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Iraq: Questions Surround Death Of Intelligence Chief

  • Charles Recknagel

The death of the chief of Iraq's intelligence service has set off speculation he was killed as punishment for allowing details of an arms deal with Russia to leak to the Western press. But power struggles in Baghdad are offered as another possible explanation. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel reports.

Prague, 25 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- When the death of Iraqi security chief Rafa Daham Tikriti was announced two weeks ago by Baghdad, doubts immediately arose over the official explanation that his death was an accident.

For one thing, there were Baghdad's conflicting accounts of how he died. First the state media reported he had died in a car crash. Then the cause of death changed to a heart attack. The discrepancy raised speculation Baghdad was seeking to cover up a third explanation for his demise -- execution.

Since Rafa Takriti's death, the signs he was assassinated have steadily grown. His death follows his dismissal by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein -- his second cousin -- only a week earlier. More compellingly, the dismissal followed reports Saddam had ordered an investigation into who in the intelligence service was responsible for leaking details of an alleged secret Iraqi arms deal with Moscow.

Western diplomats told Britain's Sunday Telegraph early this month that Saddam's investigation identified a top official who worked for Rafa Takriti as the source and that both he and his boss were arrested together. The fate of the second man remains unknown.

Iraqi opposition figures say they find credible the reports that Rafa Takriti was assassinated. A former military intelligence chief, Wafeek Samarra'i, who fled to London in 1995, told RFE/RL's Iraqi Service by telephone that Rafa Takriti was killed as a matter of standard practice after being removed from office.

"Such liquidations, though varied, are politically motivated. The new lesson we must take notice of is that all the heads of the special agencies are liquidated one way or another once they have been removed from office. This most probably means that the regime is trying to prevent their defection or to prevent them from leaking information that can shake the regime, as has happened in the past."

Rafa Takriti's dismissal and apparent execution could be a measure of both the sensitivity of the leaked arms deal and the importance Saddam attaches to it. According to the leaks, the deal includes arms Iraq desperately wants, including large numbers of armored cars for the army and spare parts for anti-aircraft missile systems.

The deal is also reported to have included an agreement by Moscow to provide Baghdad with some 220 satellite intelligence photographs of neighboring Gulf countries.

The Russian company which is reported to be supplying the satellite imagery -- Mashinostroyeniye Science and Production Association -- told Isvestiya this week that it knew nothing about the deal. Isvestiya itself dismissed the Sunday Telegraph's reports of the arms deal by saying the British paper was trying to help London and Washington prolong sanctions on Iraq by portraying Saddam as dangerous. UN arms sanctions have been in place against Iraq since its 1990 invasion of Kuwait and if proven, the Russian shipments would be a clear violation.

The controversy over the alleged arms deal might seem reason enough for Rafa Takriti to be assassinated. But many observers believe there are other intrigues within Iraq's ruling circle which may also have helped to bring about his death.

Former military intelligence chief Samarra'i told RFE/RL that Rafa Takriti may in part have fallen victim to power struggles in Baghdad over who will succeed Saddam Hussein.

"If we correlate these events with what is being reported -- and is actually happening -- about internal divisions within the ruling family, we find that there may well be a connection. But how? The heart of the conflict revolves around who is going to succeed Saddam. Who is going to be Saddam Hussein's Number Two Man?"

According to some analysts, Rafa Takriti fell in a power struggle between one of his patrons, Barzan Takriti, and Saddam's older son Uday. Rafa Takriti had previously served as an aide to Barzan. And he had remained loyal to Barzan -- who is Saddam's half-brother -- as Barzan has pushed a claim to succeed Saddam against Uday and Saddam's younger son Qusay.

But opposition groups say that in recent months the tide has turned against Barzan as Saddam's immediate family has accused him of plotting to overthrow the regime. Those charges may have caused Barzan to briefly flee abroad before returning to Baghdad last week.

Now some opposition figures believe Rafa Takriti has fallen victim to Uday as a way for Saddam's oldest son to strike out at Barzan -- whom Saddam so far seems to be protecting from a direct attack.

Wafeek Samarra'i predicts such power struggles are only likely to grow in the future. He says one reason is that in recent months Saddam appears to have clearly decided that his younger son Qusay will succeed him, to the bitter resentment of older son Uday and Saddam's own brothers.

(RFE/RL Iraq Service correspondent Ayad Ahmed contributed to this report.)