Ex-smuggler describes Iraqi plot to blow up US warship
Saddam Hussein was allegedly planning nine terrorist operations.
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"If this information is true, it would be in the interest of the US, and of all the world, for the US to be here to find out," says a senior Kurdish security officer involved in the case. Kurdish investigators were initially skeptical of some parts of Shahab's story. But the investigators say they later independently confirmed precise descriptions of the senior Iraqi officials Shahab says he met, by cross-examining a veteran Iraqi intelligence officer in their custody, and checking other sources.Skip to next paragraph
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Wearing a pale-green military jacket, dark-blue sweat pants and worn plastic sandals, Shahab softly recounts how he smuggled arms and explosives for Al Qaeda and the Iraqis. He at times flashes a boyish smile the same disarming grin he uses in images on a roll of film he was carrying when arrested. Shahab also claims to be an assassin. The photos shown to the Monitor show Shahab killing an unidentified man with a knife. He grins at the camera as he holds up the victim's severed ear.
During a two-and-a-half-hour interview, Shahab describes the origin of the plot to blow up US warships, while his hands work nervously. He received an urgent phone call early in 2000, from a longtime Afghan contact named Othman, who told him to go to a meeting in Iraq. In February 2000, Shahab says he was taken to the village of Ouija, the birthplace of Saddam Hussein near Hussein's clan base at Tikrit, in north central Iraq.
At the meeting, he says, were two influential Iraqis, fellow clansmen of Saddam Hussein: Ali Hassan al-Majid Mr. Hussein's powerful cousin and former defense minister and Luai Khairallah, a cousin and friend of Hussein's notoriously brutal son Uday. Mr. al-Majid is known among Iraqi Kurds as "Chemical Ali," for his key role in the genocidal gassing and destruction of villages in northern Iraq that killed more than 100,000 Kurds in 1987 and 1988.
The Iraqis said they considered Shahab to be Arab, and not Persian, and could trust him because he was from Ahvaz, a river city in southwest Iran rich with smugglers and close to the Persian Gulf, Iraq, and Kuwait. It is known as "Arabistan" because of the number of Arabs living there.
Al-Majid and Mr. Khairallah spoke of the nine operations: "We've allocated $16 million already for you," Shahab remembers them telling him. "We start with the first one: We need you to buy boats, pack them with 500 kilograms of explosives each, and explode US ships in Kuwait and the Gulf."
The plan was "long term," Shahab says, and meant to be carried out a year or so later, in early 2001, after he had carried out another mission to take refrigerator motors to the Taliban. Each motor had a container attached holding an apparently important liquid unknown to Shahab. He says he doesn't know if all nine operations mentioned were similar to the boat plan, or completely different. Some were to take place in Kuwait.
The attack against a US vessel, Shahab recounts al-Majid and Khairallah explaining, was to be "a kind of revenge because [the Americans] were killing Iraqis, and women and children were dying" because of stringent UN sanctions, which the US backed most strongly. "They said: 'This is the Arab Gulf, not the American Gulf,' " Shahab recalls, referring to the large US naval presence in the area.
The Iraqis knew that Shahab, with his legitimate Iranian passport and wealth of smuggler contacts, would have little trouble purchasing the common 400-ton wooden trading boats. He would have raised few eyebrows sailing under an Iranian flag the only ships in the area, since UN sanctions prohibit such Iraqi trade.