Used as a Stalking Horse

A tale hangs behind the cloud of rumors that spread like wildfire on Wednesday, March 19, claiming that Iraqi deputy prime minister Tareq Aziz had defected or been shot. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources reveal that this mysterious episode was the key to the “decapitation” operation the US mounted that same night over Baghdad. This hit-or-miss operation, deploying Tomahawk cruise missiles and F117 stealth bombers, was an attempt to “surgically” take out five top Iraqi leaders, preferably one of Saddam Hussein’s sons.

The cigar-smoking, portly Aziz is a Christian and no kin to Saddam Hussein’s Sunni Tikrit clan, although he has named his son Saddam. As foreign minister up until his promotion in 1991, he was the most eloquent spokesman the Baath regime has ever had to the outside world, widely traveled and armed with excellent English. He played a prominent role in the crisis that ensued after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990 and was received by more than one American president. Of late, he has been traveling less, but his exceptional powers of persuasion overseas are still of use to Saddam.

This week, the deputy prime minister was secretly dispatched to Ankara to try and persuade the new Erdogan government not to allow American troops the use of Turkish bases for invading northern Iraq. That visit was the occasion of some sort of contact between the Iraqi leader and American agents. That contact produced a small electronic bug.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence experts postulate two alternative dispositions of that bug – both with the same result.

1. Aziz agreed to return to Baghdad with this hidden device in order to lead the Americans to Saddam, his sons and other senior Iraqi officials. He was bound to call on his masters in their secret hideouts without delay to brief them on his Ankara talks. This account would presume his defection.

Or –

2. The bug was planted on the deputy prime minister without his knowledge. It may have been especially developed to be carried by a passive decoy for tracking down Saddam, long notorious for his guile in escaping assassins’ bullets. His former bodyguard detailed some of the extraordinary dodges practiced by the Iraqi ruler to conceal his whereabouts in an exclusive interview with DEBKA-Net-Weekly (Issue 93, January 17).

The next step in the American scheme was to plant rumors of Aziz’s defection or death through Kurdish sources as soon as Aziz landed back in Baghdad. Those rumors quickly took on a life of their own, forcing Iraqi leaders to call a hasty televised news conference for him to publicly squash the reports of his defection.

This too was part of the plan.

To get his instructions, it was necessary for Aziz to go and see Saddam or one of his sons, Uday or Qusay, who was appointed earlier this week commander of the Baghdad military zone. That personal meeting gave the CIA the electronic signature it needed to place its targets in constant view of a US spy satellite – without their knowledge.

At around the time that Tareq Aziz was telling a group of trusted Gulf correspondents that the rumors were made of whole cloth, President George W. Bush went into conference with his top advisers and CIA director George Tenet, while keeping a close eye on the satellite data coming in from Baghdad. They had to decide when the “window of opportunity” was at its widest for taking out their quarry.

There is no doubt that “mission decapitation” was one of the boldest and most complex electronic intelligence operations every attempted, certain to be the theme of many future military and intelligence history books. However chancy, it was deemed well worth attempting because success would have stopped the war in its tracks right at the start. (The operation is examined in a separate article in this issue).

The news conference itself merits a special chapter. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘ s intelligence sources have established almost beyond doubt that the man who faced the television cameras in Baghdad Wednesday afternoon to refute reports he had fled to Kurdistan, was not the real Tareq Aziz. A regime which has developed a unique look-alike industry for its top officials must have had a double of its deputy prime minister handy. Whereas Aziz routinely brushes his hair straight back since his days as a student in Moscow, the man before the cameras had a side part. Furthermore, a glimpse of his profile exposed the jowls and neck of a man much younger than Aziz’s 67 years.

So where is the real Tareq Aziz?

He may have been put to death after his meeting with one of the Husseins, like the would-be defector from Uday’s bureau Adib Shaaban who tried to reach the Americans through Damascus and was turned over to Baghdad by Syrian president Bashar Assad.

Alternatively, he may have genuinely defected and the Iraqi leaders, to cover up this grave blow to the regime, put a look-alike on display. The blow would be painful indeed. Despite his high overseas profile, Aziz lacks influence at home, both as a Christian and because in 1991 on the eve of Desert Storm he is believed to have offered to defect to the United States, only their negotiations led nowhere. At the same time, he has been Saddam’s constant companion since the 1950s when, as leaders of the then outlawed Baath party, they plotted to overthrow the British-backed monarchy.

An English literature graduate from Baghdad University, he became the editor of the Baath’s main newspaper, al Thawra, with Saddam’s support and later foreign minister. Since 1977 he has been a member of the Revolutionary Command Council, the committee of senior Baath officials that rules Iraq.

One more possibility is that he never defected at all and is back at his desk as usual, leaving the mare’s nest behind him. If that is so, that his representation by a look-alike would be no more than a precaution to avoid exposing himself to danger in public, just as his master and fellow-members of the Iraqi leadership are wont to do.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email