Before war, U.S. dug deep into Iraqi Army

Posted in Iraq | 13-Aug-03 | Author: Douglas Jehl| Source: New York Times

But it chose not to keep 'friends' at top

WASHINGTON The U.S. military, the Central Intelligence Agency and Iraqi exiles began a broad covert effort inside Iraq at least three months before the war to forge alliances with Iraqi military leaders and persuade commanders not to fight, people involved in the effort say.

Even after the war began, the Bush administration received word that top officials of the Iraqi government, most prominently the defense minister, General Sultan Hashem Ahmed al-Tai, might be willing to cooperate to bring the war to a quick end and to ensure postwar peace, current and former American officials say.

Hashem's ministry was never bombed by the United States during the war, and the Pentagon's decision not to knock Iraqi broadcasting off the air permitted him to appear on television with what some Iraqi exiles have called a veiled signal to troops that they should not fight the invading allies.

But Washington's war planners elected not to try to keep him or other Iraqi leaders around after the war to help them keep the peace, a decision some now see as a missed opportunity.

Hashem's fate is not known. Some Iraqi exiles say he was shot, and perhaps killed, by Saddam Hussein's loyalists during the war. Other exiles, and American officials, say he survived the war. Two Iraqi leaders said his family staged a mock funeral to give the impression that he was dead.

Much more than that is uncertain about the murky operation - not least, the degree of its success.

People behind the effort, including Iraqis who were involved inside the country, said in interviews that they had succeeded in persuading hundreds of Iraqi officers to quit the war and to send their subordinates away. Iraqi military officers confirmed that after being contacted by Americans and Iraqis, they carried out acts of sabotage and helped disband their units as the war began.

American officials and two Iraqi exiles who played central roles said the U.S. military spirited out of the country several high-level Iraqi military and intelligence officers who had cooperated with the United States and its allies.

However, in interviews in Washington, Europe and the Middle East, more than half a dozen people with direct knowledge of the events said the United States might have missed an opportunity that could have stabilized Iraq as the government crumbled.

American officials as well as officials from some Arab countries said that as the war approached, the Bush administration was skeptical of the idea of agreeing to a lasting deal with high-level Iraqi officials like Hashem. Washington, in the end, was reluctant to leave any high-ranking officials from Saddam's government in power after the war.

Such an agreement, they said, might have required that some officials with ties to Saddam stay in power for a time, but might have eased the entry of U.S. troops into Baghdad and helped keep Iraq's infrastructure intact.

"A lot of people in Baghdad saw their interest in not fighting, in adapting, in getting rid of Saddam and moving forward," said Whitley Bruner, a former CIA station chief in Baghdad. Those involved in the operation say Bruner helped relay messages from people inside Iraq to the U.S. government.

Some senior officials from Arab countries and several U.S. officials said Hashem had been identified as a potential ally as early as 1995, when he became defense minister. The officials described him as a capable, well-liked infantry officer who had no close connections to Saddam and his family.

"From the time he was appointed defense minister, he was always someone who was looked at as being someone you could deal with," said a senior Saudi official, whose government had long urged the United States to promote a coup in Iraq rather than a military invasion as a way of toppling Saddam's government. "Sultan Hashem was seen as someone who was more sensible, who could reach rational conclusions, and was not a Baathist ideologue or Baathist fanatic."

A senior Defense Department official refused to comment on any messages passed between the United States and Hashem. But he said there might have been other reasons that the United States left his ministry intact.

"In any centralized, controlled society, soldiers will fight to the last order," the official said. "If you cut off the head, the arms and legs will keep going, so you want to keep in place the structure that could allow a surrender."

Hashem remains No. 27 on the 55-member American list of most-wanted Iraqis. But Defense Department officials said they did not know of any active effort to find him. He is wanted only as a "material witness" rather than as a possible defendant in any war crimes trial, two senior officials said.

Meanwhile, the U.S. military said Saturday that the former interior minister, Mahmoud Diab al-Ahmed, No. 29 on the list, had surrendered and was in U.S. custody.

Iraqis and officials from other Arab countries who were involved in the advance operation in Iraq said American contacts with Iraqi officers had been arranged beginning in late 2002 by Jordanian intelligence officers who were working with U.S. Special Forces and CIA agents. They said the operation was led by the military's Task Force 20 and that the contacts included telephone calls, e-mail messages, visits and in some cases the payment of substantial sums of money.

The efforts to court Iraqi commanders, and the subsequent dissolution of the Iraqi Army, offers a partial explanation - along with the sheer brutality of the bombardment that the Iraqi Army suffered - for the light resistance that the advancing Americans often faced.

"Many officers in the Iraqi Army sold out," said Iyad Alawi, an important participant in the advance operation and now a member of the Iraqi Governing Council. "There were hundreds of them. Our effort was quite widespread. We sent in hundreds of messages."

Bush administration officials, including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, said publicly at the outset of the war that the United States was working to coax surrenders from Iraqi commanders. But the duration, extent and other details of that effort have never previously been disclosed.

Rumsfeld publicly denied on April 2 that the administration was negotiating with members of Saddam's government. But other U.S. officials said members of the Bush administration had given serious consideration to striking a deal that would have included Hashem as late as March 29, 10 days into the war.

Bush administration officials would not disclose what such an agreement might have included. They said they had regarded the signals as credible, but said they had also been wary that they might have been a ploy. In any event, an accommodation with one of Saddam's lieutenants was ultimately rejected as politically untenable.

Still, a deal that offered the Bush administration something less than the complete dismantling of the Baghdad government in exchange for a more stable postwar environment has some appeal in hindsight, given the guerrilla actions against occupation forces.

"A lot of offers were popping up from a lot of quarters, along the lines of would you agree to a, b or c?" said a U.S. official with knowledge of the covert effort that continued into the war. "At some point, the war cabinet got together and said, 'No go.' But some of these offers had meat on the bones, and in retrospect, they are beginning to look more and more attractive."

Some Bush administration officials said they considered it unlikely that any kind of accord would have worked.