Ex-smuggler describes Iraqi plot to blow up US warship
Saddam Hussein was allegedly planning nine terrorist operations.
SULEIMANIYEH, NORTHERN IRAQ
Iraq planned clandestine attacks against American warships in the Persian Gulf in early 2001, according to an operative of Iranian nationality who says he was given the assignment by ranking members of Saddam Hussein's inner circle.Skip to next paragraph
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The alleged plan involved loading at least one trade ship with half a ton of explosives, and sailing under an Iranian flag to disguise Iraq's role using a crew of suicide bombers to blow up a US ship in the Gulf.
The operative, who says he smuggled weapons for Iraq through Iran for Al Qaeda during the late 1990s, says he was told that $16 million had already been set aside for the assignment the first of "nine new operations" he says the Iraqis wanted him to carry out, which were to include missions in Kuwait.
The first plot, remarkably similar to the attack on the USS Cole on Oct. 12, 2000, was never carried out. The status of the other nine operations remains unclear.
The smuggler, Mohamed Mansour Shahab, now in the custody of Kurdish opponents of Mr. Hussein in northern Iraq, says he was first told of the role he was to play in the plan in February 2000 one month after an apparently unrelated attempt in Yemen to target a US destroyer, the USS The Sullivans, failed when the bombers' boat, overloaded with explosives, sank. Suicide bombers later succeeded in striking the USS Cole in Yemen, leaving 17 US sailors dead and a gaping 40-by-40 foot hole in the side of the warship.
If this Iranian smuggler is telling the truth, it would represent the first information in nearly a decade directly linking Baghdad to terrorist plans. No evidence has surfaced to date that Iraq was involved in the Sept. 11 attacks or the bombing of the Cole. But President George W. Bush has declared Iraq part of an "axis of evil," and makes no secret of his determination to end the rule of Saddam Hussein as part of his "war on terrorism."
The last publicly known terrorism involvement by Baghdad was a failed assassination plot against Bush's father, former President George H. W. Bush, during a visit to Kuwait in 1993. The elder Bush orchestrated the 1991 Gulf War against Iraq.
"The Iraqis may have been waging war against the US for 10 years without us even knowing about it," says Magnus Ranstorp, at the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at St. Andrews University in Scotland. "Iraq may have fought, using terrorism as the ultimate fifth column, to counter US sanctions and bombing. Plausible deniability is something Iraq ... would want to ensure, putting layer upon layer to hide their role."
Part of the justification for any future US strike against Iraq may be the kind of information provided by the young-faced, nervous Iranian smuggler, now held in the US-protected Kurdish "safe haven" of northern Iraq.
Mr. Shahab spoke last weekend in an intelligence complex run by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), one of two rival armed Kurdish factions that control northern Iraq. He did not appear coerced to speak, and bore no physical signs that he had been mistreated since his arrest on May 16, 2000.
Still, shaking nervously and swallowing repeatedly, he at first refused to answer questions, saying that he was concerned about his family's safety in Iran. Two days later after learning that part of his smuggling history and role in several killings had already been made public in the New Yorker magazine he agreed to describe information that he had previously withheld, about Iraq's plan to target US warships.