Defectors' Reports on Iraq Arms Were Embellished, Exile Asserts

By JIM DWYER

The New York Times

July 9, 2004

Shortly after President Bush declared war on terrorism in the fall of 2001, the Iraqi National Congress, the exile group led by Ahmad Chalabi, sent out a simple, urgent message to its network of intelligence agents: find evidence of outlawed weapons that would make Saddam Hussein a prime target for the United States.

Inevitably, that request reached Muhammad al-Zubaidi, himself an Iraqi exile who had been working to undermine Mr. Hussein for 24 years from posts in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and northern Iraq. Under the playful name of Al Deeb - Arabic for The Wolf - Mr. Zubaidi, now 52, served as a field leader for about 75 to 100 people who collected information on the machinations of Iraq's police state.

Over the next three months, Mr. Zubaidi and his associates gathered statements from defectors who said they had knowledge of Mr. Hussein's military facilities and who had fled Iraq for neighboring countries.

In short order, that same group of defectors took their stories to American intelligence agents and journalists. The defectors spoke of a nation pocketed with mobile weapons laboratories, a new secret weapons site beneath a Baghdad hospital, a meeting between a member of Mr. Hussein's government and Osama bin Laden - accounts that ultimately became potent elements in Mr. Bush's case for war.

Those accusations remain unproven. In fact, Mr. Zubaidi said in interviews last week in Lebanon, the ominous claims by the defectors differed significantly from the versions that they had first related to him and his associates. Mr. Zubaidi provided his handwritten diaries from 2001 and 2002, and his existing reports on the statements originally made by the defectors.

According to the documents, the defectors, while speaking with precision about aspects of Iraqi military facilities like its stock of missiles, did not initially make some of the most provocative claims about weapons production or that an Iraqi official had met with Mr. bin Laden.

The precise circumstances under which the stories apparently changed remains unclear. The defectors themselves could not be reached for comment.

Mr. Zubaidi contends that the men altered their stories after they met with senior figures in the Iraqi National Congress. Mr. Zubaidi, who acknowledged that he had a bitter split with the I.N.C. in April 2003, said officials of the group prepped the defectors before allowing them to meet with the American intelligence agents and journalists.

"They intentionally exaggerated all the information so they would drag the United States into war," Mr. Zubaidi said. "We all know the defectors had a little information on which they built big stories."

Yesterday, Nabil Musawi, one of Mr. Chalabi's deputies who met with the defectors, said that Mr. Zubaidi's assertions were "childish," and bore no relation to reality. He said it was not the role of Mr. Zubaidi or his associates to do full debriefings of the defectors. Nor was it the responsibility of the I.N.C. to grade the reliability of each defector, he said.

"Whether the defector failed or succeeded, it meant nothing to us," Mr. Musawi said, speaking by phone from Jordan. "There's no question we wanted to indict the regime, but I wish we had someone clever enough to sit down and come up with stories."

For a short time last year, Mr. Zubaidi was in the spotlight, immediately after the old government was toppled in April 2003. Acting in the power vacuum of those early days, he tried to form a civil administration in Baghdad with himself as the executive, an effort that lasted about two weeks before he was taken into custody by the United States military for 12 days and ordered to desist. He later was arrested again and held for about five months. He said he believed his former colleagues at the Iraqi National Congress were behind his jailing, an assumption Mr. Musawi says is not true.

Since February, Mr. Zubaidi has been living quietly outside Beirut. He said he had not publicly discussed details of his role in locating defectors until he was contacted by The New York Times last month. He agreed to be interviewed at length, and to make available any records that had not been confiscated by the American military forces.

Francis Brooke, an adviser to Mr. Chalabi in Washington, said yesterday that Mr. Zubaidi had been an effective agent but maintained that he had never raised concerns about the credibility of the defectors. "Sounds to me like the guy is a loony," Mr. Brooke said. "Who knows who he is working for now? He was working closely for us. He never indicated anything to me like that. It's completely inconsistent with any other knowledge I have of how things worked."

Mr. Zubaidi said he decided to speak out not because of bad feelings against individuals, but to correct the record. "I'm not trying to defame those people, although they betrayed the cause," Mr. Zubaidi said. "Now they are bearing the consequences. I'm a witness. This is something for history."

Mr. Brooke said the I.N.C.'s quest to obtain information on outlawed weapons in Iraq became more pressing after the Sept. 11 terror attacks. On Sept. 20, 2001, with the Pentagon hallways still reeking of smoke and disaster, Mr. Chalabi met with the Defense Policy Board, a group of private citizens that advises the secretary of defense. The clear consensus was that Mr. Hussein had to be removed from power in Iraq, in the interests of stabilizing the region and thwarting his support for terrorists, according to Mr. Brooke, who accompanied Mr. Chalabi to the Pentagon.

For the Iraqi National Congress, which was created in 1992 with United States financial support, the attacks presented an opportunity to define their cause - overthrowing Saddam Hussein - within the newly redrawn agenda of the United States.

Mr. Brooke, an American citizen who works in Washington, said he moved quickly to seek fresh details from the group's agents on terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. "I say to everybody, and that includes everybody in my intelligence network, now is a real good time for information on those two subjects," Mr. Brooke said. He instructed them, he said, to "highlight it, put it in red and send it to me right away."

Mr. Zubaidi said he and his associates got that message. "My role during the process was to bring in the person, to write reports of what he said, and to give my personal information and opinion about what they were saying."

Among the first, and most important, defectors was Adnan Ihsan Saeed al-Haideri, a civil engineer who left Iraq in November 2001 and made his way to Syria. There, Mr. Zubaidi said, he had a chance encounter with one of Mr. Zubaidi's associates in a travel agency, and they struck up a conversation. Mr. Saeed had run into legal problems with Iraqi officials, he said, and was eager to move his family to Australia, where his brother lives.

Over a period of weeks, Mr. Zubaidi said, Mr. Saeed disclosed that he had contracts with the government's Military Industrial Organization that involved building and repairing concrete shelters and wells, which he believed were for biological, chemical and nuclear weapons. He provided several hundred pages of documents, and had gone to school with an I.N.C. official who vouched for him.

Mr. Saeed, while financially comfortable, needed logistical help getting out of the Middle East because of problems with his travel documents, Mr. Zubaidi said. Mr. Saeed paid his family's way to Bangkok, according to Mr. Zubaidi.

He was accompanied by Mr. Zubaidi's associate, who was interviewed in Damascus last week but asked that he not be named. After several days in Bangkok, two I.N.C. officials arrived from London and spent about a day with Mr. Saeed. Their purpose, Mr. Brooke said, was to put the defector at ease before interviews with a reporter from The Times and a freelance television journalist who had worked occasionally for the I.N.C. but was filming Mr. Saeed for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

During his sessions with reporters, Mr. Saeed mentioned for the first time the facility underneath the hospital, according to both Mr. Zubaidi and his associate. Like other defectors, Mr. Saeed recounted his story to American intelligence agents. In Mr. Saeed's case, the White House specifically mentioned his account in a background paper that accompanied a speech by Mr. Bush.

Inspectors from the United States government tried to find the facility in the hospital that Mr. Saeed described but could not, according to David Kay, who was appointed by Mr. Bush to lead the search for outlawed weapons.

"It wasn't there, didn't pan out, so people took that to mean that nothing else he said was true," Mr. Kay said yesterday by telephone. He said that the war and uncontrolled looting created a "margin of error" about a number of suspected sites, but the hospital was not disturbed.

Mr. Musawi, one of the I.N.C. officials who prepared Mr. Saeed for his interview, said that he could not have coached Mr. Saeed because his information was far too technical. "What can you coach a chemical engineer who specializes in concrete sealing?" he asked.

Also in November 2001, Mr. Chalabi's group arranged for press interviews with an Iraqi Army lieutenant general to whom Mr. Zubaidi had spoken. A reporter for The Times flew to Beirut to meet with the general, Jamal al-Ghurairy, who said groups of Islamic terrorists were training on an airplane fuselage to simulate hijackings.

"We were training these people to attack installations important to the United States," Mr. Ghurairy said. During the interview, the general acknowledged his own involvement in the execution of thousands of Shiite Muslim rebels after the Persian Gulf war of 1991.

Before Mr. Ghurairy met with the reporter, Mr. Zubaidi had tried to get him to write out his account, but the general held out, according to a report provided by Mr. Zubaidi and dated Nov. 11, 2001. In that report, Mr. Zubaidi said that Mr. Ghurairy "played sick. He was being evasive so that he would get guarantees for facilitating his trip" to Europe or the United States.

Mr. Musawi, who had flown from London to Beirut to take part in the session, "assured him that we will secure their trip as soon as possible to any destination they want," the report stated.

Mr. Zubaidi did not have a high opinion of the general's probity. He wrote of Mr. Ghurairy, "He is an opportunist, cheap and manipulative. He has poetic interests and has a vivid imagination in making up stories."

In February 2002, a third defector, Harith Assaf, a major in the Iraqi intelligence service, was filmed by the CBS News program "60 Minutes" speaking about mobile biological weapons laboratories that he said were put into seven refrigerated trucks. Mr. Assaf also described a meeting between a member of the Iraqi government and Mr. bin Laden in Afghanistan.

When Mr. Zubaidi objected and tried to stop the interview, Mr. Musawi, who had come with the television crew from London, said he insisted that it continue. "I told him, 'It's not your call. I'm allowing the story to be told,' " Mr. Musawi said.

Mr. Zubaidi said that the major, Mr. Assaf, had not revealed the purported bin Laden meeting and the mobile laboratories during discussions that had begun three months earlier. His diary entry for Feb. 11, 2002, says: "After the interview, an argument with Nabil about their way of working, especially the connection with bin Laden." In a follow-up story in March 2004, "60 Minutes" reported that Mr. Assaf had been deemed unreliable by American intelligence. In addition, the commission investigating the 9/11 attacks has said that while there were reports of contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda, they did not appear to have "resulted in a collaborative relationship."

Mr. Musawi said the risk to the I.N.C. of coaching defectors was considerable, because it had enemies in Washington. If a story was quickly disproved, he said, "We would look pretty stupid."

Despite this, Mr. Kay said that during the hunt for weapons last year, a number of the defectors admitted they were lying after being put through a polygraph test. "Some of them claimed to have been coached by the I.N.C., and some of them claimed to have been coached on how to pass polygraphs," Mr. Kay said.

Mr. Zubaidi said, "I don't want to criticize U.S. agencies, but it's strange that the U.S. with all its powerful agencies, the C.I.A., could not manage to know the truth from the lies in these people."

Samar Aboul-Fotouh contributed reporting from Syria and Lebanonfor this article.