an
The political significance of the captured files was immediately recognised by Aras Karim Habib, who heads the INC effort to find and arrest the followers of Saddam.
As a close aide to Ahmed Chalabi, leader of the INC, he was incensed that Al-Jazeera wrongly reported that Chalabi had been arrested by the US military at a time when he had been working to organise a provisional government.
As a result of this report the INC allowed The Sunday Times exclusive access to some of the files. Marie Colvin in Baghdad sat with her translator under armed guard reading the documents, which were then photographed and e-mailed to The Sunday Times in London. These, in turn, were checked by an Iraqi exile, who has wide experience researching the regime's intelligence files, and a US military analyst.
AHMED SHAMES, chairman of the British-based Iraqi Prospect Organisation, which has campaigned for democracy in Iraq, said: "Many Iraqis felt before the war that Al-Jazeera was biased towards the Iraqi regime and failed to reflect the reality of what was happening in the country."
Iraqi exiles were angry at Al-Jazeera's references to American troops as invaders. They also felt the station treated the spurious claims of Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, Saddam's information minister, as fact and overstated the obstacles facing the coalition.
The station's supporters point out that, like all television reporters operating in Iraq before the fall of Saddam, Al-Jazeera journalists were treading a fine line. A report considered unfavourable by the Iraqi authorities would regularly lead to the expulsion of the journalist involved.
Al-Jazeera maintains it was subject to pressure from the outset but none had influenced it. The station had been criticised just before the fall of the regime for "disseminating US propaganda without checking its facts", Al-Jazeera said.
Last month the Iraqi regime expelled one Al-Jazeera reporter and banned another from reporting in Baghdad. On another occasion, according to one of the station's journalists, the Iraqi minister for information burst into Al-Jazeera's office and warned that if the coverage did not improve he would kill one of the correspondents. The documents seen by The Sunday Times also show a letter complaining about Al-Jazeera's coverage from the ministry of culture and information.
Academics who have monitored the station's output are impressed by itscomprehensive coverage. Mohammed el-Nawawy, an American journalism professor and co- author of Al-Jazeera: How the Free Arab News Network Scooped the World and Changed the Middle East, said: "I didn't feel they were trying to appease the Iraqi regime. Al-Jazeera has always tried to reflect the opinion of the Arab world compared with other Arab stations, which try to reflect the views of their governments."
Network executives are sceptical about any documents originating from Chalabi, who has been a vociferous critic of Al-Jazeera's Iraqi coverage.
Jihad Ballout, the network's communications director, said the station's employees might have met members of Iraqi intelligence. He pointed out that many Arab states select ministers and high-ranking officials from security personnel "so it is not surprising that the ministry of information would write reports to the security services".
Responding to the claim that Al-Jazeera was an "instrument" of the Iraqi regime, Ballout said it was "a curious situation". The station, he said, had been called at different times "an Al-Qaeda station, a CIA plant, Iraq TV and an Israeli channel, all of which were aimed at detracting from our professional credibility".
He added: "No allegation affects Al-Jazeera's adherence to its core values, especially its determination to provide all sides a platform."