WASHINGTON, (AP) — Former Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz, a prominent member of Saddam Hussein’s inner circle, told the FBI that the dictator “delighted” in the 1998 terrorist bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa but had no interest in partnering with Osama bin Laden, declassified documents show.
“Saddam did not trust Islamists,” Aziz said, according to handwritten notes of a June 27, 2004 interrogation, although he viewed al-Qaida as an “effective” organization.
The FBI notes are among hundreds of pages of interrogation records of top Iraqi officials — including Saddam — provided to the AP this week in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. While most of the Saddam records had been previously released, the National Security Archive, an independent research institute at George Washington University, said the FBI had previously refused to declassify Aziz’s records.
The records are from an FBI operation code-named Desert Spider, which sought to compile evidence of the Saddam regime’s war crimes and to test the theory that Saddam and his intelligence services had some form of cooperation with al-Qaida prior to the U.S. invasion in 2003.
The FBI had previously released summaries of its 20 sessions with Saddam, in which he denied any relationship with bin Laden but appeared to acknowledge that some Iraqi officials had met him.
More than seven years after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, suspicions Saddam might have secretly collaborated with al-Qaida or other terror groups remains central to the continuing debate over the wisdom of launching the war, which has cost more than 4,400 U.S. lives.
The administration of former President George W. Bush based its case for war in part on fears that Iraq might provide nuclear arms to al-Qaida for use against the U.S.
No nuclear weapons — or any sign of an active nuclear program — have been found in postwar Iraq, and the Aziz interrogation records support arguments that while Saddam viewed the U.S. as his enemy, he was also hostile to al-Qaida and its radical religious ideology.
Saddam considered bin Laden and other Islamic extremists to be “opportunists” and “hypocrites,” Aziz told the FBI, during one of four interrogations in a U.S. detention facility in Baghdad.
“In Aziz’s presence, Saddam had only expressed negative sentiments about UBL,” the interrogation summary said, referring to bin Laden.
Aziz acknowledged, however, that the Saddam regime supported other terrorists, including notorious Palestinian militant Abul Abbas, mastermind of the 1985 hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship. American passenger Leon Klinghoffer was killed by the terrorists and his body dumped into the Mediterranean. Abbas was captured in Iraq by U.S. forces in April 2003 and died in custody 11 months later.
Aziz said Baghdad gave Abbas a farm to allow him to generate money for the Palestinian cause. “The farm evolved into a camp where Abul Abbas would train fighters with AK-47s” provided by the Iraqi government, Aziz said, according to a summary of his May 6, 2004 interrogation.
The interviews, which took place between January and June of 2004, included some lighter moments. A summary of the May 6 session noted that his Americans interrogators had encouraged him to write a book.
The Iraqi said he aspired to penning a memoir one day describing his life as a journalist in the 1960s and senior government official in the 1970s and beyond. But he said his cell’s dim lighting, wobbly table and lack of elbow room, as well as “the conditions of camp life have dissuaded him” from attempting an autobiography, according to the FBI summary.
Aziz, who surrendered to U.S. forces soon after the fall of Baghdad in April 2003, also confided that he wanted to move to Detroit, which has a large Iraqi exile community.
Much of the questioning of Aziz focused on the early years of Saddam’s rule, starting in 1979, including his decision to go to war with Iran in 1980.
Illustrating Saddam’s autocratic style of rule, the go-ahead for war was marked by a “simple clap(ping) of the hands” by members of the National Assembly — no debate, no recorded votes — Aziz said. He called the war, which lasted eight years and killed hundreds of thousands of combatants and civilians, “the most foolish decision” for Iraq.
Without the conflict, Aziz speculated, Iraq could have become another Switzerland.
The 74-year-old Aziz, who became the international face of Iraq to millions of Americans during the 1991 Gulf War, remains in Iraqi custody after being sentenced to 22 years in prison for crimes linked to his role in the former regime.
He told an AP reporter earlier this month at the Iraqi High Tribunal, “I have no future,” and predicted he will die in prison.
In Aziz’s fourth 2004 interrogation, he was quizzed about Saddam’s attitude toward al-Qaida, including the group’s link to the deadly 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
“As a dedicated anti-American, he delighted in it,” the summary paraphrased Aziz as saying of the bombings. “The United States had bombed his country and tried to kill him. It was, therefore, no surprise that Saddam was pleased.”
Aziz also told his questioners that Saddam thought al-Qaida was “an effective organization,” but he said he knew of no Iraqi government effort to develop a relationship with al-Qaida.
The FBI interrogators also questioned Ibrahim Samir Al Ani, an Iraqi intelligence operative who was serving in the Iraqi Embassy in Prague at the time of the Sept. 11 attacks. He said he had never heard of bin Laden until after the 9/11, and denied reports he had met Mohamed Atta, one of the hijackers.
According to an FBI transcript of a June 27, 2004 interrogation session, Al Ani deemed it “ludicrous” to think the Iraqi intelligence service would have been involved with al-Qaida or Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian terrorist who operated in northern Iraq before the U.S. invasion.
Al-Zarqawi later led an insurgent group known as al-Qaida in Iraq until he was killed by U.S. forces in June 2006.
While Aziz was an important target of the FBI’s “Desert Spider” effort, Saddam was clearly its focus. He was captured by U.S. forces on Dec. 13, 2003, and the FBI began questioning him in early January.
An Iraqi court later tried Saddam on war crimes charges and sentenced him to death. He was hanged in December 2006.