A GAUNT Wali Abdelhadi al-Ghazali, a male nurse and an accused agent of the Iraqi intelligence service, stood meekly before a Kuwaiti judge and admitted that he helped plan an attempt to assassinate George Bush during the former president's visit to the emirate in April.
Trial proceedings against Mr. Ghazali and 13 other men, most of them Iraqi, began Saturday at a heavily guarded State Security Court building on the outskirts of the Kuwaiti capital.
Twelve of the defendants, including Ghazali and fellow Iraqi Raad al-Assadi, the suspected ringleaders of the plot, face the death penalty if convicted on charges that they conspired to kill Mr. Bush and carry out terrorist bombings in Kuwait on behalf of agents loyal to the regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
The trial is being followed closely by the Clinton administration, which has promised to punish Iraq if the defendants are found guilty of acting on orders from Baghdad.
Sheikh Jabir al-Ahmad al-Sabah, Kuwait's emir, invited Bush to visit the Gulf state as a gesture of thanks for his role in liberating Kuwait. Iraqi forces invaded the emirate on Aug. 2, 1990, and were forced to withdraw six months later following a punishing air and land assault led by the US. Bush's visit to Kuwait, from April 14 to 16, went off without incident.
Speaking before a hushed courtroom Saturday, Ghazali and Mr. Assadi described how they were recruited by men they believed to be Iraqi intelligence agents and instructed to drive a Toyota packed with explosives from Iraq to Kuwait City, where it was to be detonated as Bush visited Kuwait University April 15.
Both men pleaded guilty to the charges, but each painted a very different picture of his involvement in the alleged assassination plot. And a defense lawyer argued that the confessions were inadmissible because they were made without the benefit of legal counsel. All but one of the lawyers met their clients for the first time Saturday morning. The trial judge, Salah al-Fahad, rejected a motion for dismissal of the charges.
Assadi, a cafe-owner from Basra, Iraq, who dabbles in bootlegging and gunrunning across the Iraq-Kuwait frontier, implicated Ghazali as the ringleader of the operation and insisted that he was unaware of the ultimate target. During cross-examination by the trial judge, Assadi portrayed himself as a small-time smuggler caught up in a complex plot he failed to comprehend. He said he joined the plot after being offered several cases of whiskey and an amount of money by the presumed Iraqi agents.
"My entire mission was to sell the whiskey in Kuwait and then return to Iraq," Assadi told the court. "I did not care about what they were up to. I just came for the [smuggling] mission."
"I was forced into this operation," he said. "Our regime does not permit us to object."
In contrast to Assadi's self-depiction as a petty criminal, Ghazali came across as a loyalist of Iraq's ruling Baath Party. He said he was approached by an Iraqi intelligence agent in Najaf, Iraq, a week before the Bush visit and ordered to drive a van packed with explosives into Kuwait. "He said, `We have assigned you to the assassination of George Bush,' " Ghazali recalled. The agent, he said, showed him how to detonate the Toyota and gave him a belt packed with explosives that was to be used if the ca r bomb failed. Ghazali said he had been trained by Iraqi intelligence in basic bombmaking and assisted in the Bush plot because he "didn't have time to fight the allies" during the Gulf war.
Defense lawyers argued Saturday that the enormous political importance of the case for the Kuwaiti regime led prosecutors to rush it to trial, in violation of common legal procedure.
"This is the first time I've had no opportunity to speak to my client," said Najib al-Wagayan, an attorney for two of the suspects, who blamed "pressure from the US Embassy and the American government" for the apparent haste. A United States Embassy official observing the trial referred all questions to the State Department in Washington. The case has been adjourned until June 26 and is likely to last for several months.