The Iraqi Who Knew Too Much

Why is Saddam's oil minister still in prison?

Oleg Nikishin/Getty Images
Oleg Nikishin/Getty Images

In yet another sign that the U.S. occupation of Iraq is coming to an end, the last U.S. military prison in the country, Camp Cropper, was transferred in July to the control of the Iraqi government, which took custody of hundreds of al Qaeda terrorists, Shiite militiamen, and former Baathist officials — some of whom were complicit in the crimes perpetrated by Saddam Hussein’s regime.

But there was also a detainee with a rather different pedigree: Saddam’s former oil minister, Amer Mohammed Rasheed al-Obeidi. His continued detention represents a sign of a different sort — the continued corruption and politicization of the new Iraqi government’s judicial system.

Rasheed, now 70 years old, was detained by U.S. forces in April 2003. He was immortalized as the six of spades on the deck of playing cards that the U.S. military produced as its blacklist of the most-wanted regime members following the invasion, due to his role in Iraq’s program to develop weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the 1980s.

However, the reason that Rasheed continues to rot in jail has nothing to do with WMD: His former position as oil minister made him privy to information regarding corruption among the current characters vying for power in the new Iraq — as well as among some very senior Russian officials.

I directed the final investigation of Iraq’s WMD program as the head of the CIA’s Iraq Survey Group in 2004. In my final report, I included an annex emphatically stating that there was no longer any purpose in detaining those Iraqis who had been captured due to their connection to these programs. We had our answers, and these individuals presented no further risk to Iraqi society — indeed, many were extremely talented and could contribute to Iraq’s reconstruction.

So why is Rasheed still lingering in jail, five years later? The answer has much to do with the struggle between Iraq’s many centers of power after Saddam’s fall. Authority over detainees on the U.S. blacklist passed to the Iraqi government in June 2004, when the United States officially transferred sovereignty. However, the prisoners remained at Camp Cropper under the control of the U.S. military. Saddam himself was Camp Cropper’s most prominent resident until he was delivered to Iraqi hands to be hanged in December 2006.

The nascent Iraqi "justice system" that was developing in 2005 laid the foundation for Rasheed’s continued detention. A court issued a warrant accusing him of "wasting the national wealth through his position that led to the loss of a great amount of money and Iraqi national wealth." He has been waiting in jail without action ever since.

In fact, Rasheed was one of the more careful Iraqi bureaucrats when it came to accounting for resources. When we debriefed Rasheed and other former Oil Ministry officials, it became clear that the normal operations of the ministry — directed by Rasheed — were conducted appropriately. It was when the inner circle of Saddam’s coterie got involved that oil contracts were allocated to the benefit of those who bent to Saddam’s will.

My own experience with Rasheed dates back to the early 1990s, when I served as the deputy executive chairman of UNSCOM, the U.N. weapons-inspection team established to verify that Saddam had destroyed his old stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons and halted production of more advanced WMDs. Rasheed was one of the top technocrats Saddam assigned to deal with the U.N. inspectors. A former general in the Iraqi Army, Rasheed was a brilliant — if sometimes loud and difficult — technical program manager for some of Iraq’s most advanced military-development efforts.

His talent was recognized by the regime, and he was rapidly given greater responsibilities. He was particularly proud of the construction of the so-called 14th of July Bridge over the Tigris River, which was quickly constructed to replace the crossings that were destroyed during the Gulf War.

In 1995, Saddam appointed Rasheed oil minister, a position he held for virtually the rest of the regime’s existence, including during the critical period when the United Nations permitted Iraq to export under the so-called Oil-for-Food program.

Saddam wanted out of sanctions one way or another — either by convincing the U.N. Security Council to lift them, which would require a judgment that Iraq had fully disarmed, or by undermining their effectiveness through illicit means, eventually causing them to collapse. It was this latter course that had made the most headway before the 2003 invasion, and its success was the result of carefully dispensed allocations of oil to those who could influence the sanctions on Iraq.

In my 2004 report, I published the full list of recipients, which included many very senior French and Russian officials — including individuals in the office of the Russian president and the Russian Foreign Ministry, which executed allocations of 43 million barrels of oil. Among those involved was even the son of the Russian ambassador to Iraq. It is worth noting that the Russian ambassador to the U.N. through this period was Sergei Lavrov, the current Russian foreign minister and arguably the sharpest ambassador on the Security Council at the time. French recipients included a former ambassador to the United Nations. Both countries, but especially Russia, were strong advocates for loosening the controls on Saddam’s regime. Saddam was nothing if not brilliant in dispensing rewards or punishments to ensure his survival.

After several years of U.N. inspection activity and innumerable sessions with Rasheed, I came to appreciate that he was often very candid, almost in spite of himself. During an inspection of one of Saddam’s palaces in 1998, presidential secretary Abid Hamid Mahmud al-Tikriti arbitrarily declared certain areas to be outside the designated site. Upon learning this, the brighter and more rigorous Rasheed shouted in frustration that Abid couldn’t even read a map, so how would he know? Although Rasheed had a good point, it was not a wise thing to say about the man who was arguably the second-most powerful in Iraq.

Rasheed did a very good job representing Iraq’s case to extremely skeptical U.N. experts. Ultimately we found there was much truth in what he was presenting. For years, Rasheed told U.N. inspectors that active work on any WMD program ended in November 1991. This turned out to be true, though the Iraqi government still publicly dissembled for years about the extent of its programs.

Following the U.S. invasion, I met with Rasheed again under very different circumstances. He had fallen a long way, from being oil minister of one of the world’s largest oil-producing countries to a detainee whose only possession was his prison jumpsuit. Unlike many other senior members of Saddam’s regime, Rasheed did not appear to have stashed wealth outside the country during his tenure as oil minister. In fact he had lived relatively modestly in Baghdad.

In these circumstances Rasheed could speak still more candidly. In our attempt to understand the extent of the regime’s WMD programs, my team investigated all the revenues from both Saddam’s U.N.-approved and illegal oil exports. In addition to examining the Oil Ministry’s well-preserved documents, we discussed these transactions with all top regime officials, including Rasheed. I met with Rasheed shortly after he was detained, and he was very candid from the start.

Our final report, as well as the subsequent U.N. investigation of corruption within the Oil-for-Food program, documented Saddam’s carefully calculated dispersal of valuable oil vouchers to leaders in a position to help his regime. Senior-level prosecutions have taken place in Australia, France, India, the United States, and elsewhere. Remarkably, none has taken place in Russia, where the list of oil allocations reached to the highest levels of government.

However, the U.N. did not examine the payoffs and profits by Saddam’s regime to Iraqis — most notably the leaders in Iraq’s northern Kurdish areas, through which much oil passed during the 1990s to Turkey and Iran. Oil smuggling was a regular source of revenue for the Kurds and their leaders, according to former senior Saddam officials. In my report, I noted that one of the major purchasers of the Iraqi oil contracts was the Asia Company, which bought almost 11 million barrels of oil for $174 million from May 1999 to January 2003. Rasheed indicated that Massoud Barzani, leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, controlled the company.

As oil minister, Rasheed implemented these deals, but the decisions were made by Saddam or one of the four key lieutenants known as "the Quartet": Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, Ali Hassan al-Majid, Taha Yassin Ramadan, and Tariq Aziz. Sometimes, Saddam’s notorious son Uday also weighed in.

This has put Rasheed in the most precarious of positions: He has intimate knowledge of who was involved in the corruption related to Iraq’s oil exports — both internally and externally.

Rasheed, in short, knows who among Iraq’s current leaders benefited under Saddam’s regime. He also knows which senior leaders in various capitals — such as Moscow — were paid. Such leaders presumably want to continue to enjoy Iraqi markets. Rasheed has been sitting in jail for seven years without any due process. It would appear he is guilty of being a witness and the current regime in Iraq does not want to hear his testimony.

Iraq’s new leaders have spoken constantly about making a dramatic break with the repression that characterized the Saddam era — despite presiding over a country that Transparency International recently ranked the fourth-most corrupt country on the planet, tied with Sudan. Detaining Rasheed indefinitely, under the rationale of some murky investigation into the waste of resources, is one of many examples of how the current regime has failed to live up to its promises. If Iraq’s new democratic government is going to distinguish itself from previous governments, it could begin by setting Rasheed free.

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