Ex-smuggler describes Iraqi plot to blow up US warship
Saddam Hussein was allegedly planning nine terrorist operations.
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Shahab was to rent or buy a date farm along the water at Qasba, on the marshy Shatt al-Arab waterway that narrowly divides Iraq and Iran, just a few hundred yards from the Iraqi port city of Fao. Using a powerful small smuggling boat, he says he would have been able to reach Kuwaiti waters from Qasba in just 10 minutes.Skip to next paragraph
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Iraqi agents were to provide the explosives and suicide squad; Shahab was to handle the boats and the regular crew. "The group that worked with me would sail the ship, and not know about the explosives," Shahab says. "When we crossed out of Iranian waters, we were to kill the crew, hand over the ship to the suicide bombers, and then leave by a smuggler's way."
The job, Shahab said, "was easy for me, I could start at any time." Shahab said the Iraqis told him they "had a lot of suicide bombers in Baghdad" ready to take part in such an operation.
But the plans were never finalized for Shahab, and after delivering the refrigerator motors to the Taliban, he was arrested in northern Iraq in May 2000, with his roll of film, as he tried to avoid Iranian military exercises going on along the border to the south. Though carrying a false Kurdish identity card, his accent gave him away at the last PUK checkpoint.
Iraqi experts say that such a plot is plausible, since Saddam Hussein's multiple intelligence services are sophisticated and smart.
"Anything is possible," says Sean Boyne, an Ireland-based Iraq specialist, who writes regularly for Jane's Intelligence Review in London. "Certainly Saddam has gone to great trouble to shoot down [US and British] aircraft" patrolling no-fly zones in northern and south Iraq, Mr. Boyne says. "He has invested heavily in his antiaircraft system. He is eager to have a crack at the Americans."
That impulse may also help explain the presence of a training camp at Salman Pak, a former biological-weapons facility south of Baghdad. It includes a mock-up Boeing 707 fuselage, which Western intelligence agencies believe has been used for several years to train Islamic militants from across the region in the art of hijacking. A senior Iraqi officer who defected told The New York Times last November that the regime was increasingly getting into the terrorism business. "We were training these people to attack installations important to the United States," an unnamed lieutenant general said. "The Gulf War never ended for Saddam Hussein. He is at war with the United States. We were repeatedly told this."
Still, the political situation Saddam Hussein finds himself in today in light of the example of decisive US military action in Afghanistan may not be as conducive to a strike at the US as it was when Shahab says he first heard of the plan to blow up a US warship. In recent months, Boyne notes,
Iraq has engaged in a region-wide charm offensive to portray itself as a victim, and to build Arab and European support against any US attack. Baghdad is even pursuing warmer ties with Kuwait (at the Arab League summit last week) and with Iran, in an attempt to gain mileage from Iran's anger at being listed as part of Washington's "axis of evil."
While the Bush administration focuses on Iraq's apparent pursuit of weapons of mass destruction in the absence of UN weapons inspectors, who were kicked out in 1998 clues to Iraq's true role may lie in the credibility of the 29-year-old smuggler from Ahvaz.
Why is he talking now? "Afghanistan is finished, so now I feel free to speak," says Shahab, who was given the name Mohamed Jawad by accomplices in Afghanistan. Asked if he fears the wrath of senior members of the regime in Baghdad, who still hold power, Shahab replies: "I lost everything. For many years I worked with assassinations and killing it doesn't make a difference to me."