Osama bin Laden’s family in Iran: new strain on Saudi-Iran ties

CSMONITOR

Six children and one wife of Osama Bin Laden have reportedly been living in Iran since fleeing Afghanistan shortly before 9/11. His 17-year-old daughter recently escaped to the embassy of Saudi Arabia, Iran’s traditional rival.

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By Scott Peterson

Istanbul, Turkey

Seven members of Osama bin Laden’s immediate family have been under house arrest in Iran and living in a high security compound outside Tehran since 2001, news outlets reported on Wednesday.

The group includes six children of the Al Qaeda leader and one of his wives, all of whom reportedly fled Afghanistan and walked to the Iran border just prior to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in New York and Washington, according to The Times in London.

One 17-year-old daughter, Iman, escaped from from the Tehran compound and has been holed up in the Saudi Arabia Embassy for 25 days, according to the Saudi-owned newspaper Asharq al-Awsat.

The asylum request – and public revelations about the continuing Bin Laden family presence in Iran – are sure to complicate relations between the two traditional rivals for power in the Middle East: Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia.

During his first term, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad went on a charm offensive to woo Saudi and other Arab leaders. But Iran’s rising influence and that of its “Axis of Resistance” – with Hezbullah, Hamas, and Syria – raised concern in Riyadh and other Arab capitals.

The disputed June election was final proof for many in the Arab world that Iran’s regional power was on the wane again. For Saudi Arabia, evidence of that came just last week when it was able to precipitate an unlikely meeting between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, an Iran ally, and Lebanon’s pro-West Prime Minister Saad Hariri – who for five years has accused Syria of killing his father.

US turned down Iranian offer for Al Qaeda operatives

One of Bin Laden’s oldest sons, Saad, was known for years to be among some 35 Al Qaeda operatives that fled to Iran after the US toppling of the Taliban government and expulsion of Al Qaeda from Afghanistan in late 2001.

The government of President Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005) eventually offered to indirectly exchange those Al Qaeda figures with the US, if Washington would rein in, or hand over, leaders of the anti-Iran Mujahideen-e Khalq. Known as the MEK or MKO, the anti-Iran group considered a terrorist group by the US State Department was based in Iraq under Saddam Hussein’s wing. But the members there fell under the jurisdiction of American forces after a US-led coalition toppled the Hussein regime in 2003.

Iran’s offer was rejected, according to reports at the time, because the Pentagon wanted to keep hold of the MEK as a possible force to be used against Iran in any Washington-orchestrated bid for regime change.

Bin Ladens’ presence off the radar

Still, it was never made public that so many Bin Laden family members were in Iran. The Washington Post reported in October 2003 that Saad bin Laden had “emerged in recent months as part of the upper echelon of the Al Qaeda network … that is managing the terrorist organization from Iran,” quoting US, European and Arab officials.

The story held that Saad bin Laden was “protected by an elite, radical Iranian security force loyal to the nation’s clerics and beyond the control of the central government” – the Qods Force of the Revolutionary Guard.

Reports emerged earlier this year that Iran had quietly released Saad bin Laden in late 2008, and let him go to Afghanistan.Then it was reported in July that he had been killed in a US drone strike in Pakistan.

But the presence of so many Bin Laden relatives in Iran was a surprise. The Times of London has reported that 11 Bin Laden grandchildren also lived on the compound.

“Until a month ago, we did not know where the siblings were,” Omar bin Laden, the fourth son who lives in Qatar, told Asharq al-Awsat. “The Iranian government did not know what to do with this large group of people whom nobody else wanted, so they just kept them safe…. For that we owe them much gratitude.”

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Iraq’s WMD Secreted in Syria, General Sada Says

New York Sun

Retired Iraqi General Georges Sada

The man who served as the no. 2 official in Saddam Hussein‘s air force says Iraq moved weapons of mass destruction into Syria before the war by loading the weapons into civilian aircraft in which the passenger seats were removed.

The Iraqi general, Georges Sada, makes the charges in a new book, “Saddam’s Secrets,” released this week. He detailed the transfers in an interview yesterday with The New York Sun.

“There are weapons of mass destruction gone out from Iraq to Syria, and they must be found and returned to safe hands,” Mr. Sada said. “I am confident they were taken over.”

Mr. Sada’s comments come just more than a month after Israel’s top general during Operation Iraqi Freedom, Moshe Yaalon, told the Sun that Saddam “transferred the chemical agents from Iraq to Syria.”

Democrats have made the absence of stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq a theme in their criticism of the Bush administration’s decision to go to war in 2003. And President Bush himself has conceded much of the point; in a televised prime-time address to Americans last month, he said, “It is true that many nations believed that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. But much of the intelligence turned out to be wrong.”

Said Mr. Bush, “We did not find those weapons.”

The discovery of the weapons in Syria could alter the American political debate on the Iraq war. And even the accusations that they are there could step up international pressure on the government in Damascus. That government, led by Bashar Assad, is already facing a U.N. investigation over its alleged role in the assassination of a former prime minister of Lebanon. The Bush administration has criticized Syria for its support of terrorism and its failure to cooperate with the U.N. investigation.

The State Department recently granted visas for self-proclaimed opponents of Mr. Assad to attend a “Syrian National Council” meeting in Washington scheduled for this weekend, even though the attendees include communists, Baathists, and members of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood group to the exclusion of other, more mainstream groups.

Mr. Sada, 65, told the Sun that the pilots of the two airliners that transported the weapons of mass destruction to Syria from Iraq approached him in the middle of 2004, after Saddam was captured by American troops.

“I know them very well. They are very good friends of mine. We trust each other. We are friends as pilots,” Mr. Sada said of the two pilots. He declined to disclose their names, saying they are concerned for their safety. But he said they are now employed by other airlines outside Iraq.

The pilots told Mr. Sada that two Iraqi Airways Boeings were converted to cargo planes by removing the seats, Mr. Sada said. Then Special Republican Guard brigades loaded materials onto the planes, he said, including “yellow barrels with skull and crossbones on each barrel.” The pilots said there was also a ground convoy of trucks.

The flights – 56 in total, Mr. Sada said – attracted little notice because they were thought to be civilian flights providing relief from Iraq to Syria, which had suffered a flood after a dam collapse in June of 2002.

“Saddam realized, this time, the Americans are coming,” Mr. Sada said. “They handed over the weapons of mass destruction to the Syrians.”

Mr. Sada said that the Iraqi official responsible for transferring the weapons was a cousin of Saddam Hussein named Ali Hussein al-Majid, known as “Chemical Ali.” The Syrian official responsible for receiving them was a cousin of Bashar Assad who is known variously as General Abu Ali, Abu Himma, or Zulhimawe.

Short of discovering the weapons in Syria, those seeking to validate Mr. Sada’s claim independently will face difficulty. His book contains a foreword by a retired U.S. Air Force colonel, David Eberly, who was a prisoner of war in Iraq during the first Gulf War and who vouches for Mr. Sada, who once held him captive, as “an honest and honorable man.”

In his visit to the Sun yesterday, Mr. Sada was accompanied by Terry Law, the president of a Tulsa, Oklahoma based Christian humanitarian organization called World Compassion. Mr. Law said he has known Mr. Sada since 2002, lived in his house in Iraq and had Mr. Sada as a guest in his home in America. “Do I believe this man? Yes,” Mr. Law said. “It’s been solid down the line and everything checked out.”

Said Mr. Law, “This is not a publicity hound. This is a man who wants peace putting his family on the line.”

Mr. Sada acknowledged that the disclosures about transfers of weapons of mass destruction are “a very delicate issue.” He said he was afraid for his family. “I am sure the terrorists will not like it. The Saddamists will not like it,” he said.

He thanked the American troops. “They liberated the country and the nation. It is a liberation force. They did a great job,” he said. “We have been freed.”

He said he had not shared his story until now with any American officials. “I kept everything secret in my heart,” he said. But he is scheduled to meet next week in Washington with Senators Sessions and Inhofe, Republicans of, respectively, Alabama and Oklahoma. Both are members of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The book also says that on the eve of the first Gulf War, Saddam was planning to use his air force to launch a chemical weapons attack on Israel.

When, during an interview with the Sun in April 2004, Vice President Cheney was asked whether he thought that Iraqi weapons of mass destruction had been moved to Syria, Mr. Cheney replied only that he had seen such reports.

An article in the Fall 2005 Middle East Quarterly reports that in an appearance on Israel’s Channel 2 on December 23, 2002, Israel’s prime minister, Ariel Sharon, stated, “Chemical and biological weapons which Saddam is endeavoring to conceal have been moved from Iraq to Syria.” The allegation was denied by the Syrian government at the time as “completely untrue,” and it attracted scant American press attention, coming as it did on the eve of the Christmas holiday.

The Syrian ruling party and Saddam Hussein had in common the ideology of Baathism, a mixture of Nazism and Marxism.

Syria is one of only eight countries that has not signed the Chemical Weapons Convention, a treaty that obligates nations not to stockpile or use chemical weapons. Syria’s chemical warfare program, apart from any weapons that may have been received from Iraq, has long been the source of concern to America, Israel, and Lebanon. In March 2004, the director of Central Intelligence, George Tenet, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee, saying, “Damascus has an active CW development and testing program that relies on foreign suppliers for key controlled chemicals suitable for producing CW.”

The CIA’s Iraq Survey Group acknowledged in its September 30, 2004, “Comprehensive Report,” “we cannot express a firm view on the possibility that WMD elements were relocated out of Iraq prior to the war. Reports of such actions exist, but we have not yet been able to investigate this possibility thoroughly.”

Mr. Sada is an unusual figure for an Iraqi general as he is a Christian and was not a member of the Baath Party. He now directs the Iraq operations of the Christian humanitarian organization, World Compassion.

Note:  This article was originally published in 2006.

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