The whereabouts of Saddam Hussein’s No. 2, former vice president Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, has long puzzled American searchers. For some time he was believed to be funding the Baathists’ anti-US insurgency. Then it was learned that he was dying in an unknown hiding place. After that, Washington seemed to lose interest in catching up with this senior Saddam crony.
Their disinterest arose, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly, from an uncomfortable discovery. Since November 2003, a month before his boss was picked up in a hidey-hole in the Sunni Triangle, Douri has been living in Saudi Arabia as the guest of the royal family and under its protection.
An argument could be made for the royals acting out of laudable humanitarian motives in taking a long-suffering victim of terminal cancer under their care. But the facts speak otherwise. Douri has been housed in a luxury villa in the eastern Saudi town of Dammam on the Persian Gulf coast not far from King Fahd international airport. His landlord is the monarch’s son, Prince Mohammed bin Fahd, who is governor of Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province where most of the country’s oilfields are situated
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in Washington reveal that in late April, President George W. Bush secretly demanded clarifications from Crown Prince Abdullah and foreign minister Saud al-Faisal. He wanted to know the route by which Saddam’s top aide reached Saudi Arabia, under what arrangement he was granted asylum and whether the Saudis had obtained guarantees of Douri’s non-involvement in Iraqi guerilla insurgency.
Riyadh replied at once. Leaving Bush’s questions without direct answers, the Saudis did not try to put forward a humanitarian pretext. Instead, they claimed that this former Iraqi leader was being helpful in averting further bloodshed in Iraq by putting the Saudis in touch with Baath party figures. Abdullah and Saud were evidently trying to present Douri’s presence in the kingdom in a positive light, explaining it as emanating from a desire to help the Americans solve their main dilemma in Iraq, coping with the guerrilla war.
But US intelligence experts familiar with Saudi modes of expression and the Iraq situation read a different message between the lines of the Saudi reply to Washington:
Yes, Douri is in Saudi Arabia. So what?
Why are you asking us about him? Douri is a guest of King Fahd’s clan, the Sudairis. Try them for answers.
We can confirm that Douri has been in touch from Dammam with Baath guerrilla forces in Iraq and others operating in the Middle East and Gulf.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Saudi experts, Abdullah and Faisal’s letter to the Washington illuminates certain important domestic developments in Saudi Arabia as well as shedding light on the covert role the royal family is playing in Iraq.
The way the Crown Prince and foreign minister shrugged off Douri’s asylum in Dammam implies they were kept in the dark and presented with his arrival as a fait accompli.
Our sources also reveal that the arrangements for his transfer to the kingdom were most likely made by King Fahd’s youngest son, Prince Abdulaziz bin Fahd, and Saudi interior minister Prince Nayef, who is responsible for homeland security and the kingdom’s war on terror.
Neither of the two princes would have taken a step as loaded politically and internationally without the authority of the senior elder princes of the Sudairi royal branch. The inescapable conclusion therefore is that the Sudairi royals have got together with the Baathists who are pulling the strings of the anti-American guerrilla uprising in Iraq. This combines with the intelligence incoming since the beginning of this year of an ongoing dialogue between the Sudairi princes and al Qaeda groups running the terrorist campaign in Saudi Arabia and leads to the suggestion that the Sudairis are using both sets of connections to cultivate the al Qaeda command in Iraq.
This suggestion is underscored by the choice of Dammam 400 km from Riyadh as Douri’s safe haven in the care of Eastern Province governor Mohammed bin Fahd. This was meant to assure Abdullah and the other non-Sudairi princes that Douri’s presence was harmless and no threat to them.
But the potential for trouble posed by the juxtaposition cannot be ignored.
Up until a year ago, Douri orchestrated the guerrilla war in his homeland; he is perfectly capable of getting up to the same kind of deadly mischief in Saudi Arabia if called upon to support his Sudairi protectors in their power struggle against Abdullah and foreign minister Saud.
Evidence has already turned up of Iraqi insurgent involvement in terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia. (See DEBKA-Net-Weekly 153, April 23 on the April 21 bombing of Saudi General Intelligence headquarters in Riyadh).
It was followed by the bizarre accusatory exchanges between Abdullah, Saud and Nayef over the May 1 murder of five Western oil workers at the Yanbu oil installations. The crown prince and foreign minister burst out with provocative accusations of “Zionist enemies” conspiring in the attack and in the al Qaeda terrorist campaign in Saudi Arabia at large. (See DEBKA-Net-Weekly 156, May 7: “War on Terror Used as Weapon in Squabble over Succession,”).
The discovery of Sudairi princes consorting with the former Iraqi vice president, on top of their relations with Baath guerrilla forces and al Qaeda makes sense of these developments.
Mohammed bin Fahd was a very successful international business tycoon until 1985, when his father, King Fahd, told him to return home and take charge of the kingdom’s highly sensitive oil-rich eastern provinces, home to most of the Shiite minority that makes up about 10 percent of a national population of 24 million.
The king’s son had good connections with British business executives linked to the UK security establishment and a large circle of British friends, though few American acquaintances. Mohammed turned his back on this life of international affluence to assume office as governor of eastern Saudi Arabia and undertake the essential tasks of keeping the Shiites quiescent and the oil flowing. He was mandated to use any and every means necessary to crush Shiite steps against the royal family and stall any forays they may make to forge ties with their Shiite brethren across the borders in Iran, Iraq or nearby Bahrain.
For any Shiites venturing to think in terms of cross-border alliances or equal rights, Mohammed had acquired a powerful instrument of deterrence in the former top Saddam regime official settled in Dammam. Just by being there he tells defiant Shiites that the House of Saud and the Sudairi princes in charge of royal domestic and overseas security will brook no Saudi Shiite aspirations to attain the empowerment awarded their brethren in US-administered Iraq, where the long-repressed Shiite majority has not only won political equality with the minority Sunnis and Kurds but is on course to head a democratic government. For Riyadh, the democratization of Iraq is a recipe for Shiite domination by ballot.
The same warning applies to the Shiite majority of Bahrain just opposite Dammam and linked to Saudi Arabia by the King Fahd causeway. Shiites are warned that should they get restive, they can expect the same brutal treatment from the Saudi rulers as Saddam Hussein and his vice president – now living in their midst – meted out to the Shiites of Iraq.
Equally important is the significance to al Qaeda of Douri’s presence amid the oil wells. The fugitive is both a symbol of the departed Baath regime of Iraq and its present anti-American partnership with Osama bin Laden’s network. The Saudis hope the Iraqi ex-vice president will provide them with some insurance against any Islamic extremist terrorist plans to strike at their oil facilities and point them away to neighboring oil producers.
Douri’s success in slipping the American net and finding sanctuary in an important Arab country inspires Iraqi Baath guerrillas to fight on against the US-led coalition. It tells them that they and their al Qaeda allies are not alone but are backed by Saudi Arabia as well as Syria. Iraq’s Sunni Muslims can now pin some hopes on their chances of retaining political power in Baghdad in the face of the Shiite challenge.
And it’s correspondingly bad news for the Americans, who cannot be certain that, despite his ill health, Saddam’s top aide is not running the guerrilla war from the comfort and safety of his villa on the Saudi Gulf coast or overseeing the logistical and financial network Saddam built across the Gulf and the Middle East. If so, Iraqi insurgents are assured of the tremendous tactical advantage of a foreign-based command center safe from attack. This distance between command and field also accords them a high degree of operational autonomy within the general guidelines handed down to them.
In a region where symbols and slogans are often more powerful than actions, Douri’s successful escape to safety may well offset all US efforts to stage-manage key events for Iraq’s future: the provisional government to officiate in Baghdad from July 1 until a general election and the forthcoming Saddam trial.
A foretaste of what is in store in the run-up to the transfer of sovereignty was provided by the assassination on Monday, May 17 of Iraqi Governing Council head Ezzedin Salim, leader of al-Dawa al-Islamiya, Iraq's oldest Shiite political group. A waiting suicide killer detonated a car bomb just when Salim’s vehicle pulled up at the western entrance to US military headquarters in Baghdad.
The assassins demonstrated the superiority of their intelligence to that of the US administration or military command in Iraq. As the handover of power goes into top gear, Iraqi guerrilla forces will try to kill anyone prepared to accept government office from the hands of the US occupiers. Even as the provisional government is installed, the insurgents and their terrorist allies will strive to demonstrate to the Iraqi people, Middle East Arabs and the world at large that the new administration represents a tiny group of non-representative Iraqi collaborators with Washington, living on borrowed time.
A handful of suicide squads prepared to blow themselves up in car bombs and armed with accurate intelligence is capable of pulling off this master-plan – not too hard a task for subversives able and knowledgeable enough to pinpoint the late IGC head. They clearly had access to insider information from a member of the security-intelligence apparatus the Americans have built as a prop for the future provisional government. From him, the assassins learned that the Daawa leader would be riding in the fifth car of the convoy waiting to enter the Green Zone’s western gate. Only a very tight circle had this information, members of Salim’s personal office and the US military command. Yet somehow it reached the suicide bomber’s controller.
The same combination of tactics produced the precision truck-bomb attack that blasted the Baghdad office of the late UN envoy to Iraq, Sergio de Mello, on August 19, 2003.
After de Mello’s funeral, UN secretary general Kofi Annan withdrew UN personnel from Iraq and the world body suspended all cooperation with the United States in Iraq. Only recently has cooperation resumed on the basis of efforts by Annan’s new personal envoy to Baghdad, former Algerian foreign minister Lakhdar al-Ibrahimi to map a formula for a provisional Iraqi government on which the world body will confer legitimacy and the United States impart sovereignty.
Osama Bin Laden has put a price on Ibrahimi’s head, promising to pay his killers in gold. The same bounty has been offered to anyone who assassinates outgoing US administrator Paul Bremer or any member of the future government.
Salim’s killing shows that the coalition of Baathist guerrillas, al Qaeda operatives and Saudi fighters means business, and as transition day approaches, fewer Iraqis will be ready to risk their necks for high office in the provisional administration – even with UN endorsement. It seems only too clear that Douri is a key player in the Sudairi-al Qaeda effort to stall progress that will lead inexorably to the Shiite majority gaining a share in a democratically elected Iraqi government.
The transfer of sovereignty in Iraq is also closely bound up with Saddam Hussein‘s forthcoming trial for his crimes against his people.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence sources, US officials in Washington and Baghdad have been immersed for weeks in hectic secret preparations for the showcase proceedings. The Bush administration trusts the trial will go a long way toward boosting flagging support for the president at home in what promises to be a close election race and mollify Arabs in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East who have turned angrily against America.
The trial planners therefore intend steering clear of Saddam’s crimes in the distant past and focus on more recent events that are fresher in the minds of Americans and Arabs.
The US administration has put out a call for witnesses who were in daily contact with the dictator from September 2002 to August 27, 2003, the date he fled Baghdad. One due to testify is former Iraqi foreign minister Ali Sabri who conducted Saddam’s secret contacts with several Arab states, including Libya. Our sources report that Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi recently agreed to let American prosecutors have protocols of the secret talks Sabri held in Tripoli on Saddam’s behalf. Another potentially important witness is media favorite Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf – the former Iraqi information minister who was dubbed “Baghdad Bob” and “Comical Ali.”
But now Douri’s presence in Saudi Arabia threatens to throw a spanner into the US planning for the trial. It gives the Saudis a handle on the proceedings. They will no doubt carefully monitor the trial. Should they decide that certain testimony is detrimental to their interests or that it affects the royal power struggle, the Saudis may take the muzzle off Douri’s mouth and let him publish his comments.
The Saudis and their Iraqi refugee therefore have the power to upset US planning for the trial by unforeseen disclosures.
It has therefore become more urgent than ever that Saddam, who is thought to be held in a special facility built around a giant hangar at Baghdad airport, be persuaded to cooperate with his interrogators. Above all, they want revelations on his weapons of mass destruction program.
The kind of pressure brought to bear on him was indicated in a leak to Britain’s Daily Telegraph on Monday, May 17. The report reveals that CIA interrogators have seized on an admission that Saddam fears torture at the hands of his enemies if he is handed over to the Iraqi government taking over after June 30. He has good reason to fear revenge for his brutal 24-year reign. Many survivors of his torture chambers and relatives of those he had killed now hold positions of influence in Baghdad. Furthermore, the new Iraqi government is certain to introduce the death penalty for war crimes.
After being warned to cooperate or face being handed over to the Iraqis, Saddam appears to have signaled US investigators for the first time since his capture five months ago that he may be willing to break his silence.
Saddam receives newspapers daily, and would have seen the Daily Telegraph story. Our sources report the leak was a final US warning to Saddam that he had better begin to talk to his interrogators if he hopes to avoid a more unpleasant experience at the hands of his own people.