KEVIN IS RIGHT!
A NATION CHALLENGED: THE SCHOOL; Defectors Cite Iraqi Training For Terrorism
By CHRIS HEDGES
Two defectors from Iraqi intelligence said yesterday that they had worked for several years at a secret Iraqi government camp that had trained Islamic terrorists in rotations of five or six months since 1995.
They said the training in the camp, south of Baghdad, was aimed at carrying out attacks against neighboring countries and possibly Europe and the United States.
The defectors, one of whom was a lieutenant general and once one of the most senior officers in the Iraqi intelligence service, the Mukhabarat, said they did not know if the Islamic militants being trained at the camp, known as Salman Pak, were linked to Osama bin Laden.
They also said they had no knowledge of specific attacks carried out by the militants. But they insisted that those being trained as recently as last year were Islamic radicals from across the Middle East. An interview of the two men was set up by an Iraqi group that seeks the overthrow of President Saddam Hussein.
The defectors said they knew of a highly guarded compound within the camp where Iraqi scientists, led by a German, produced biological agents.
''There is a lot we do not know,'' the former general, who spoke on condition that his name not be printed, admitted. ''We were forbidden to speak about our activities among each other, even off duty. But over the years you see and hear things. These Islamic radicals were a scruffy lot. They needed a lot of training, especially physical training. But from speaking with them it was clear they came from a variety of countries, including Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Algeria, Egypt and Morocco. We were training these people to attack installations important to the United States. The gulf war never ended for Saddam Hussein. He is at war with the United States. We were repeatedly told this.''
The reports mesh with statements by Sabah Khalifa Khodada Alami, a captain in the Iraqi Army who emigrated to Texas in May after working as an instructor for eight years at Salman Pak, located at a bend in the Tigris.
United Nations arms inspectors suspected that such activities, including simulated hijackings carried out in a Boeing 707 fuselage set up in the camp, were going on at Salman Pak before they were expelled from Iraq in 1998. But this is the first look at the workings of the camp from those who took part in its administration.
Dr. Richard Sperzel, former chief of United Nations biological weapons inspection teams in Iraq, said the Iraqis had always told the inspectors that Salman Pak was an anti-terror training camp for Iraqi special forces.
''But many of us had our own private suspicions,'' he said. ''We had nothing specific as evidence. Yet among ourselves we always referred to it as the terrorist training camp.''
The former lieutenant general, who acknowledged his involvement in some of the worst excesses of President Hussein's government, including direct involvement in the execution of thousands of Shiite Muslim rebels after an uprising that followed the 1991 gulf war, spent three days in Ankara being interviewed by the Central Intelligence Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
He said the decision by the C.I.A. to include Turkish intelligence officials in the interview led him to fear for his safety. He has since fled Turkey, where he sought asylum, and was interviewed in another Middle Eastern country.
The assertions of terrorism training by the Iraqi defectors is likely to fuel one side of an intense debate in Washington over whether to extend the war against Osama bin Laden and the Taliban government of Afghanistan to include Iraq.
The Iraqi National Congress, an opposition group headed by Ahmed Chalabi in London, helped arrange the meeting and interview with the defectors and supports that side of the Washington debate. The group was involved in an abortive C.I.A. attempt to build an alliance in northern Iraq to oust Mr. Hussein. The collapse of the effort soured relations between the Iraqi National Congress and some senior officials in the State Department and the C.I.A.
American officials confirmed that they had met with the former general in Turkey but said they had not learned all that much from him. They said it was unlikely that the training on the fuselage was linked to the Sept. 11 hijackings in the United States.
The camp is overseen by the highest levels of Iraqi intelligence, and those who worked there were compartmentalized into distinct sections. On one side of the camp, these men said, young Iraqis who were members of Fedayeen Saddam, or Saddam's Fighters, were trained in espionage, assassination techniques and sabotage.
The other side of the camp, separated by a small lake, trees and barbed wire, was where the Islamic militants were trained. The militants spent a great deal of time training, usually in groups of five or six, around the fuselage of the 707. There were rarely more than 40 or 50 Islamic radicals in the camp at one time.
''We could see them train around the fuselage,'' said one of the defectors, a former Iraqi sergeant in the intelligence service who spent nearly five years at the camp. ''We could see them practice taking over the plane.''
The former general, wearing a black suit and sporting a gold ring on each index finger, said the terrorist teams were trained to take over a plane without using weapons.
Although the Islamic militants were carefully segregated from the Iraqi units, there was haphazard contact, he said.
''One day after work my car broke down as I was leaving the camp,'' the general said, ''and a Toyota van filled with these Islamic fighters came out behind me. The driver was a man I knew, and he got out to help push the car. There were various nationalities on the van, including an Egyptian who, unlike the rest, was clean shaven. Six of them came out to help. They finally towed my car to a gas station.''
The general gave a wry smile and answered what he knew would be the next question.
''No,'' he said of the Egyptian, ''he was not Mohamed Atta.'' Mr. Atta is thought to have been the leader of the September hijackers.
The general said that one day when he questioned Lt. Gen. Jassim Rashid al-Dulaimy, who he said was overseeing the terrorist training, about the lanky German who worked in the biological unit, he was told that he was ''the man who caused all our problems in 1991.''
The section where biological agents are said to have been produced was bombed by coalition warplanes during the gulf war, the general said.
The report of Iraqi ties with Islamic radicals comes on the heels of an announcement by the Czech interior minister, Stanislav Gross, who said Mr. Atta had met with Ahmed Khalil Ibrahim Samir al-Ani, an Iraqi diplomat identified by the Czech authorities as an intelligence officer, in April.
There are unexplained gaps and absences, some as long as 15 months, during Mr. Atta's stay in Hamburg, Germany, suggesting that he may have been training abroad.
Many of the trainers in the Salman Pak camp are notorious figures in their own right. The chief trainer, Abdel Hussein, nicknamed ''The Ghost,'' was involved in several assassinations outside Iraq, as was General Dulaimy, who has been implicated in the assassination in Beirut of an Iraqi opposition leader, Sheik Taleb al-Suhail, in 1994.
The general, who said he does not stay in the same place for more than one night because of a fear of retaliation by Iraqi agents, said General Dulaimy had boasted of his assassinations, including the one in Lebanon.
''He heads a special assassination unit called the School of the Lion's Den,'' he said. ''It is supposedly only for those who have hearts of lions. He is a very skilled and brave man, and he is trusted by the regime.''
The interviews for this article were obtained by The New York Times and the PBS series ''Frontline.'' Sections will be broadcast tonight in a ''Frontline'' documentary about Iraq in association with The Times.