Unsavory allies stack CIA's deck
Following long tradition, agency leans on controversial characters for information in Iraq
Sunday, August 24, 2003

MOSUL, Iraq -- Arshad Zibari's opulent villa sits on the corner of a street in Mosul's most affluent neighborhood. Elaborate decorations of tile, wood and marble festoon the house with a subtlety that seems unlikely for an admitted war criminal. Two shiny new SUVs are parked in the garage. Visible on the rear window of a white Land Cruiser is a large card bearing the letters "OGA."

"OGA" peeks out from Zibari's front shirt pocket, as well, on a laminated card that says the OGA considers Zibari a "friend of the United States of America" and that he should be granted unhindered travel and armed protection.

OGA stands for "Other Government Agency" and is a euphemism the CIA has adopted for itself in Iraq, continuing a long tradition of assuming innocuous titles in foreign countries. It was the CAS (Controlled American Source) in Vietnam.

The CIA is also continuing in Iraq a long tradition of consorting with controversial characters -- a practice seen by the agency as a necessary evil but which sometimes proves counterproductive in the long run.

Zibari's relationship with the CIA was facilitated by Feris Suleivani, leader of the Kurdish Suleivani tribe and commander of the tribe's pro-Saddam Kurdish militias. Officially called the Fursan, these units once numbered up to 200,000 troops. Their members were commonly called "little donkeys" by the majority of Kurds, who considered collaboration with Saddam Hussein as treason.

Suleivani is an avuncular man in his early 60s, impeccably dressed and groomed, his hair dyed yellow and his mustache neatly trimmed. He prefers the "Safari" style of clothing that was an unofficial Baath Party uniform, consisting of identically colored pants and a short-sleeved buttoned shirt with a large collar. Always cheerful, Suleivani recounts with nostalgia his days as a close associate of Saddam.

The Suleivani tribe numbers up to 50,000. It has long been a rival to the Barzani tribe that dominates much of Kurdish politics through its leadership of the Kurdish Democratic Party. The KDP began its struggle for Kurdish independence more than half a century ago led by Mullah Mustafa Barzani, and it continues today under his son Massoud Barzani.

Suleivani, who is related to Saddam through marriage, combined service in the former leader's security apparatus with lucrative business deals facilitated by his regime contacts.

In the 1980s he was a close friend of the minister of defense, Hussein Kamil, who provided him with employment. In 1991 Suleivani worked with Iraqi military intelligence and his tribe refused to join in the Kurdish uprising that began after the first Gulf War. "I was never with Barzani or Talabani [leader of the other major Kurdish faction]" he says by way of explanation.

Suleivani blames a more recent minister of defense, Ali Hassan al-Majid for his falling out with Saddam. Al-Majid, also known as "Chemical Ali" because he slaughtered Kurds with chemical weapons, was captured last week by U.S. forces.

Suleivani and Zibari readily admit they took part in the notorious 1988 "Anfal" campaign that al-Majid led to punish the Kurds for rebelling against the Iraqi government. Tens of thousands of civilians were executed or gassed to death and their villages wiped out in what the United Nations has called a campaign of genocide. During the 1980s, at least 100,000 Kurds were killed by al-Majid's own admission -- in assaults that both Suleivani and Zibari participated in.

According to Suleivani, he grew tired of such offensives and told al-Majid he wanted to work solely as a businessman. At that point, "Majid accused me of being a friend of Massoud [Barzani]," Suleivani said, "but I never liked Massoud." The accusation branded him a traitor in Saddam's eyes. Suleivani fled with his family to Turkey, then to the Ukraine and Germany, finally reaching northern Virginia in 1998.

Suleivani says he immediately began working with the CIA, meeting a male case officer called Kevin and a female officer of Lebanese descent who helped translate. Over the course of 20 meetings Suleivani was debriefed for all the information he had about Iraq and its leadership.

Secret meetings in Syria
In the summer of 2002, the CIA paid for Suleivani to travel discreetly to Syria, where he met Iraqi tribal, military, security and government officials and exhorted them to abandon Saddam in the coming war. Iraqis he met included Saddam's head of security in the north, the security chief for Saddam's hometown of Tikrit and a high-level official in the General Security Department. Suleivani also induced his old friend and ally Zibari to meet him in Damascus and return to Iraq, where he persuaded two Kurdish tribes to defect. Suleivani met leaders of other tribes in the Netherlands and Germany.

The Iraqi officials Suleivani met in Syria, without that government's awareness, were cautious. "They said we are afraid the U.S. will betray us like they did in 1991," he said, referring to the American call for an uprising after the first Gulf War and its subsequent refusal to assist it, "but we'll work with you." He claims the officials he and Zibari induced to abandon Saddam "helped in the fall of Mosul and Kirkuk," the biggest cities in predominantly Kurdish northern Iraq.

Zibari boasts of having met every Iraqi leader since the king. Surrounded by his children and pictures of his government service, which included a stint as defense attache to Yugoslavia in the 1970s, Zibari suffers severe hearing loss and shouts when he answers questions.

Zibari admired Saddam until 1990, "Then the man changed," he said. "After '91 he isolated himself from the people of Iraq. Saddam's advisers told him what he wanted to hear."

Instead of assisting the Kurdish rebellion against Saddam after the first Gulf War in 1991, however, many members of Zibari's Kurdish tribe fled to Mosul to escape the fighting." We are against Barzani," one of the leaders of the uprising, Zibari explained.

Zibari says now that "Saddam was not smart" to kill thousands of innocent Kurds in the 1980s during the Anfal campaign, in which he himself participated. Among Zibari's achievements was the destruction of Barzan, the home village of the Barzani tribe.

Zibari explains his newfound allegiance to the United States this way: "Now that America is our government, we are with the Americans."

Zibari's name appears on a current U.S. Treasury Department list of foreign nationals whose assets are supposed to be blocked or frozen -- just below the name of Ayman al Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's No. 2 in al-Qaida. This apparently has not prevented him from receiving the laminated "friend of the USA" card from the "OGA."

Similarly, Suleivani's close association with Saddam has not prevented him from receiving American financial support. In January 2001 Suleivani formed the Iraqi National Front, an exile opposition party that received U.S. funding until September 2002.

In late 2002 Suleivani joined the Free Iraqi Forces, a group of Iraqi exiles trained by the U.S. Army that was airlifted into southern Iraq toward the end of the war this past spring. His presence, along with that of another Kurd implicated in pro-Saddam militia activities, irked many of the other volunteers.

The CIA also used Gen. Nizar Khazraji, a former Iraqi chief of staff who was under investigation for war crimes, to persuade elements of the Iraqi Army not to fight American and British forces. Khazraji disappeared from his home in Denmark shortly before the war and was seen in several countries neighboring Iraq.

Khazraji defected in 1995 and moved to Denmark in 1999, where he was denied political asylum. Last year he was charged with war crimes for his involvement in the Anfal campaign -- including the notorious gassing of the city of Halabja that killed at least 5,000 people.

Orders for the campaigns that culminated in Anfal -- in which Suleivani, Zibari and Khazraji all took part -- included instructions to kill "any human being or animal" in a zone that encompassed more than a thousand villages and to execute all Kurdish men between the ages of 15 to 70. Pro-Saddam Kurdish militias like those led by Suleivani and Zibari were permitted to loot and keep all the bounty they found, including animals, women and weapons.

The CIA's relationship with Iraq is rumored to go back to Saddam's exile in Egypt before the Baathists seized power in 1968. Saddam was a regular visitor in the American embassy in Cairo. In 1968 the CIA assisted the anti-Communist Baathists in their successful coup, going so far as to provide lists of Communists who were later assassinated.

Even educated Iraqis often state with confidence that Saddam was an American agent, and go so far as to blame all of their past two decades of misery on U.S. intelligence agencies. While these accusations are obviously exaggerated, the CIA does maintain its policy of cooperating with expedient collaborators.

"The CIA has always done this and always will," said one U.S. military intelligence officer. "There is no other choice; these were the only guys who knew anything about the regime. The exiles who were innocent had no knowledge and could not be of use. They needed insiders, and insiders were dirty by definition."

These relationships might nevertheless prove troublesome in liberated Iraq, especially among the majority of Kurds who resisted Saddam all along and still hope for an independent state. They may be less inclined to listen to U.S. pleas to remain a minority in a unified Iraq when pro-Saddam Kurds are officially considered "friends of the United States of America."

First published on August 24, 2003 at 12:00 am
Nir Rosen is a freelance journalist currently based in Baghdad. He can be reached at
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