In 1988, during the waning days of Iraq’s war with Iran, the US learned through satellite imagery that Iran was about to gain a major strategic advantage by exploiting a hole in Iraqi defenses.
Iran’s Islamic revolutionaries were about to finish the war to their advantage, something the west was eager to scuttle.
Fully aware that Saddam Hussein’s military would attack with chemical weapons, including the lethal nerve agent Sarin, US intelligence officials conveyed the location of the Iranian troops to Iraq.
It was not only the US that helped Saddam by providing him with weapons of mass destruction – also used domestically against Iraqi Kurds – but France, the UK, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Germany, among others, contributed significantly to Iraq’s unconventional armaments.
Other European countries also appear complicit in providing the Iraqi dictator with his deadliest tools. For example, on 23 December 2005, a Dutch court sentenced businessman Frans van Anraat to 15 years in prison for purchasing chemicals on the world market and selling them to Saddam’s regime. The court ruled that the chemical attack on Halabja constituted genocide, but van Anraat was found guilty only of complicity in war crimes.
It is while tracking down the former Baath regime’s communications with European governments – that appears to have been run primarily through Iraq’s Paris embassy – in the extensive archives of an Iraqi collector, that something very unexpected turned up:
An extensive espionage campaign against the Iraqi opposition, facilitated by Iranian Kurds.
Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou
In 1958, Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou, an eager doctorate student in Europe, was following the cataclysm of events in Iraq. King Faisal II was shot by putschists led by General Abdul Karim Qasim and the British-installed Iraqi monarchy collapsed. The leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) Mustafa Barzani, then a refugee in the former USSR, returned to Iraqi Kurdistan.
After these momentous events, Ghassemlou returned to Iraq hoping to meet the Kurdish leader and establish a sphere of influence for himself. He was eventually expelled from the country in 1960 due to rising tensions between the Kurds and Baghdad. In 1960, he returned to Prague to complete his doctorate.
The ceasefire between Mustafa Barzani and Baghdad enabled him to return to Iraq a decade later and settle into a position at Saddam’s Ministry of Economy where he would work until 1973. Because of his good relations with both the Barzani tribe and the Iraqi state, he began to participate in various negotiations between the two parties.
As far as his legacy is concerned, Ghassemlou is lauded as a mediator, but is that truly the case?
At a party congress in 1973, he was elected general secretary of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI). He de facto left his post in the Iraqi ministry, but as we will soon see, maintained good relations with the Iraqi regime until his death.
A Saddam asset
The following documents that were retrieved from the Iraqi embassy in Paris, prove evidence of then-Secretary General of the KDPI Ghassemlou’s extensive collaboration and espionage activities with Saddam Hussein’s government.
Rather than the mediator, peacemaker, and good Samaritan he has come to represent, Ghassemlou was in fact receiving $125,000 a month from Iraqi authorities to spy both inside and outside Iran on Saddam’s Iraqi opponents.
The KDPI itself refused to comment on these findings and hung up the phone several times to The Cradle’s inquiries.
A letter from the Iraqi ministry of foreign affairs, to the Iraqi embassy in Paris, dated 1-12-1988. The letter says that the ministry of foreign affairs sends $125,000 to the Iraqi embassy in Paris, which should be given to Dr. Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou, who is at their side.
This second letter is the response of the Iraqi embassy in Paris sent to the Iraqi ministry of foreign affairs in Baghdad, on 9-12-1988. The letter states that “this is an answer to the letter of 1-12-1988”. “The amount of $125,000 dollars was given to Dr. Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou on 8-12-1988.”
It can be said that Ghassemlou’s espionage activities for Saddam Hussain started before these letters were exchanged. A WikiLeaks cable dated 16 February 1988, several months before the above letters were sent, reveals rather candid information on the rendezvous between the former KDPI leader and the Iraqi dictator.
“Coming down out of the mountains for one of his occasional trips to Baghdad, Iranian Kurdish leader Qassemlu met Saddam February 10,” the cable strikingly starts, which was written by a US official whom is referred to as ‘POLCHIEF’ throughout the highly informative piece.
It goes on to describe a conversation that took place on 12 February during a six-hour lunch meeting between Ghassemlou, POLCHIEF, and the former Swedish ambassador Bjorn Arne Terker Thoren. Ghassemlou himself was accompanied by the directors of the KDPI’s Paris, Stockholm and Baghdad offices.
The conversation over lunch provides evidence of a deeper connection with the Iraqi army, as Ghassemlou is quoted describing how recently 52 Iraqi soldiers – including 6 officers – had taken refuge with KDPI, and his good friend Jalal Talabani had demanded that they be handed over. A dispute went on for two weeks between KDPI and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), until Ghassemlou eventually conceded.
“Saddam as ‘God'”
‘POLCHIEF’ describes how he tried to dig deeper into the Ghassemlou-Saddam connection. He writes: “Ghassemlou was unwilling to discuss his meeting with Saddam, indeed even directly to admit it took place (although privately to the Swedish ambassador he had been more candid), he did allude to the Persian saying that ‘If you can meet God, there is no point in settling for one of the twelve Imams’.”
“Qassemlou said that, unlike Mujaheddin-e Khalq leader Rajavi, he had ‘absolutely no desire’ to be photographed with Saddam or have any publicity of his travel to Baghdad, much less of meeting Saddam.” The reason for this: “It does not go over very well in Iran.”
‘POLCHIEF’ describes himself asking Ghassemlou for his reaction to the Iraqi campaign of destroying Kurdish villages, to which he seemed “unemotional.” Ghassemlou had said that the campaign has “greatly increased the number of guerrillas.”
It appears that Ghassemlou and the KDPI leadership did their utmost to hide his relationship with the Iraqi government, which explains why this disturbing fact has stayed hidden for so long.
An Iraqi-Kurdish political commentator based in Amsterdam, who wishes to stay anonymous, told The Cradle: “This is a catastrophe. This is exactly the kind of reporting that gets heads chopped off. Keep me out of this one.”
An elderly PUK-representative also revealed: “At the time, there was a lot of mixing and mingling involved. We were always wary of Iranian opposition groups, even those of our Kurdish brothers, as they depended on Baghdad’s support for finances, arms, and notification of upcoming battles so they would not get caught between Iranian and Iraqi artillery fire.”
From other retrieved documents in the same archive, one can see how an espionage campaign implicating Dr. Ghassemlou was established.
In 1987, an internal document of the Iraqi intelligence organ describes how Ghassemlou had been approaching the Communist Party of Iraq (CPI), one of Saddam’s most-feared opposition groups. At the time, they were hosted by the communist Tudeh Party, an Iranian opposition group previously aligned with the KDPI which cut off relations after Ghassemlou acceded to the helm.
While the original writer of the document sees this as worrisome, a footnote added by his superior describes this situation as an opportunity “to collect information”.
In other letters – one dated 3-9-1988 and another on 18-2-1989 -Ghassemlou reports to Saddam about how he has started to mediate between the CPI and the PUK, on Saddam’s orders.
History shows that a deal between PUK and CPI was indeed made, but dissolved soon after, as PUK forces attacked the Communist Party headquarters and massacred 150 of its partisan fighters and other party members.
The age-old tactic of divide and conquer was being recycled by Saddam and Ghassemlou, who we now know was not a peacemaker but a paid informant of Baathist Iraq.
Translation: “3/9/1988. To the honorable President Saddam Hussein, with regards and respect, based on the instructions and wishes of the brothers whom I met in Baghdad and who communicated your orders, I tried to contact the desired parties and finally I succeeded to reach Mr. Diyar Mohammad, Secretary General of the Communist Party of Iraq (CPI) and brother Jalal Talabani, Secretary General of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), and tell them I would like to meet separately as well as together.
They said they can negotiate with other relevant parties, including the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). Of course, in this regard, they were also aware of Mr. Makram Talabani’s letters, which were in the same context, and after a long and detailed conversation about the past and its complications, sufferings, and sorrows, I felt that the brothers really wanted to try and solve the problem. And based on such a desire and sense of responsibility, they started to write each other these things that I am submitting to you as an attachment to the letter and I sincerely hope that it will be considered and accepted by you. I hope that I have been successful in my endeavors for the good of Iraq and the stable national unity and bright future and the good of the two brotherly Kurdish and Arab nations. With appreciation and respect, Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou.
Translation: “18/2/1989. To the honorable President Saddam Hussain, with greetings and respect, I thank you for your verbal message and kind attention, you know very well that when sincerity is involved and the parties engage in fraternal and constructive dialogue, the method of negotiation is of secondary importance. I hereby express my utmost happiness for your order to start a dialogue between the government institutions and the Kurdish brothers. I am pleased to announce on this occasion that any mission you assign me in this field, I will be fully prepared to do it with full pride. Signed Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou.”
Translation: To the Head of the Iranian Administration. Subject: The relationship between the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran and the Iraqi Communist Mercenary Party.
1) Previously, we had received information about the convergence between the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran and the Iraqi Communist Mercenary Party was accomplished.
2) On 1/12/1987, Your Excellency issued an order to follow up the aforementioned matters accurately and quickly, and then the details will be brought to the attention of the honorable management of the General Intelligence Organization (of Iraq).
3) The command base of the Iranian opposition in Al-Tamim province (Kirkuk) was order to follow-up on the issue and inform us of the result, and they responded as follows:
- One of our sources named Abdullah Nasif, was able to obtain information with a good degree of confidence from within the organization of the Communist Mercenary Party of Iraq.
- This source said that there is a strong relationship between the parties and meetings are held at the level of the cadres of the two groups, and the KDPI has benefited from the experiences of one of the cadres of the CPI, named Ibrahim Sufi, in leading secret organizations. And he added that the CPI is working on the recommendation of the Soviet Union to create a convergence between the loyalist guerrillas of the majority and the Tudeh party and the KDPI.
4) Theory: According to our assessment, Dr. Ghassemlou is not willing to jeopardize his relationship with our country because of his relationship with the CPI, because the CPI is of almost no use to him. But his ideological dependence has an effect on the movements and relationships he establishes, and we believe that Ghassemlou’s communication in this…..
…is not aimed at the purpose of a relationship with the CPI, but for the purpose of making the CPI a passage to gain the friendship and satisfaction of the Soviet Union and its communication with the loyalist guerrillas of the majority (Farokh Naghadar Group), some of whom are based in the headquarters of the CPI, and the Tudeh party, and creating a consensus with them as a group opposed to Iran is a means that enables him to show his strength as a power against the Mujahideen-e Khalq, and this is Ghassemlou’s second lofty goal after opposing Khomeini’s regime.
5) In our opinion, it is better to obtain an order to follow up the developments related to these calls and their results, so that through the sources we have in the KDPI, we can find out the real intentions of the mentioned party and the results of these movements. Our sources for this work are Ghafoor Hamzaei and Abdullah Hassanzadeh. For your information and necessary action. With the gratitude of the head of the opposition monitoring branch. 11 March, 1987.