Looking for General Khazraji

A former Iraqi chief of staff goes missing from Denmark, fuelling speculation that he is working with the US.

Looking for General Khazraji

A former Iraqi chief of staff goes missing from Denmark, fuelling speculation that he is working with the US.

Tuesday, 22 February, 2005

As American troops reel in their pack of 55 most-wanted Iraqis - most recently "Mrs. Anthrax", microbiologist Huda Salih Ammash - a veil of silence has fallen over the fate and whereabouts of a former Iraqi chief of staff who disappeared from Denmark, where he was under investigation for war crimes, on the eve of the Iraq war.

Although US officials have denied any hand in the vanishing of Gen. Nizar Khazraji, Iraqi opposition figures close to the US administration say he was taken secretly from the Danish town of Soroe by agents of the Central Intelligence Agency in the hope that he could convince key units of the Iraqi army, which he once commanded, to surrender without a fight.

As British and American forces drove towards Baghdad in late March and early April, Khazraji was reported sighted in Turkey, northern Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Kanan Makiya, an Iraqi opposition figure who is close to the Pentagon, said Khazraji worked "for a while" with US Central Command.

The war over, an Arab news agency, al-Bawaba, claimed that Khazraji had been assassinated on his way to an opposition meeting with Gen. Jay Garner and US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad in the southern Iraqi town of Nasiriya. But the report was never confirmed - and on 15 April, a week after Saddam's statue was pulled down in Baghdad's al-Firdaus Square, the Saudi-owned newspaper al-Sharq al-Awsat said Khazraji's family had disappeared, in their turn, from Soroe.

Gen. Tommy Franks, the man who led the war effort from CENTCOM'S war headquarters in the Gulf state of Qatar, returned to the United States without fanfare on Friday after President Bush declared an end to major combat missions in Iraq. Khazraji, however, appears to have disappeared without trace.

In 1995, Khazraji became the most senior Iraqi army officer to defect when he escaped first to Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq and then to Jordan. He arrived in Denmark in 1999, but was refused asylum because of allegations that he was involved in the mass killings of Kurds in the 1980s and in the gassing of more than 5,000 Kurds in Halabja in 1988.

In November 2002, Danish police formally charged Khazraji with war crimes. A court placed him under house arrest and required him to surrender his passport and report to the local police station three times a week.

Just days before US forces invaded Iraq, on the morning of 17 March, Khazraji told his son he was going out for a smoke. He never returned, and his family told Danish authorities they feared he had been kidnapped by Iraqi agents. Soon after, a Danish newspaper claimed that CIA agents had driven Khazraji to a military base in Hamburg, Germany, and from there to Saudi Arabia.

Justice Minister Lene Espersen wrote to the US Embassy in Copenhagen asking for a response to the report. The embassy denied any involvement in Khazraji's disappearance. The CIA declined comment.

Although Khazraji has always denied any involvement in atrocities against the Kurds, blaming "Chemical Ali" Hassan al-Majid, documents seized by the Kurds in northern Iraq during the 1991 uprising against Saddam Hussein suggest the contrary.

One document, dated May 14, 1987, says: "The Commander of the First Army Corps issued an order as requested by Comrade Ali Hassan Majid to execute the wounded civilians after the Party organization confirmed their hostility toward the authorities." A second document, dated June 3, from the Northern Bureau Command of the Ba'ath Party and sent to nine departments including Khazraji's First Corps says: "Within their jurisdiction, the armed forces must kill any human being or animal present within these areas."

In investigating Khazraji after his arrival in Denmark, the US organisation Human Rights Watch decided there was enough evidence against him to warrant his being put on trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity. "He can blame Ali Hassan al-Majid all he wants and clearly Ali Hassan issued some of the key orders," says Joost Hiltermann, a researcher with Human Rights Watch at the time. "But Khazraji then carried them out."

The concern now is that Khazraji may emerge, sooner or later, as a player in the new, US-controlled Iraq. Since a first contact with the US State Department late in 2001, he has been backed both by the State Department and the CIA to serve as a post-Saddam leader in Iraq. David Mack, a senior State Department official, declared last year that Khazraji enjoyed "a good military reputation" and had "the right ingredients" to be a future leader in Iraq. Writing in the New Yorker in March 2002, Seymour Hersh said: "The CIA's brightest prospect, officials told me, is Nizar Khazraji."

Khazraji's reported involvement in the US war effort has already aborted a judicial investigation in a sovereign country. Human rights activists warn that any further role will make a mockery of US claims to care for democracy in Iraq.

"To use Khazraji, in any way at all, is a mistake," says lawyer Chibli Mallat, who in 1991 was a founder of the International Committee for a Free Iraq. "There is no chance of any form of democracy in Iraq if people responsible for serious violations of human rights are involved in any way or integrated into any political picture. Any use of such people is going to reflect negatively on the image the Americans are trying to project in the country - the image of democracy and accountability."

Julie Flint is Iraqi Crisis Report co-ordinating editor and a former IWPR trustee.

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