After Iraqi interim premier Iyad Allawi‘s first conversation with Iraqi Sunni exiles in Amman, Wednesday December 1, his spokesman Thaer al-Naqib insisted: “No former Baath regime officials were involved.”
That may have been true of one specific conversation However DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Middle East sources assert that, during his three day stay in Jordan, Allawi has not only met former Baath regime officials, but some members of Saddam Hussein‘s inner circle and members of his family.
Our sources also report a secret talk he held with Saddam’s former deputy prime minister and last foreign minister Saadun Hamadi, who fled to Jordan during the war and was given political asylum and a Jordanian passport.
That encounter was Allawi’s most important piece of business in Amman. It also capped Jordanian King Abdullah’s efforts to make Jordan a corridor for engagement between the Allawi government and influential Iraqi Sunni leaders.
According to our Iraq experts, the Iraqi prime minister’s mission in Jordan went a good deal beyond attempts to promote Sunni participation in the January 30 general election. It is important for him that they do – and he confessed candidly to the Baathists he met that Kurdish leaders Masoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani are seriously considering ordering the Kurds to follow the Sunnis in boycotting the poll. On the other hand, he assured them that even if their ban to voters stood, he would not break off his dialogue with them. Indeed, he would go on with it until a degree of cooperation was attained.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources add: Allawi did not ask the Sunni exiles to renounce their allegiance to Saddam Hussein and the Baath; certainly not to support the American war that overthrew their leader or US operations in Iraq. All he asked was that their leaders take advantage of this historic opportunity and take part in the election of a national assembly that will draw up a new constitution for the country. Hastening the democratic process was what Iraq needed most, he argued.
Parts of the conversations turned on Saddam Hussein. Some of his closest aides and family asked about his prison conditions and state of health and wanted to know when his trial would open.
He replied, according to our sources, that the Americans are fully aware of the significance of his trial and its impact on the election results and a possible long-term rapprochement with heads of the Sunni community. For this reason, they are in no hurry to get the trial started. This was well received by the deposed leader’s exiled officials and relatives.
The talks ended with a decision to go back to the meetings in the week of Christmas when Allawi would return to Amman.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources, former Crown Prince Hassan was the live wire behind the preparatory work and prior exchanges that led up to the Iraqi prime minister’s secret talks in Amman. He also persuaded King Abdullah to extend royal patronage. Hassan laid all his connections with Sunni figures in Iraq and Iraqi exile groups in Arab countries and Europe at the disposal of this project. Their joint efforts to achieve an Iraqi reconciliation have brought the Jordanian monarch and his uncle close after years of antagonism. Some informed quarters in Amman attribute Abdullah’s surprise decision this week to sack his half-brother Hamza as crown prince to this new rapport with Hassan.
A different tune for Iraqi Baathists in Syria
Just before Allawi’s visit to Amman, Washington forwarded to Damascus a list of 55 former high Baathist officials in the Saddam regime identified by incoming intelligence data as orchestrating from their Syrian haven insurgent and terrorist operations against US forces in Iraq and the flow of weapons, explosives and money into the country. The Syrian government was asked to extradite this group – not to the United States but to the interim government in Baghdad.
The Bush administration calculated that this tactic would serve two purposes:
1. It would demonstrate to Syrian president Basher Assad that there was more than one way of handling Iraqi exiles besides giving them the freedom to exercise violence, witness Jordan’s example.
2. The extradition of Baathist guerilla leaders by Syria would have impressed their old colleagues in Amman and started Allawi’s talks with them on the right foot.
Until this moment, no direct response to the American application has been forthcoming from Damascus. However, on Tuesday, November 30, just before Allawi traveled to Jordan,
Assad sent him a message offering to start negotiations for the handover of Saddam’s half-brother, Ibrahim Sibawi. For many years head of one of the secret intelligence agencies, Sibawi was not particularly close to Saddam; nor does he take part in the activities of the wanted Syria-based Baathists.
The Syrian ruler’s action is explained by Americans and Iraqis who have daily dealings with Damascus in two ways: First, he may hope that handing over a member of the deposed ruler’s family will relieve the pressure on him to extradite the 55 guerrilla activators. Second he may mean his offer as first payment to signal his willingness to negotiate the handover of the entire list – perhaps in stages – and for the right price.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s source estimate that Syria has granted haven to some 3,000 former high Saddam regime officials, several hundred of whom, including senior ex-officer Iraqi officers, are actively engaged in running the guerrilla campaign in Iraq.
While Allawi perseveres in his reconciliation talks with Baath ex-officials in Amman, Assad will continue to play his enigmatic tricks.