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New Iraqi PM a Longtime CIA Source

by Matt Kelley - 7 September 2004

The new Iraqi prime minister, trying to stave off attacks by anti-American militants, has a long relationship with Washington as a trusted intelligence source, former officials say.

Ayad Allawi also helped British intelligence gather information about Saddam Hussein's regime during nearly three decades in exile. Once a member of Saddam's Baath Party, Allawi later formed the Iraqi National Accord to act as a conduit for defectors from, and sources in, the former Iraqi government.

Now Allawi heads the appointed Iraqi interim government struggling to assert its authority and its independence from the United States. Allawi has taken a hard line against militants, threatening them with military action while pressing for negotiations to have anti-government militias lay down their arms.

The Iraqi prime minister has said he's proud of his contacts with Washington and other governments and claimed he worked with "at least 15" intelligence agencies while in exile.

"We do not feel ashamed of being in touch ... to get rid of the evil regime of Saddam," Allawi said in June.

His cloak-and-dagger background includes a failed assassination attempt by an ax-wielding intruder at his home near London and a role in fomenting an unsuccessful coup attempt against Saddam in 1996. But until just a few months ago, the more reserved Allawi had been overshadowed by the flamboyant Ahmed Chalabi, who headed the Iraqi National Congress.

Chalabi fell from grace this spring amid allegations his group alerted Iran that the United States had broken a secret Iranian communications code. Chalabi denies that.

Officials at the Central Intelligence Agency have been wary of Chalabi for more than a decade, not only because of his 1992 fraud conviction in Jordan but because he never seemed to offer good information, former CIA operatives say. The CIA trusted Allawi because he had better sources in Baghdad than other prominent exiles like Chalabi, said Judith Yaphe, a CIA Middle East analyst during the first half of the 1990s.

"Over the years, Allawi's contacts were proven to be real while Chalabi's were never what Chalabi told us," said Yaphe, now a fellow at the Pentagon's National Defense University. "I have a feeling that, even if he may have been passing information that turned out to be wrong, he seems to have been fed better stuff."

Some of Allawi's information did turn out to be spectacularly wrong.

In 2002, Allawi's INA put British MI6 intelligence operatives in touch with a military officer in western Iraq who claimed chemical weapons may have been delivered to front-line units. That officer's claims helped form the basis for the now-discredited assertion by the British government that Saddam could have chemical weapons ready to use within 45 minutes.

Allawi's group also gave MI6 a letter purporting to show that Sept. 11 hijacker Mohammed Atta received training in Iraq from now-dead terrorist Abu Nidal in 2001. The FBI's timeline of Atta's movements before the attacks show no gaps which would account for such a trip, however.

Chalabi and Allawi are cousins by marriage and, according to a Chalabi spokesman, went to primary school together. They have been longtime rivals, however, clashing over the best way to overthrow Saddam. Allawi favored a coup by disaffected Iraqi military officers while Chalabi proposed a popular revolt. Separate attempts to do both failed.

Chalabi, also a member of the former Iraqi Governing Council, supported Allawi's elevation to prime minister. Chalabi's representatives now offer only mild criticism of Allawi's Baath Party past.

"Allawi has a coup mentality typical of the Arab world," said Entifadh Qanbar, an INC spokesman in London.

Allawi, then a medical student, joined the Baath Party in the 1960s, while Saddam was a lower-level party strongman. Allawi remained a member of the party after traveling to London for further studies in the early 1970s before quitting the party around 1975.

Some critics say they suspect Allawi was working for Iraqi intelligence during those early London years, an allegation Allawi has denied.

"All students outside the country had to be approved by the Iraqi security services," said Mustafa Alani, an Iraqi exile and associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence Studies in London.

"I'm no part of any Iraqi movement. But to say he had blood on his hands as a paid agent (of Iraq) is not right." Allawi clearly was out of Saddam's favor by 1978, when an intruder believed to be an Iraqi agent broke into Allawi's home in the middle of the night and hacked him with an ax, nearly severing a leg. Allawi spent months in the hospital recovering.

Allawi developed strong ties to the United Kingdom's foreign intelligence service known as MI6 during the 1980s, when the United States was friendly with Saddam because of Iraq's war with Iran. After the 1991 Persian Gulf War, though, Allawi set up the INA with help from MI6, the CIA, the Saudi Arabian government and others, several former U.S. officials said.

"The fact that he broke with Saddam before the worst kind of repression took place in Iraq was in his favor," said former Ambassador David Mack, who worked with Allawi as a U.S. State Department official in the 1990s.

Allawi's group helped foment a coup attempt against Saddam in 1996, but Iraqi agents discovered the plot and dozens of alleged plotters were arrested and killed. The prime minister's critics say that showed Allawi was untrustworthy.

"Allawi's one chance for glory, the coup in 1996, failed miserably," said retired CIA agent Warren Marik, who worked in Iraq. "He'd long claimed close ties with the Iraqi army, but the coup failed and no one marched on Baghdad."

Despite their long-standing relationship, U.S. and British agencies won't be pulling the strings now that Allawi is in power, Mack and Yaphe said.

"He's a known quantity, but once someone is in power that known quantity can turn out to be not that kind of person. We knew nothing about what (Egyptian president Hosni) Mubarak and Saddam would be like once they took power," Yaphe said.

Associated Press Writer Tom Wagner in London contributed to this report.

-  (7 September 2004)

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revised 18 November 2005