October 11, 2007

NBC Worldblog - from Ally to Adversary

Richard Engel, NBC Middle East Bureau Chief writes:


To survive under Saddam Hussein, you had to feign loyalty and turn on your friends. To survive after Saddam, you had to cooperate with Saddam's enemies. It's a reality that has left so many in Iraq with checkered pasts.

Some former spies have done well and reinvented themselves. Others have been forgotten and disavowed.

Saddam's final defense minister Sultan Hashim says he is one of the betrayed.

I met Hashim in Baghdad during the 2003 invasion. He was gruff, portly, and abrupt and ended up looking somewhat foolish. I was in the Palestine Hotel, holed up with a few journalists still in Baghdad, taking shelter from the rain of bombs and rockets. Hashim had come to give a statement to the tiny Baghdad press corps.

VIDEO: U.S. goes to bat for a former Saddam aide who also worked for the CIA

He sat at a table set up on a little stage in the Palestine's main conference room. A giant map of Iraq was pinned to the wall behind him. Hashim’s main message was that American troops were bogged down in southern Iraq and were not advancing toward Baghdad as quickly as American commanders claimed. Hashim wasn't fooling anyone. As he spoke, the map behind him shook like paper in the wind as American JDAMs (joint direct attack munitions) and cruise missiles exploded outside. Nope, no Americans here. It was almost funny.

But it turns out Hashim wasn't working only for Saddam. He'd also volunteered to work for the CIA to overthrow the dictator.

Saddam’s Achilles’ heel

According to Rick Francona, an NBC News analyst who worked in northern Iraq for a secret CIA task force code named Achilles, Hashim reached out to the CIA in 1996 through the former Kurdish rebel leader Jalal Talabani.

Francona and his team were trying to overthrow Saddam. Talabani said Hashim wanted to help.
The CIA, Talabani, Ayad Allawi, Gen. Abdullah Shawani and several Iraqi officers were all deeply involved. Their names have been previously published. The plot was called "Achilles" for "Achilles' heel," the weak spot that ultimately brought down the fabled hero. The army officers and insiders, men like Hashim, were meant to be that weak spot, the Achilles' heel.

It's unclear exactly how much Hashim actually did for the CIA. He certainly was helpful to Talabani, who in turn was helpful to the CIA. Talabani said Hashim "made calls," "communicated" and "helped rebel against (Saddam's) government."

But the CIA's 1996 coup never materialized. Saddam infiltrated the conspirators and executed as many as 200 of the plotters, including two of Shawani's sons.

The survivors, however, would get their chance again when the U.S. took a more direct approach to toppling Saddam, invading the country in 2003.

The class of 1996 did well by the invasion.
· Talabani became president.
· Allawi became Iraq's first prime minister.
· Shawani became intelligence chief.

But what happened to Sultan Hashim?

Eight of hearts in U.S. deck of cards
He was sentenced to death in June, convicted as a war criminal.

A U.S.-funded Iraqi court convicted Hashim of involvement in the murderous campaign against Kurds in northern Iraq known as the Anfal. Kurdish officials say an estimated 160,000 Kurds were killed by Saddam's forces, some with chemical weapons. Hashim was a commander in northern Iraq at the time. He may very well have been guilty of war crimes. But it seems by 1996, he wanted to be OUR war criminal.

It didn't work out that way. After U.S. forces toppled Saddam's government, Hashim suddenly found himself on the run, listed as the eight of hearts on the U.S. "deck of cards" of Iraq’s most wanted former leaders.

Hashim escaped to Mosul, where he has many supporters and relatives. That's where he came into contact with Gen. David Petraeus, now commanding general in Iraq. At the time Petraeus was the commander of the 101st Airborne Division. Petraeus wanted Hashim to surrender and sent him a letter, a copy of which was provided to NBC News by Hashim's former aides.

In the letter, Petraeus wrote:

"... I offer you a simple, yet honorable alternative to life on the run from Coalition Forces in order to avoid capture, imprisonment, and loss of honor and dignity befitting a General Officer. I officially request your surrender to me. In turn, I will accept this from you in person. You have my word that you will be treated with the utmost dignity and respect, and that you will not be physically or mentally mistreated while under my custody."

A spokesman for Petraeus, who was forwarded the letter by e-mail, said it "appeared to be an authentic copy."

The spokesman said Hashim "was treated with respect while in American custody. But there was never any promise of amnesty."

That's not how Hashim's family says the defense minister saw it. His son, brother and former chief of staff tell NBC News Hashim was promised protection and that intermediaries negotiating for Petraeus even suggested the former defense minister would be able to assume a prominent role in the new Iraqi armed forces. Petraeus’ spokesman said the general never had made any promise other than a dignified surrender. Intermediaries might have gone further.

Hashim did surrender to Petraeus, and his aides say he was treated with respect by the American commander. Hashim's aides, however, said they were shocked that the U.S. military handed him over to an Iraqi court that swiftly sentenced him to death.

Will he or won’t he?
Now here's the real twist.

According to Iraqi law, as president, Talabani must sign Hashim's death sentence. He must approve the execution of a man with whom he conspired against Saddam, a man he introduced to the CIA.

Last month, Talabani told a press conference that he will not do it.

"I used to urge him to rebel against the government, and he used to cooperate," Talabani said last month."So how can I now authorize his execution? I just can’t."

So Talabani, a Kurd, is in the bizarre position of defending one of Saddam's top generals convicted of war crimes against Kurds.

For now, there's a deadlock over Hashim's execution. Quietly some American officials here are working for some sort of compromise. CIA officials tell us they are not trying to commute Hashim's sentence.

Read more about Sultan Hashim's involvement with the CIA from NBC News' Senior Investigative Producer Robert Windrem: Did a former Saddam Minister help the U.S.?