PRAGUE (RFE/RL) -- Czech officials say former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein ordered an attack on the Prague headquarters of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty but that the plot was foiled by the country's intelligence services.
In a statement released today, Jan Subert, a spokesman for the Czech intelligence service (BIS), said agents learned of the plot from a source inside the Iraqi Embassy in the autumn of 2000.
According to Subert, Hussein "gave his secret service instructions to violently disrupt the Iraqi broadcasting of Radio Free Europe and provided significant financial resources for the operation."
RFE/RL began broadcasting to Iraq in October 1998.
The fresh allegations are reminiscent of earlier Czech claims that Iraqi Embassy officials had met with Mohammad Atta, one of the plotters behind the September 11, 2001, terror attacks on the United States. Those claims sparked a media frenzy in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, but ultimately proved to be untrue.
The United States has yet to comment on the latest Czech claims. But the case has raised questions of why the Czechs waited until now to reveal the plot -- and why the United States did not list it among its grievances when preparing to invade Iraq in March 2003.'Great Source Of Concern'
Dhia'a al-Dabbas is Iraq's current ambassador to the Czech Republic and was an opposition member living in exile at the time of the alleged plot. He told RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq that the Hussein regime was deeply worried about the impact of the radio station's broadcasts inside Iraq.
"We had confirmed information that the old regime was seriously trying to attack [Radio Free Iraq] through its agents in the Iraqi Embassy in Prague, which was a very important headquarters of the Iraqi secret services in Europe," Dabbas said. "[Saddam Hussein] was trying to attack this radio, which was a source of great concern for him."
"I think this is a story that underscores in a very vivid and painful way the lengths that some will go to...to cut off what we all take for granted -- that is, a free flow of reliable, accurate information.
According to Subert, the Iraqis planned to carry out the attack from the window of an apartment building across the street from RFE/RL's headquarters, then located near Wenceslas Square in central Prague.
The weapons for the attack -- which included an RPG-7 antitank grenade launcher and six machine guns and ammunition -- were smuggled into the country by Iraqi agents in a diplomatic vehicle and stockpiled at their embassy, Subert said.
RFE/RL President Jeffrey Gedmin said the revelations illustrate the hostility authoritarian regimes have toward independent media.
"I think this is a story that underscores in a very vivid and painful way the lengths that some will go to -- let's say the rather murderous lengths that some will go to -- to cut off what we all take for granted. That is, a free flow of reliable, accurate information," Gedmin said.
U.S. officials declined to comment on the revelations, which were first made public in a report by TV Nova in the Czech Republic on November 29.
Czech officials say they warned the Iraqis that they were aware of the plot in late 2000.
In April 2001, Prague expelled an Iraqi diplomat, Ahmed Khalil Ibrahim Samir al-Ani, who was caught monitoring and photographing RFE/RL's broadcast headquarters. Five more diplomats were expelled in March 2003, on the eve of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
In April 2003, after Hussein's government was toppled by U.S. forces, Dabbas said Iraq handed the weapons stockpiled at its Prague embassy over to Czech authorities.
"After the fall of the regime, a large number of weapons were found in the Iraqi Embassy in Prague. I was informed about that by the Czech authorities after I took up my post as ambassador in Prague," Dabbas said. "The weapons included six machine guns, 10 pistols, and six other automatic guns and an RPG-7. The aim was to attack the building of Radio Free Iraq using the RPG-7 from a window of a nearby apartment rented for this purpose."Moved To More Secure Site
After the September 11, 2001, attacks against the United States, the Czech and U.S. governments agreed to move the RFE/RL headquarters from its downtown Prague location to a more secure area outside the city center. The U.S.-funded broadcaster was seen as a potential target for additional attacks against U.S. points of interest abroad.
RFE/RL began broadcasting from its new headquarters in February of this year.
Subert's announcement was not the first time that Czech security and law-enforcement officials have claimed to have information about terrorist attacks against U.S. targets.
In October 2001, Stanislav Gross, then the Czech interior minister, told a press conference that Mohammad Atta, the lead hijacker in the September 11 attacks, had met with Ani in Prague on April 8, 2001. Ani was expelled from the Czech Republic later that month.
The allegation that Atta had plotted with one of Hussein's agents sparked headlines, led to speculation that Baghdad may have been involved in the attacks, and helped to fuel the case for the U.S.-led war in Iraq.
But the bipartisan September 11 Commission in the United States concluded in its final report that ''the available evidence does not support the original Czech report" of a meeting between Atta and Ani.
According to the September 11 report, U.S. officials have said their records -- including bank surveillance photos and cellular phone records -- place Atta in Virginia Beach, Virginia, and Coral Springs, Florida, in April 2001, around the time the meeting with Ani allegedly took place in Prague.Maysoon Abo al-Hab of RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq contributed to this report