Up to 300 Iraqis died last year as the result of a failed attempt by the CIA to overthrow Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi leader, in a debacle that led to the liquidation of the agency’s extensive operation in northern Iraq.
Only now are details emerging of one of the greatest failures of the Central Intelligence Agency since it was set up 50 years ago.
It not only financed an Iraqi opposition group that killed 100 people in a bombing campaign against civilian targets in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities, but fomented a military coup that was bloodily crushed by Saddam Hussein.
The CIA’s debacle in Iraq may yet tarnish the reputation of George J. Tenet, the CIA’s director designate, who as deputy director, presided over the disaster.
But one former U.S. official said Thursday: “As in Somalia the disaster in Iraq was so complete, that nobody in Washington wants an inquiry into what went wrong.”
Tenet will undergo confirmation hearings next week in Washington, where questions about his handling of the affair are likely to be asked.
The ease with which Saddam crushed a CIA-backed military coup in June, during which some 80 Iraqi officers were executed or died under torture, may have given the Iraqi leader the confidence two months later to send his tanks into Iraqi Kurdistan for the first time in five years.
A further 120 Iraqis on the CIA payroll were slaughtered because the agency had failed to foresee the attack.
In the wake of this series of disasters the CIA officer in Amman, the capital of Jordan, in charge of organizing the coup against Saddam is said by a Washington source to have received a telephone call from Baghdad asking for him by name.
The caller, presumably an Iraqi intelligence official, gave extensive details of the coup, including the names of those involved. He then suggested that the CIA official pack up and go home.
The attempt to overthrow Saddam was sparked by the CIA’s belief that the defection of Lt. Gen. Hussein Kamil, the Iraqi leader’s son-in-law, in 1995, meant that he was vulnerable to a coup.
The CIA was eager for a success after the scandal over Aldrich Ames, one of its officers, who was unmasked as a Russian spy.
President Clinton signed an order in early 1996 for $6 million in covert aid to be given to an Iraqi opposition group called the Iraqi National Accord (INA).
The INA was already on the CIA payroll and was mainly recruited from former Iraqi officers and officials from the ruling party. From its bases in Iraqi Kurdistan it had carried out bombing attacks on Baghdad.
Details of these were spelled out by Abu Amneh al-Khadami, the INA’s chief bomb maker, who made a video - obtained by The Independent - of himself accusing his senior officer of keeping him short of money, arms and explosives as well as secretly working for Iraqi intelligence.
When Iraqi tanks rolled into Arbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, last August they destroyed the remnants of one of the largest CIA operations in the world.
Several thousand Iraqis and Kurds who had worked for CIA-backed organizations had to be evacuated through Turkey to Guam for final relocation to the United States. Their flight brought to an end the CIA’s attempt to rebuild its reputation by overthrowing Saddam.
John Deutch, the outgoing head of the CIA, is said by an Iraqi source to feel that the strength of the INA was misrepresented to him. He resigned as director of the CIA after President Clinton refused to make him defense secretary.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Chronology of CIA activity in Iraq The Independent, London 1990: Saddam Hussein invades Kuwait. CIA starts to give support to Iraqi opposition groups. 1991: After Gulf War and Kurdish uprising Saddam Hussein loses control of his three northern provinces forming Iraqi Kurdistan. They become haven for CIA-backed dissidents. 1994-96: The Iraqi National Accord (INA), composed of former Iraqi officials and soldiers and backed by CIA, engages in bombing campaign against civilian targets in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities. About 100 people are estimated to have been killed. 1995: In May John Deutch, former U.S. deputy defense secretary, confirmed as director of CIA. Committed to overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Brings with him to the agency George J. Tenet as deputy director. In August Lt. Gen. Hussein Kamel, son-in-law of Saddam Hussein, flees to Jordan. King Hussein turns against Iraq, persuaded by CIA. 1996: In January President Clinton gives $6 million in aid to INA. Similar sums from Saudi Arabia and Arab world. Aim is to foment military coup against Iraqi leader. In June Saddam Hussein strikes first. In August Iraqi tanks intervene in Kurdish civil war, catching and killing 120 members of CIA-backed dissident group. 1997: John Deutch steps down from CIA where he is likely to be replaced by director-designate George Tenet next week.