Hamid Bayati became the deputy foreign minister in political affairs and bilateral relations in Iraq in February, 2004 and is a member of the General Assembly and the central committee of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). The following is an excerpt from Jamestown Correspondent Mahan Abedin’s interview with Hamid Bayati, conducted May 26, 2004. To read the complete interview, visit www.jamestown.org/images/pdf/st_002_007.pdf
Mahan Abedin: Please give us some insights into the state of affairs at the Iraqi foreign ministry. Does your ministry have real power?
Hamid Bayati: There is the foreign minister and four deputies and all of us make decisions independently. This was even before the official transfer of sovereignty to the foreign ministry by Mr. Bremer two weeks ago.
MA: You told me last year that your organization was convinced the former Iraqi regime had been behind 9/11; is this still your position?
HB: We have evidence that Saddam was involved indirectly.
MA: You mentioned that an Iraqi newspaper had given hints of the attacks several months prior to 9/11.
HB: Yes, an Iraqi newspaper predicted the attacks in July 2001.
MA: What was the name of that newspaper?
HB: An-Nasseriyah, which was a regional newspaper in southern Iraq.
MA: What did this newspaper say exactly?
HB: The article praised Osama bin Laden’s group and the attacks it had wrought on western targets in Saudi Arabia. It also predicted that bin Laden’s group would soon strike at the Pentagon and the White House.
MA: That is very interesting.
HB: But there is more evidence linking Saddam Hussein to all sorts of al-Qaeda related terrorism, including the attack on the World Trade Center in 1993.
MA: Okay, but would you admit that the invasion and occupation of Iraq has boosted al-Qaeda?
HB: It depends how you look at it. Some Americans believe that they have managed to distract al-Qaeda’s attention insofar as most of its resources are now concentrated in Iraq and hence its capacity to strike at the U.S. homeland has been diminished.
MA: Do you think this has been a deliberate American policy? Have they intentionally set out to transfer the theatre of conflict to your country?
HB: It is probably not deliberate. I am just trying to point out that there are different ways of looking at this issue. We knew that the occupation would provoke terrorist attacks and we warned the Americans of this. We met Dr. Khalilzad, who was President Bush’s envoy to free Iraqis, in Washington, London, Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan and we said to him that we should have an Iraqi government immediately after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Otherwise Iraq would be effectively under occupation and this occupation would attract some of the most unsavory people in the world to Iraq. It would also encourage indigenous Iraqi nationalists and Arab nationalists to resist the American occupation.
MA: Do you think there is serious cooperation between former regime remnants and al-Qaeda operative on the ground in Iraq?
HB: Yes, this dates back to the period before the fall of the regime, when the Baathists invited foreign fighters into Iraq. This is an old and deep-rooted alliance. Let me recount an old event. You may remember that in 2000 a Saudi airliner was hijacked by Saudi Islamists who then commandeered the plane to Baghdad. The head of the Iraqi intelligence service received them in the Baghdad airport and moreover the Iraqis refused to hand them back to the Saudis. Therefore we can only surmise that there was collaboration between these Saudi terrorists and Saddam Hussein.
MA: A Saudi oppositionist told me recently that al-Qaeda operatives went to Iraq clandestinely and established links with non-Baathist elements in the Iraqi regime; how credible is this?
MA: Yes, non-Baathists.
HB: I don’t think these stories are very credible. I don’t think there were any non-Baathists in Saddam Hussein’s security apparatus. Moreover nothing in Iraq could happen without the knowledge of the regime. Iraq was not an open country where you could go and contact officials. Officials, of whatever rank, had to report contact with outsiders otherwise they’d be risking their jobs and maybe even their lives.
MA: How do the dynamics of terrorist operations work in Iraq today, do the Baathists commission and finance attacks that are then carried out by the Islamic extremists?
HB: Firstly there are a number of terrorist groups operating in Iraq right now. But the point to be made here is that the foreign terrorists need logistical help and safe houses and they can only access these resources through the Baathists.
MA: But how do the dynamics of individual terror attacks work; is it the case that the Baathists plan the operations and the foreign elements carry them out?
HB: They generally work together. These terrorist groups have followers in different Arab countries and these structures are busy recruiting fighters for the resistance in Iraq.
MA: Do you think all major terrorist attacks that we have witnessed over the past 10 months, including the bombing of the UN headquarters and the slaying of your leader Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim were the works of Baathists and foreign fighters working together?
HB: I think that is the case. These major terror attacks are the work of extremists like Zarqawi working with the Baathists.
MA: It is useful that you mentioned Zarqawi; what do you make of the famous Zarqawi letter?
HB: The language of the letter, coupled with the particular circumstances in Iraq today, suggest that a leader of an Arab terrorist group put the piece together. This could be either Zarqawi or one of his followers.
MA: Therefore you concur with the idea that the letter was written by Zarqawi’s group?
MA: But surely you’d concede that this document was not secretive insofar as it was designed to be discovered?
HB: Maybe, but bear in mind that Zarqawi has not denied writing this letter. Remember he was quick to deny the Jordanian chemical plot but he has not so far denied writing the letter.
MA: Do you completely dismiss the fact that Baathists or some other Arab nationalists could have drafted the letter?
HB: The Baath party is composed of Sunnis and Shi’as and therefore they are unlikely to attack Sh’ias in that manner.
MA: There may have been many Shi’as in the Baath party, but do you not think they were opportunistic members rather than hard-core ideologues?
HB: We don’t know, but certainly there were many Shi’as in the Baath party.
MA: But is it not the case that historically Arab nationalists have been wary of Shi’as insofar as they suspected them of being potential fifth columnists of Iran?
HB: Possibly, but Baathists do not use language like infidels or “worse than the Jews and the Americans” when referring to the Shi’as; this is just not in their culture. Moreover it is not in the interests of Baathists, especially in these circumstances, to isolate the Shi’as.
MA: But the problem here is that even the most extreme Salafis do not refer to Shi’as in the manner employed by that letter. Their term of abuse for the Shi’as is “rafidah” (aberrant or misguided Muslims).
HB: Let me ask you a question; have you ever heard of a Baathist who can quote Bukhari and all these historical Sunni figures like Ibn Taymiyyah with such eloquence and confidence? This kind of knowledge is just not part of a Baathist education. This knowledge is the product of a Salafi education.
MA: But people in Baath intelligence may have acquired this knowledge as part of their work?
HB: Anyway what would the Baathists hope to gain from this letter?
MA: Presumably to cause divisions inside Iraq, make life hard for the occupiers and generally sabotage the transition process.
HB: But it would be in their interest for the Shi’as to join the uprising against the Americans.
MA: Fair enough; what do you make of the contention that the letter may have been drafted by a western intelligence service?
HB: What would be the purpose of that?
MA: Presumably to divide and rule.
MA: But they are ruling right now. I am not saying that they do not have any interests in dividing Iraqis, but they do not need to do this right now.
MA: Okay, more broadly what do you make of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi?
HB: He is a well-known person. I am surprised that some people maintain he is a myth. His family has been interviewed by al-Jazeera. His history is well known; he was even well known before the war.
MA: Do you think he was officially welcomed into Baghdad before the war where he is alleged to have received hospital treatment?
HB: There is evidence that he was active in Iraq before the war.
MA: But was he a guest of the former regime?
HB: Yes, absolutely.
MA: Is Zarqawi in Iraq right now?
HB: I believe so, yes.
MA: Do you think Zarqawi masterminded the assassination of Izzedin al-Salim?
HB: Possibly, we know that they have a preference for suicide operations.
MA: Don’t you think Zarqawi has been hyped to some extent?
HB: Possibly, but we know that he has been directly behind many of the attacks.
MA: How many foreign fighters are there in Iraq? Some people have suggested their numbers could be as high as 15,000.
HB: I don’t think there are 15,000; I believe the true number is around 3,000-4,000.
MA: What are the predominant nationalities of these fighters?
HB: They are of varied nationalities; so far we have discovered Yemenis, Sudanese, Syrians, Algerians…
MA: Have they come across any Sunni Iranians?
HB: I don’t believe there have been any Iranians apprehended in Iraq.
MA: Do you think Syria is the most important infiltration route for these foreign fighters?
HB: We know that borders between Iraq and its neighbors are porous and it is easy for them to infiltrate through any of these borders.
MA: But do you think for political and geo-strategic reasons these foreign fighters have a preference for the Syrian-Iraqi border? Maybe the Syrian regime turns a blind eye to these activities.
HB: I know that the official position of Syria is that they do not allow these infiltrations and whenever they come across these activities they will thwart it. Therefore in the absence of hard evidence we are not going to revise our position.
MA: What can you tell us about Ansar al-Islam?
HB: They are one of three factions of Jund-al-Islam. We know that some of them were fighters in Afghanistan. We know that some Baathists and Salafis from places like Fallujah and Ramadi joined their ranks during Saddam’s time. And of course foreign al-Qaeda elements were also involved with Ansar al-Islam.
MA: This is the first time I am hearing that Baathists penetrated Ansar’s ranks. You seem to be linking the Baathists to all forms of terrorism.
HB: Well we know that the former Iraqi regime supplied Ansar al-Islam with weapons and money.
MA: Why would they do this?
HB: The Iraqi regime was fighting against the PUK and they viewed Ansar al-Islam as a credible leverage against the PUK. They wanted to destabilize the PUK.
MA: What about now, is Ansar al-Islam operationally active outside Iraqi Kurdistan?
HB: I think so, especially as they have many Arabs in their ranks.
MA: How has Ansar al-Islam coped with the destruction of its camps by the U.S.?
HB: Those raids certainly did not finish off Ansar al-Islam. We know it is a very resilient organization.
MA: Do you think Ansar has had links with Iran?
HB: I don’t think the Iranians will support Wahhabi and Salafi organizations that consider Shi’as to be infidels.
MA: Who is the leader of Ansar al-Islam?
HB: Abdullah Shafi’i is thought to have been their overall leader.
MA: What about Mullah Krekar?
HB: Mullah Krekar was one of the leaders of Jund al-Islam. We don’t know how he reacted to the divisions that led to the formation of Ansar al-Islam. Mullah Krekar has in any case been involved with Kurdish Islamic groups for a long time. He used to head the Kurdish HAMAS with Sheikh Ali Abdulaziz.
MA: Have you been developing intelligence services to deal with all these terrorist threats in the new Iraq?
HB: The formation of a new intelligence service was announced a couple of months ago. Mohammad Abdullah Shahwani leads it.
MA: What is his background?
HB: Shahwani is an Arab Sunni from Mosul. He is a former Iraqi army officer who was implicated in a plot against Saddam in 1996. He had been dismissed from the army some years before the plot. His three sons who were members of the Republican guards were swiftly executed. Shahwani fled the country afterwards and ended up in the United States.
MA: Let us discuss the broader insurgency. How would you characterize the insurgency in the Sunni Arab heartlands of Iraq?
HB: It is very obvious that what is happening in places like Fallujah and Ramadi is that remnants of the former regime that lost all their power and privileges are desperately trying to turn the tide in Iraq. I am referring to members of the former regime’s security services, Intelligence agencies, Saddam Fedayeen and the Republican guards. In addition to these people there are of course, again, al-Qaeda elements and indigenous Iraqi Islamist groups.
MA: But can we make a distinction between the terrorist campaign and the wider insurgency?
HB: It is difficult to make such a distinction.
MA: But there does seem to be some popular resistance to the U.S. led occupation. I should think it is difficult to dismiss all these people as Baathists or al-Qaeda elements.
HB: But simple people cannot lead insurgencies. You need very special skills for the kind of operations that the insurgents have been carrying out.
MA: But angry simple people can be useful canon fodder for the insurgent leaders. Look at Muqtada al-Sadr’s so-called Mahdi Army. Also note that in Fallujah the Americans were facing possibly thousands of insurgents.
HB: I am not excluding the fact that angry locals can be involved in some of these insurgent activities, but the leaders are without doubt professionals.
MA: Do you have hard information regarding the leaders of the insurgency?
HB: Well, you can see them on TV. They are now openly boasting of their activities.
MA: Please give me a few names.
HB: One of the names is Majid al-Aani and he used to be the head of the intelligence sections in different parts of Iraq such Khademia, Karada and Najaf several years ago. He is reputed to have been very brutal and was instrumental in the suppression of the Shi’a uprising in 1991. He was recently on TV in Fallujah.
MA: I have been told that Fallujah has a history of resistance against virtually every power that has held away in Iraq in modern times, including the British, the Communist agitators, the Qassem regime and the Baathists.
HB: Who says this? This glorification of Fallujah is a Baathist tale. I can’t believe that little Fallujah has accomplished all these heroic deeds.
MA: But apparently the last attempted military coup against Saddam Hussein was reportedly led by the Mohammad al-Dulaimi from Fallujah.
HB: This is false information. Dulaimi was from Ramadi and had nothing to do with Fallujah.
MA: So you don’t think that Fallujah was ever a center of resistance against Saddam Hussein?
HB: Nothing ever happened in Fallujah.
MA: But why is this town such a focal center of resistance to the U.S. led occupation?
HB: Baathists and Islamic extremists have flooded the place in recent months. This is a dangerous mixture. Also the insurgents there are principally working for the restoration of the former regime. Note that they stopped fighting the Americans when the CPA agreed to revive elements of the old Republican guards. In fact they gave a rapturous welcome to that former commander of the Republican guards. By so doing they gave a strong signal that they were fighting for the revival of the Republican guards.
MA: Who is in control of Fallujah right now?
HB: As far as I understand the Iraqi army is in charge of the town and they are working closely with former Republican guards elements. Apparently they are working well and the Americans have left them to their own devices.
MA: What is really striking is that the resistance in Fallujah was truly ferocious and the insurgents there managed to kill nearly 100 U.S. soldiers and marines, whereas the resistance in the Shi’a areas has failed to inflict serious casualties on the Americans. How do you account for this disparity?
HB: This is the result of 35 years of experience and training that these Republican guards and Baathist security personnel have had in military and security matters.
MA: A Saudi oppositionist recently told me that the Shi’as do not have a well developed theory and practice of Jihad like the Sunnis. What do you make of this contention?
HB: (laughs) It is a very well known fact that Saddam loyalists and the Baath Party regime remnants did not fight the Americans when they invaded Iraq and it is well known that the majority of the Saddam’s elite troops officers and commanders are Sunnis. They surrendered to the Americans everywhere, especially in what they call the Sunni triangle which includes Ramadi and Fallujah.
However, they started the so-called resistance when the Americans dismissed the military and security forces which include the army, the police, the Republican Guards, the intelligence services…etc.
MA: Presumably your organization (SCIRI) is keen on a special relationship with Iran.
HB: Well we basically want to develop a special relationship with both Iran and Kuwait as both these countries suffered from the aggression of the Baathist regime. We want to assure these countries that no such aggression will take place in the future.
MA: But before Iraq can normalize its relations with Iran, the new government will have to decide the fate of the Mojahedin-e-Khalq. What is going to happen to the Mojahedin-e-Khalq?
HB: Iraqi political forces decided in the December 2002 London conference that post-Saddam Iraq should be cleansed of all foreign terrorist groups, and this of course includes the Mojahedin-e-Khalq.
MA: And Iraq has been cleansed of all terrorist groups apart from the Mojahedin-e-Khalq. What is happening here; who is making the decisions, you or the Americans?
HB: Well the Governing Council issued a strongly worded statement in December 2003 calling for the expulsion of the Mojahedin. We are determined to eject this terrorist organization that was complicit in many of the crimes of the former regime—particularly the suppression of the Shi’a and Kurdish uprisings in 1991—from our country.
MA: It is now nearly six months since the Governing Council called for the expulsion of the Mojahedin-e-Khalq; clearly the real power holders in the country do not share your enthusiasm on this issue.
HB: I think you are raising some very fair points. According to Security Council resolution 1483 the authority in the country has been the occupying power and any the decision to eject the Mojahedin-e-Khalq will have to be enforced by them.
MA: But now that the occupation is being, at the least, symbolically ended, will there be an imminent move against the MKO?
HB: If the Mojahedin-e-Khalq were handed over to the Iraqi government we will certainly expel them.
MA: You are the deputy Iraqi foreign minister; surely you should know what is going to happen. Will the Americans transfer control of the MKO’s Ashraf camp to the sovereign Iraqi government?
HB: This is still not clear. One of the demands of the Iraqi side is that sovereignty should mean control over the prisons and the detainees. General Miller, the commander of Abu Ghraib prison told me that there are 4,000 Mojahedin-e-Khalq prisoners in Abu Ghraib. However General Mackiernon, commander of the 1st division, which is in charge of security in Baghdad, told me that they consider the Mojahein-e-Khalq as prisoners of war. Therefore two highly placed individuals have confirmed the POW status of the Mojahedin-e-Khalq. As to whether the MKO are really incarcerated in Abu Ghraib, I have no ways of verifying this. Moreover many U.S. military officers have told me that the Memorandum of Understanding that they signed with the Mojahedin-e-Khalq in April 2003 was a mistake.
MA: Certainly I have not come across any reports that the MKO are being kept in Abu Ghraib. They seem to be staying put in their headquarters in Ashraf.
HB: Well this situation should be clarified soon.
To view the complete interview, visit www.jamestown.org/images/pdf/st_002_007.pdf