WASHINGTON - Now that President George W. Bush's allegations about former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's ties to al-Qaeda and ambitious weapons programs have been thoroughly discredited, another outstanding charge remains to be resolved.
During a campaign speech in September 2002, Bush cited a number of reasons -- in addition to alleged terrorist links and weapons of mass destruction (WMD) about why Saddam was so dangerous to the U.S., noting, in particular that, ''After all, this is the guy who tired to kill my dad.''
He was referring, of course, to an alleged plot by Iraqi intelligence to assassinate Bush's father, former president George H.W. Bush, during his triumphal visit to Kuwait in April, 1993, 25 months after U.S.-led forces chased Iraqi troops out of Kuwait in the first Gulf War and three months after Bush Sr. surrendered the White House to Bill Clinton.
Although he did not name his father, Bush Jr. also cited the assassination attempt in his September 2002 address at the United Nations General Assembly where he called on the U.N. Security Council to approve a tough resolution demanding that Saddam fully give up his (non-existent) WMD weapons and programs
While the alleged plot was never cited officially as a cause for going to war, some pundits -- including Maureen Dowd of the 'New York Times'-- have speculated that revenge or some oedipal desire to show up his father may indeed have been one of the factors that drove him to Baghdad -- as the sign of one demonstrator suggested in a big anti-war march here just before the war: ''I love my dad, too, but come on!''
The circumstances of the alleged plot, which ended in a trial and conviction of 11 Iraqis and three Kuwaitis, have always evoked skepticism, although Clinton himself was apparently sufficiently convinced after receiving reports from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to order a missile strike on the Iraqi intelligence headquarters in Baghdad that killed six civilians in June, 1993.
But a closer look at the 11-year-old plot, particularly in light of the findings by the Iraq Survey Group (ISG), the special team of experts that spent 15 months investigating Baghdad's WMD programs, that they were all dismantled in 1991, shortly after the end of the Gulf War, may now be warranted, especially if Bush is still laboring under the impression that Saddam ''tried to kill (his) dad''.
While the ISG's 960-page report, known as the Duelfer Report, does not address the assassination attempt, its chronology and depiction of Hussein's worldview -- adduced through lengthy interviews by one Arabic-speaking FBI investigator and other interviews of Saddam's closest advisers -- make the notion that the Iraqi dictator tried to kill Bush all the more implausible.
For one thing, Saddam, according to the report, was convinced that the CIA had thoroughly penetrated his regime and thus would know not only that he had dismantled his WMD (which the CIA apparently did not), but also would know about his plans for important intelligence operations. Under those circumstances, it is hard to understand why he would then order an assassination attempt on the former U.S. president.
Even more interesting, according to the report, was Saddam's ''complicated'' view of the U.S. While he derived ''prestige'' from being an enemy of the U.S., he also considered it to be ''equally prestigious for him to be an ally of the United States -- and regular entreaties were made during the last decade to explore this alternative''.
Indeed, beginning already in 1991, according to the report, ''very senior Iraqis close to the President made proposals through intermediaries for dialogue with Washington.''
''Baghdad offered flexibility on many issues, including offers to assist in the Israel- Palestine conflict. Moreover, in informal discussions, senior officials allowed that, if Iraq had a security relationship with the United States, it might be inclined to dispense with WMD programs and/or ambitions,'' it added.
The report even concluded that Iraq was willing to be Washington's ''best friend in the region bar none''.
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The fact that the U.S., under Bush Sr. and Clinton, did not show interest was apparently a source of bewilderment to the Iraqi leader, according to the Duelfer report.
If Saddam had tried to kill the ex-president, he probably would not have been bewildered by Washington's lack of interest, but, by all accounts, he was.
''From the report, Saddam seems to be not a madman, but someone who would understand very well the consequences of an assassination'', notes Gregory Thielmann, a former senior State Department analyst who specialized in Iraq's WMD programs
''If his top priority was getting the (UN economic) sanctions lifted (as indicated by the report), then it doesn't follow that he would try to kill the president of the United States,'' added Thielmann.
As portrayed by both the alleged assassins and the Kuwaitis who grabbed them, the plot was itself deeply amateurish, dependent on the leadership of Wali Abdelhadi Ghazali, a 36-year-old male nurse, Raad Abdel-Amir al-Assadi, from Najaf, and a dozen Iraqi whiskey smugglers led by a 33-year-old owner of a coffee shop in Basra that was meeting-place for cross-border smugglers. Despite his age, al-Assadi confessed to being a colonel in the Iraqi intelligence service, the Mukhabarat, according to the Kuwait authorities.
Ghazali, who initially said he was approached and supplied with explosives and cars by the Mukhabarat was the only person in the group who knew that Bush was the target. Other defendants confessed to transporting explosives across the border from Iraq but insisted they had no idea what they were for.
Both Ghazali and Assadi retracted their confessions during the trial, claiming that they were extracted by repeated beatings. At the time, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International expressed strong doubts that the trials could be fair, noting that it had received credible reports of severe beatings meted out to defendants accused of capital crimes in Kuwait. Assadi insisted that he was asked by the Mukhabarat to plant bombs around shopping centers in Kuwait City.
U.S. investigators, however, reported that they believed the confessions were not coerced and noted the similarity in the construction of the bombs found with the Iraqis with one known to have been built in Iraq in 1991.
In October, 1993, however, New Yorker investigative journalist Seymour Hersh assailed the government's case as ''seriously flawed'', noting among other problems that seven bomb experts had told him that the devices were mass-produced and probably not even manufactured in Iraq.
Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who met with Saddam when he served as U.S. charge d'affaires in Baghdad during the Gulf War, said he found the plot ''odd''.
''(Saddam) had to have had some idea that his ability to run operations outside Iraq was not very good, because we had foiled so many things before the war. So you have to ask why someone who was a risk-taker but clearly not suicidal would undertake to assassinate a former president of the United States,'' pointed out Wilson.
Larry Johnson, a top counter-terrorist official at the State Department, said he still has ''no doubts'' about the plot, recalling Saddam's ''gangster'' ethic. ''Personal honor was involved,'' he said.