SISMI's War in Iraq: The Iranian Connection
Carlo Bonini and Giuseppi d'Avanzo are at it again. Another three-part blockbuster exposé on the involvement of Italian Military intelligence inside Iraq.
Part I: From Chelabi to Iranian Agents--SISMI's War in Iraq
A strategic summit in Rome with the Pentagon.
ROME: He’s another politico-military intelligence chief. He’s a SISMI man. He races down the narrow hallway of the bar at the Hotel Eden in via Ludovisi but stops to admire the sky and the attractive skyline of Rome in the April sun (it is 22 April 2003) through the hotel’s large windows. He looks elegant in his Chairman's Committee [of the Council of Ministers] grisaille. [Berlusconi is Chairman of the Council of Ministers--Nur]. He selects a table at the center of the terrace. The waiter walks over and solicitously takes his order. The gentleman orders a freshly-squeezed orange juice and a double espresso. The Anglo-American invasion of Iraq began on the night of 19-20 March, thirty-three days earlier.
Today, as Silvio Berlusconi reveals that he never supported the military intervention in Iraq, it is fitting to tell the story of how our country, Italy, although allegedly opposed to war as our Premier now claims, was an active protagonist in war preparations and operations.
We will reveal the different arrangements and plans of action, as well as who planned them and with whom they were planned.
For us Italians, recounts the high-ranking SISMI official to La Repubblica, the war on Iraq was already underway in the days before Christmans, 2002. He smiles. He is animated with a glint of excitement in his eyes and for once seems seems to have no qualms about letting his personal satisfaction slip from behind a frozen mask.
Our man is too disciplined to crow about his successes and too stubborn to be discouraged by defeat. He tells us: It was a novelty, a revolution for our intelligence services. Never before in its history has SISMI been so prominently involved in military ground operations and a major role in planning a war campaign, to boot. The Italian Government? Of course our work was authorized by the Italian Government—are you joking? It was real war, not an exercise! The twenty men we sent to Iraq were risking their lives. He pauses. The espresso arrives. He sips it slowly, his eyes half-closed with satisfaction.
He continues. Twenty men from three SISMI departments were involved: Intelligence, Operations and Counterterrorism. They were divided into small groups which were to operate in and around the areas of Kirkuk, Baghdad and Basrah using very imaginative cover. Each unit was unaware of the identities and the mission of the others. Each unit was ordered to operate within a sector of territory and to work with intelligence “assets” who had already been selected and trained. The objectives were twofold: To identify Iraqi defenses and to evaluate the readiness of the Iraqi armed forces.
If combat was less intense than expected, it is due to the job we did—and naturally, we didn’t do it alone. If the war was won before firing a shot, it was due to our success at infiltration and intelligence-gathering.
The story of Italian military intervention in Iraq begins when the resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, Michael Ledeen, who is sponsored by Defense Minister Antonio Martino, debarks in Rome with Pentagon men in tow to meet a handful of “Iranian exiles.” The meeting is organized by SISMI. In an Agency “safe house” near Piazza di Spagna (however, other sources have told us it was a reserved room in the Parco dei Principi Hotel).
Twenty-five men are gathered around a large table, covered by maps of Iraq, Iran and Syria. The big cheese are Lawrence Franklin and Harold Rhode of the Office of Special Plans, Michael Ledeen of the AIE, a SISMI center director accompanied by his assistant (the former is a balding man between 46 and 48 years of age; the latter is younger, around 38, with a listening device in his teeth) and some mysterious Iranians.
Pollari confirms the meeting to La Repubblica: When [Defense Minister Martino] asked me to organize the meeting, I became curious. But it was my job and I wasn’t born yesterday. It’s true—my men were also present at the meeting. I wanted to know what was cooking. It’s also true that there were maps of Iraq and Iran on the table. I can tell you those Iranians were not exactly “exiles”. The came and went from Tehran with their passports with no difficulty whatsoever as if they were transparent to the eyes of the Pasdaran....
So the Iranians are not exiles. They are not opponents to the regime of the ayatollahs. These men are members of the regime--delegates sent by Tehran. If Washington were asked what the devil the Iranians were doing in Rome on the eve of the invasion, elbow-to-elbow with people from the Pentagon, you would get some solid information. But to make some sense out of the confusion, you have to listen to an American intelligence source, who has requested anonymity. He tells us: You Italians have always underestimated the work of contamination carried out Ahmed Chalabi, the Chairman of the Iraqi National Congress. You tend to omit this chapter from your side of the story because you think Ahmed concerns only the Americans. But that’s not the way it is: he is also your business, ar beyond anything you currently believe or imagine.
So what do we know about Ahmed Chalabi? The darling of the Neocons, Chalabi has been charged by the "hawks" in the Pentagon to pass intel on WMD proliferation to European intelligence agencies supposedly garnered from presumed scientists, who have defected from Baghdad. The person charged with “intelligence gathering” and story invention is Aras Habib Karim, Chalabi’s personal intelligence man.
Aras is a key player. He coordinates the Intelligence Collection Programme. He supervises and fabricates the “output” of the dissidents. He is a Shi’ite Kurd just under 50, extremely clever, consumately evil and a magician of double-cross and document forgery. But there is something peculiar about him. The CIA has long considered him an “Iranian agent.” A second key player is an American, Francis Brooke.
The bogus Italian dossier on the Niger uranium turns up--and we don’t know precisely why--in the hands of Chalabi. Brooke is responsible for liaison with Condoleezza Rice and Paul Wolfowitz and between the Pentagon and the Iraqi National Congress. He is more heeded in Tehran than Chalabi.
Our US intelligence source continues: Ahmed Chalabi and his right-hand men, Karim and Brooke, travel with the Pentagon and American Enterprise Institute teams. Here’s an example to better understand what's going on: The three men who alternate in 2004 in Baghdad at Chalabi’s side as “liaison officers” with the Pentagon are Michael Rubin, Chairman of the American Enterprise Institute; Harold Rhode, aide to Douglas Feith at the Office of Special Plans and “Islamic Affairs Advisor” to Paul Wolfowitz. They were already serving in such a capacity in Italy on the eve of the invasion.
The meetings called in Rome assemble the representatives of all the teams: Michael A. Ledeen of the American Enterprise Institute, Larry Franklin and Harold Rhode of the Office of Special Plans, the colonels of the Iraqi National Congress and in addition, the Iraqi Shi’ites of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and of course, the Guardians of the Revolution. All these actors gathered in Rome. Wouldn’t you say that’s interesting? Yes, very interesting, indeed.
We discover that the trump card played in the conflict in terms of the involvement of Iran in post-9/11 planning is Shi’ite. Tehran decides to get involved “to reasonably preserve Iranian strategic interests in the region”. The pragmatic Americans must realize the extent of the Iranian influence on the Shi’a community in Iraq (65% of the population). The ayatollahs have a vested national interest in regime change in Baghdad. An Iraq liberated from Sunni power means major political influence by Tehran and good prospects for the handover of the government to the Shi’a of the Supreme Revolutionary Council led by Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, who is both supported and protected by Iran, together with its military wing, the [B]adr Brigades (7 to 15 thousand militiamen). It is no surprise that Chalabi’s team (no matter who they are—the colonels or the Iranian agents) is welcomed in Tehran as dignitaries and is feted with ceremony usually reserved for foreign diplomatic delegations.
It is in this political context in which SCIRI is able to collaborate with the Bush Administration in the fabrication of the pretext for war. Together with the Intelligence Collection Programme, Aras Habib Karim organizes the information from the Iraqi defectors. SCIRI offers the Pentagon a confirmation of their seemingly “independent” revelations which are, in reality, agreed with Chalabi’s group under the guidance of Tehran’s intelligence services.
A defector deployed by the Iraqi National Congress in London would say that Saddam Hussein is preparing develop a new type of chemical weapon. But when Abdalaziz al-Hakim, the chief of the military wing of the Badr Brigades travels to Washington, he hands over to US officials an Iranian intelligence document showing that the dictator has ordered regional commanders to use chemical and biological weapons against the Shi’ite resistance should the Americans invade.
We had come to be quite familiar with the disinformation scheme. However, some protagonists have cropped up who, beyond our knowledge, had made all the calculations concerning the lay of the land in Italy on the eve of war. We now see them side by side at the meeting in Rome. Planning by Michael A. Ledeen for the Office of Special Plans, political sponsorship (according to Pollari) by Defense Minister Antonio Martino and technical coordination by SISMI.
The lies that were pandered concerning this meeting! First it was said that the meeting was called to save human lives in Afghanistan. Then its purpose was to plan, with the involvement of Iranian exiles, assistance to the Iranian masses, yearning for an uprising sufficiently widespread to overthrow the ayatollahs. Next it was said that the meeting was called to identify Iranian interests in Afghanistan. Finally, as one reads in a SISMI bulletin, it was to obtain information on presumed links between al-Qaeda and certain Middle Eastern governments fostering international terrorism.
In each and every one of these interchangeable frames for the meeting, Manusher Ghorbanifar claims he played the leading role. Iranian by birth and residing as far as we know between Paris and Geneva, Ghorbanifar does not have a good reputation. For some, he is an arms trafficker. For others, an expert in forgery. For civilian Italian intelligence, Ghorbanifar is a secret agent for Tehran. For a certain US intelligence agency, he is a Mossad agent. For yet others he is a clever bullshitter. And for still others, he is all those things. But the truth is that he is a minor character, or so it seems.
Ghorbanifar is the decoy planted by the organizers of the meeting to keep busybodies off the scent and away from the scene of the crime and above all, far removed from the motive. An American source tells La Repubblica: Manusher Ghorbanifar says he has a London source who is able, it appears, to identify where in Baghdad Saddam’s stockpile of enriched uranium is located. Ledeen then embellishes the tale by adding that Ghorbanifar’s contact knows of an effort by Iran to acquire uranium and that radiation emitted from Saddam's stockpile of radioactive material has contaminated a few Iraqi technicians, whose identities were known to him.
After some back-and-forth between the CIA and the Pentagon, Ghorbanifar’s London source is brought to Baghdad at the expense of the Agency to assist in the identificatoon of the site where the uranium has been stockpiled. After leading the men of Langley on a wild goose chase, the source demands $50 thousand to refresh his memory on just who in Baghdad would be in a position to help in the search. Naturally, the buffoon is dismissed with a kick in the pants.
So, forget about Manusher Ghorbanifar. In the Rome meeting held at the Parco dei Principi Hotel or in the safe house in Piazza di Spagna—but probably in both locations--the paths of three intelligence networks will cross: Nicolò Pollari’s SISMI, Ahmed Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress and the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq and the [B]adr Brigades led by Muhammad and Abdalaziz al-Hakim. The integration of the “processing” and “output” of the three “networks” will provide essential information to the Anglo-American war planners and above all, a concrete estimation of Saddam’s defenses, from the willingness to fight of his generals to the arsenal of weaponry at their disposal, in addition to the influence operations. Each of the three intelligence networks has an ace in the hole which will be useful to the Pentagon.
SISMI boasts of its excellent contacts within the Iraqi officer corps which had trained in Italy during 1980’s. Over time they have become informers and moles. Meanwhile, Iraqi National Congress relies on defectors from the regime. Before his assassination on March 18, 2003, Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim told La Repubblica that the [B]adr Brigades, thanks to is independent militias in Baghdad, in Iraqi Kurdistan and in the Iranian south, is able to keep the country under constant surveillance. From Karbala and Najaf to Basrah, down to the Faw Peninsula and on to the Kuwaiti border, nothing escapes the Shi'ite underground intelligence networks active in no-fly zones south of the 33rd parallel, key territory for any invader.
The Pentagon’s operations planning ensure that warfare on the ground is "oriented" towards information which intelligence teams will snatch behind the lines. The data will be collected by the Anglo-American Joint Command in real time, cross-checked and processed, then transformed into instructions to combat units. The idea is very simple: To “illuminate” from inside the country enemy targets, defensive military positions and the counterattack capabilities of its irregular units embedded among the civilian populace. There is also a secondary aim which is possibly more important.
Behind the lines, the infiltrated agents must prepare the groundwork for a “secret pact” (safqa in Arabic) for the surrender of the country. The pact provides for a bundle of safe-conducts for the commanders of the Republican Guard, the Ba’ath Party militias and Saddam’s Fedayeen. Later, the Americans begin to have second thoughts about the lavish payouts, the offers of residency in the United States, and above all, to play high-profile in liaising between certain factions of the opposition, in particular the Iraqi National Congress.
Alongside SCIRI and Chelabi’s men, Italy is able to lend a hand in the horsetrading with regime figures that goes on in Baghdad and in Basrah, places well familiar to Italian military counterespionage. Moreover, the first phase of the Mesopotamian adventure (up to the moment of Bush’s Mission Accomplished speech) was nothing other than a question of simple corruption within a crumbing bureaucracy whose officials had sold out en masse to the CIA. SISMI agents now get down to business. And moment has come to return to the terrace of the Eden hotel, to hear the rest of what our SISMI man has to say.
End of Part I. To be continued...