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Saddam's capture revisited
By Ritt Goldstein

The BBC aired a story on March 28, an "expose" revealing the identity of Saddam Hussein's betrayer, with the piece being picked up by the majority of major English-language dailies soon after. The identity of the so-called "Fat Man" was revealed. But while the network named Mohammed Ibrahim Omar al-Muslit as the tipster, the news of this had already broken by January. And what the BBC didn't mention was that a chain of events, beginning last July, signaled the start of the dictator's demise.

Notably, a new chairman of the BBC was named just subsequent to the broadcast's airing, the network having been previously besieged by the Hutton inquiry for the nature of its Iraq, pre-war coverage. An anti-Tony Blair administration bias was effectively suggested, and questionable reporting was "found". But with the March 28 broadcast, it appears that the BBC has indeed taken the inquiry's conclusions to heart, providing a story-line that war hawks should welcome.

According to a BBC report prior to the Saddam broadcast, their forthcoming program was slated to "reveal that he [Mohammed al-Muslit] was quickly broken by interrogators after being captured in Baghdad, and led American troops to his boss [Saddam] just hours after being arrested in December". But others tell a different story, and in December and January, Kurdish sources were confirmed as playing a key role in unearthing Saddam.

It is against this background of controversy that the BBC supported the US's disputed arrest portrayal. But only the name of al-Muslit provides substantive links among the differing versions of events, and both the nature and timing of the story raise questions in themselves.

The day of Saddam's capture, December 14, Kurdish Media reported that a "special intelligence unit led by Mr Kosrat Rassul" had found Saddam. It was Jalal Talabani, leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), who first broke news of the capture, not coalition spokespeople.

The Iranian news service IRNA is acknowledged as first reporting further on the event, with Talabani being interviewed by them in a town on the Iraq/Iran border. Talabani and Iran have good relations and a history of cooperation.

On December 15, The Guardian reported that a member of Iraq's Governing Council, Dr Mahmoud Othman, supported the Kurdish claims, contradicting US accounts. And there were other independent observers which did similarly.

The September 11 hearings in Washington, the Madrid blasts, the Iraqi setbacks, and the conveniently concurrent explosion of interest in Africa's oil and al-Qaeda, have all served to certainly put the "terror war" on trial. It is indeed fortunate for the war's supporters that the BBC chose to provide a testimonial to it at this time; though, a focus on the name of al-Muslit does have its benefits.

Facts do confirm that central to Saddam's life and capture were his trusted relatives and lieutenants of the al-Muslit family. They served as his bodyguards, drivers, cooks and confidants. But while numerous questions surround just how Saddam actually came into US custody, some particularly illuminating facts are known. Key among them is a July 29 capture by the US 4th Army, that of Adnan Abdullah Abid al-Muslit, widely reported as "one of Saddam Hussein's closest bodyguards and collaborators".

The beginning of Saddam's end had begun.

Just days prior to Adnan al-Muslit's apprehension, a respected German daily, the Suddeutsche Zeitung (SD), had reported that US forces believed Saddam was travelling with a group of three men. Khalil Ibrahim Omar al-Muslit was named as Saddam's driver, his two brothers said to be the other's accompanying the dictator.

All of the al-Muslits were described as being Saddam's "closest bodyguards", a phrase the BBC itself used to describe Mohammed Ibrahim Omar al-Muslit. But as a family shielding the dictator, events fatefully and increasingly impacted the group.

The next link in the chain of events came but days later, arriving with the August 3 arrest of another of the al-Muslit clan.

According to an August 7 Associated Press (AP) story in the Washington Times, Iraqi police made the arrest, handing their prisoner over to US forces. A US 4th Army spokesman, Lieutenant-Colonel Steve Russell, said that the person in custody could not be identified beyond being Adnan al-Muslit's brother.

The AP report added that the newly captured al-Muslit was wanted for "organizing guerilla attacks against American soldiers". But concurrently, a broad dragnet for all of those potentially close to Saddam was widely reported as leading to substantive arrests, both of suspects and their family members.

Reports of the extensive interrogations surfaced in both the US and world media. Amnesty International raised questions regarding alleged US torture of detainees, with Reuters reporting circumstances that "would amount to torture as defined by UN standards", according to Amnesty US's deputy executive director. CBS News headlined, "US Accused of Torture in Iraq".

Notably, the BBC report in question specifically cited a US denial that Mohammed al-Muslit "had been tortured", but numerous accounts of "pressures" on suspects and their families remain. Moreover, it is known that Adnan al-Muslit suffered a head wound during the course of his arrest, and US officials have acknowledged the withholding of medical care as a mechanism which has been employed among some of those detained in the "war on terror".

The "pressures" on the al-Muslit family were substantive.

And so when on December 18 the newspaper al-Arab al-Yawm reported that Mohammed Ibrahim Omar al-Muslit had drugged the former dictator, subsequently providing details to US forces for Saddam's capture, few realized the potential significance. Apparently that included the BBC.

According to the al-Arab article, al-Muslit initially contacted the US forces through a relative, the drugging plan described as a US-inspired outgrowth of this. While questions of which relative and at what point remained, the al-Arab story cited as its source an undisclosed figure "close to the occupation forces".

There was still substantively more to Saddam's capture than al-Arab provided.

Speculation exists that in the maelstrom following Iraq's fall, a point came where Mohammed al-Muslit attempted to negotiate an exit strategy. The Kurds had established links to some of the families in Tikrit, the area of Saddam's capture, and it's believed that the Kurds came to initially act as negotiators for the US. It's also believed that at some point they bypassed the al-Muslits, seizing possession of Saddam as a prize of their own.

According to widely published reports, once the Kurds had Saddam, they subsequently negotiated his "capture" with Washington, pursuing political advantage as their reward. And while the Kurdish role in capturing Saddam was the subject of numerous articles within a week of his US detention, a fairly broad range of scenarios was reported, almost as if the truth were still being obscured.

Intelligence community sources describe the point at which Mohammed al-Muslit drugged and confined Saddam as following a mid-November broadcast by the dictator. If it were not for this broadcast and the timing of Kurdish involvement, the sources suggest that the drugging and confinement could potentially be placed considerably earlier.

Notably, a photo exists of US troops in front of Saddam's "rathole" with ripe dates and drying sausage in the background, both ordinarily existing only in late summer. This photo has been the source of considerable conjecture, and is likely to remain so.

On December 15, a Washington state Democratic congressman, Jim McDermott, told a Seattle radio interviewer: "There's too much by happenstance for it [Saddam's capture] to be just a coincidental thing." When McDermott was queried as to whether he believed the timing was planned to help President George W Bush, the Congressman replied: "Yeah. Oh, yeah," reported AP.

The Bush administration has been found to have extensively "stage managed" numerous "spontaneous" events, with Jessica Lynch's rescue and the pulling down of Saddam's statue being but two of the notable examples.

McDermott also noted that the US had "been in contact with people all along who knew basically where he was". And only the week prior to Saddam's capture, the Iraqi Governing Council had coincidentally rushed to quickly enact legislation for a war crimes court to try former regime members.

While AP reported that Congressman McDermott was accused of "paranoid conspiracy theories" and "crazy talk", it appears unfortunate that a combination of misguided patriotism and shrewd politicking were all that met his criticism. Numerous questions will continue to surround the exact circumstances of Saddam's surfacing; though evidence of a Kurdish role is strong.

In December, this journalist had received information from an editor for Spain's El Mundo that one of their correspondents had been surprised to sight a substantive Kurdish group in Tikrit, doing so several weeks prior to the capture. Other reports received indicated no noticeable Kurdish presence in the area prior to then. Later, printed media reports cited a PUK intelligence unit of about 50 as instrumental in Saddam's demise.

A January 9 article by this journalist, "The story behind Saddam's arrest", outlined most of the prior facts, naming Mohammed Ibrahim Omar al-Muslit as the Saddam tipster, doing so only about four months prior to the BBC's report. The article was published by Inter Press Service, a global news agency, other versions of the piece were printed by several European broadsheets, including Spain's El Mundo.

The "revelation" of a four month old fact propelling a pro-Iraq war story, making BBC and global headlines, appears both remarkable and extremely fortunate for Bush and Blair.

At the time of Saddam's arrest, others' luck had run out, especially those included in the bloodletting accompanying the dictator's downfall. Within 10 days of the reported capture, news of reprisals began to break.

According to the December 23 Los Angeles Times, while Mohammed al-Muslit had "vanished", his "brother and the brother's wife and their four children were slain in revenge". Further reports detailed revenge on the family which owned the farm at which Saddam was caught.

The farm was owned by Qais Namek, his two brothers alleged to have run errands for Saddam, a Straits Times report identifying the pair as Saddam's cook and driver. Notably, according to Germany's SD, those were reportedly the roles the al-Muslit brothers were said to have previously had.

Namek's brothers had been arrested and released in the process of Saddam's apprehension. Later, both brothers were reported as found dead near the family's farmhouse, an apparent reflection on the reasons they weren't held by US forces.

While just over a year ago, US Vice President Dick Cheney said that "from the standpoint of the Iraqi people, my belief is we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators", the events of recent weeks have again served to highlight otherwise. But the US's history in supporting Saddam may explain part of this.

According to an April 2003 article by United Press International (UPI), Saddam was recruited by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in 1959. Citing former CIA and US State Department figures, as well as US officials and Middle East expert Adel Darwish, the report, "Saddam key in early CIA plot", paints a marriage of convenience between the US and a rising young "thug - a cutthroat". The report also notes that the CIA chose the "anti-communist Ba'ath Party as its instrument", doing so in an effort to ensure Iraq's political distance from the Soviet Union.

Saddam was but another element of the Cold War's legacy.

When the Ba'ath Party came to power in a 1963 coup, the UPI article reports the CIA as providing lists of "suspected communists" who proceeded to be "summarily gunned down". The Ba'athists coming to power, coupled with the communist liquidations, provided what was then viewed as a "great victory". The UPI report also portrayed that while the US leaned more to Iraq during the long and bloody Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, covert efforts were made to help both "Iraq and Iran in an attempt to produce a military stalemate".

Ritt Goldstein is an American investigative political journalist based in Stockholm. His work has appeared in broadsheets such as Australia's Sydney Morning Herald, Spain's El Mundo and Denmark's Politiken, as well as with the Inter Press Service (IPS), a global news agency.

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