It’s the stuff of John Le Carre – a spy story with all the trimmings and this one involves a CIA plot to overthrow Saddam Hussein. It aligns U.S. secret agents with Iraqi rebels. But it’s also a story about betrayal and broken promises – the forgotten soldiers in America’s Secret War in Iraq in the 1990’s.
This documentary goes a long way to explaining why the second Gulf War happened in Iraq.
The six men at the heart of the film are being held in a Los Angeles detention centre. They were part of an aborted rebellion against Saddam Hussein; a rebellion backed by the White House and the CIA – or so they thought. They’d assumed they’d get a hero’s welcome in America. Instead, because of secret evidence against them, they now sit in an American prison, awaiting deportation back to Baghdad.
The story of the war lost begins with the earlier war won; a war against a country with vast oil resources in an unstable part of the world. In the Gulf War of 1991, the American led coalition drove Iraqi troops out of Kuwait, utterly defeating Saddam Hussein’s army. It was a textbook example of overwhelming victory on the battlefield. Iraq was a shambles; its economy shattered, the Iraqi people tried to rebuild their lives amid chaos and near famine. Anti-Saddam forces staged uprisings throughout the country. It was a rebellion to complete the job left unfinished by the allied coalition. But Saddam’s army, whose troops in the north had been untouched by the Gulf War, had a free hand to quash the revolt while the world stood by and did nothing. It was a brutal operation carried out by a regime that had already used gas against civilians.
The story of Saddam Hussein re-establishing his iron-fisted grip was not over. Eventually the United States government, in the autumn of 1994, decided to send teams into northern Iraq to help the Iraqi National Congress, to debrief defectors, to do all the day-to-day things that the CIA could do to help the Iraqi National Congress maintain itself in northern Iraq. By spring 1994, northern Iraq was back under the control of Saddam’s opponents. The CIA’s plan now was to help establish an alternate government there – where the INC was in charge. The job of the CIA teams was to weld the various factions in the INC into a cohesive force. It involved military training and buying weapons – all with an eye to moulding a rebel army that would some day take on the regular Iraqi army. What the CIA and the INC were creating in northern Iraq was a government in waiting. They developed a slick propaganda machine. The idea was to proclaim there was an alternative to Saddam, just in the north, where a liberation army was in the making. It was a makeshift alliance – but it was working. Flush with the success of their propaganda campaign, the resistance was ready to escalate the struggle into a military phase. The INC was building a power base; building the confidence and prestige of its army; consolidating its military strength. But in the spring of 1996, just as the INC was preparing an offensive, Washington’s commitment to this strategy faltered. Washington now wanted an Iraqi army coup instead. And just at this crucial moment, the united front of the resistance unravelled with some Kurdish factions quitting the INC and joining Saddam.
The INC launched its offensive anyway, believing it had a promise of American air support. But no such support ever came. Within days, the INC’s military stronghold was crushed by Saddam’s forces, the rebels forced to flee – the beginning of a journey that would carry them to freedom – or so they thought. More than 6,000 of the rebels were spirited out of Iraq in an effort mounted by the CIA and the U.S. state department to Turkey and then airlifted to Guam, where they were turned over to the FBI, who would then checked out their stories. When they arrived in the USA, 25 were initially held for further investigation – a number eventually whittled down to six in Los Angeles. On what basis were they singled out? Were they simply denounced by rival factions settling old scores, or does the U.S. really believe they were spies for Saddam? But it wasn’t just the Los Angeles six who were mistreated in all this. The opposition in northern Iraq was shattered and forlorn. The lack of resolve by Washington to bring down Saddam resulted in the a new build-up of tensions in the Gulf; tension that eventually led to the second Gulf War. The rebels in northern Iraq were caught in a brutal exercise of power politics; a strategic chess game in which their enemy wanted them crushed and their patron never really wanted them to win.