Samarra, Iraq, June 2003
“I know where Saddam Hussein is hiding,” said the Sheik, so calmly and casually as he made himself comfortable on my camel-hide sofa that it could only have been the truth. “I can tell you where he is and how to capture him.”
He’d appeared unannounced, as usual. I’ d known by the studied, deliberate way he extracted a Gauloises from its gold case, examined it, tapped it, lit it, inhaled and exhaled while he chose his words that whatever he was going to tell me was big.
And indeed, this was a bit of information I didn’t think even the Balad bureaucrats would be able to slough off.
Trying to stay casual myself, I came to hyper-alert attention. Not only was this distinguished man the titular Sheik of the Saladin Province, which included the territory from Samarra to Tikrit and all the surrounding Tigris River area, he had known Saddam since they were children. Everything he’d told me so far had proven to be true and of incalculable value. I’d heard rumors that the CIA wanted to get their hands on the Sheik. If that were to happen, I knew all too bitterly well what his fate might be.
“Why would you reveal Saddam’s whereabouts?” I asked, because I was genuinely curious. “Doing so puts your life in grave danger.”
“My life and the lives of my people are in danger anyway,” he answered. “The trouble and complication caused by Saddam’s presence in our midst adds exponentially to that danger. I want him out of there.” He paused, then added: “Besides, his day is done.”
Two months earlier
Soon the word was out that the police station in Samarra (where we'd stationed ourselves shortly after arrival) was the place to go if you wanted to talk to the Americans. We were open for business, you might say. I made my office as comfortable and inviting as I could. I’d open a window so that a breeze might offer relief from the heat. I had tea and ice water in readiness, comfortable chairs. When I spoke to people, I made my notes by hand on a yellow legal pad. This small touch, writing by hand instead of on a computer keyboard, put people at ease, I believed, and inspired trust.
In the first couple of days there were hundreds of walk-ins, most of them ordinary citizens, some with stories to tell of abuse, torture, and punishment under Saddam, and some who were just curious. Our days were long, from pre-dawn to the wee hours. We felt compelled to hear every person who came in, because we never knew who might be bearing a trove of vital information.
For instance, I met an Egyptian lawyer who had worked for the Halliburton Corporation doing legal translation, who told me that during Gulf War 1, a US torture program was initiated at the King Khalid Air Force Base in Saudi Arabia; that Iraqis had been systematically tortured there during the run-up to Desert Storm; that certain specific “techniques” were “perfected” there, involving not just beating and physical force but the applied use of sexual humiliation and shame specific to Arab culture.
The lawyer made a startling, though believable, allegation: that Halliburton, in conjunction with the Rand Corporation, had a master plan to instigate this sort of sex-and-humiliation-type torture at various “black op” sites, to record such torture in photos and videos, and to hold those images under lock and key as “ammunition” until such time as they might be needed to divert attention away from the Persian Gulf and the Big Oil free-for-all going on there. This free-for-all would come to be known as the Halliburton Shell Game: tankers full of sweet Iraqi oil would load up at Kuwait City, sail to various US oil ports, do a GPS fix to prove that they’d arrived, get paid for the oil, and then, without actually offloading a single drop, sail back to the Persian Gulf, where the same oil would be offloaded at Kuwait City, turned into fuel for the war front, then sold by Halliburton to the U.S. military for monstrous profits.
Basically, the American taxpayer would be underwriting the billions of dollars in spoils for these huge private corporations. Naturally, those in charge didn’t want anyone taking a close look, and so the stash of naughty torture images would be in hand, ready to be released and turn all eyes in the other direction. Prurience trumps all, they calculated. This information would prove highly significant less than a year later when the Abu Ghraib crimes would sear themselves onto the collective mind of the world.
Another early walk-in was a youngish Western man dressed in Indiana Jones style dusty khaki clothing, a keffiyah around his neck, an old Fedora on his head and sandals on his feet. He was deeply tanned and carried a beat-up backpack. When he opened his mouth and spoke, I was startled to hear a plain American voice. I’d expected British, or maybe Scandinavian.
He was, he told me, a freelance gem-hunter. He’d just come from a couple of years in Afghanistan, where some of the richest lodes of precious gems in the world—including emeralds, rubies, and sapphires—lie in the earth. Successful gem hunters are expert geologists; he’d come to Iraq to contract with petroleum engineers, hiring himself out to help them locate oil deposits.
“Osama bin Laden is in Afghanistan right now,” he told me. “He’s between Kunduz, way up in the north near Tajikistan, and another town called Hundun. The terrain between the two places is about the bleakest, barest, most barren moonscape you ever saw. He’s surrounded by an entourage of maybe two hundred people. All you’d have to do to pinpoint his location and grab him would be to study the concentration of resources being used in that desolate stretch. Two hundred people in the middle of nowhere make a measurable, tangible footprint. Everyone in that part of Afghanistan knows he’s there. He’s yours for the bagging.” He laughed and shook his head. “You Americans are so stupid.”
I filed a report with my command: Possible location of bin Laden in Afghanistan. The response? Radio silence.
One afternoon in the first days after our arrival, a chauffeured black Mercedes limousine arrived at the police station. A dignified-looking man with a Western appearance but wearing full-on Sheik robes emerged and declared that he had information he’d like to impart.
I’d been up since dawn, had spoken to at least twenty people already that day. I was exhausted. So I let the guy wait while I took a short break. When I saw the robed man still sitting patiently a quarter of an hour later, smoking a Gauloises (the aroma only slightly pleasanter, I thought, than the burn pit), I figured this guy might have something worth listening to.
And did he ever.
“I am the hereditary Sheik of Saladin Province,” he told me in excellent English. He’d brought along his papers to prove his centuries-old pedigree. As we spoke, I understood that he was a highly educated person of tremendous knowledge and influence, a banker with the Bank of Iraq, a living, breathing Who’s Who of contacts and priceless inside information. He was the antidote to Baghdadi; he was not opaque, solemn, or burning with zealotry. He was worldly, charming, had an impish sense of humor and a twinkle in his eye, wore goldrimmed glasses and was clean-shaven but for a mustache. When he showed me his papers, he cracked a joke: “You can see that I am no fake Sheik!” This was more than a play on words; it was known that Saddam had been dispensing the title of “Sheik” pretty freely to sycophants and loyalists, so there were, in fact, a lot of fake Sheiks running around. Our guy was definitely not one of those, and he made sure we knew it. And he was anything but blindly loyal to Saddam.
He was forthright and more than eager to talk on that first day I met him. I just listened, not daring to distract or interrupt. Here was a rich vein of live info, the sort intel agents dream of.
“I am the banker of the man who is Saddam Hussein’s banker,” he told me. “His name is Ali Sa’ad Hassan, but he is also known as Abu Seger;” (pronounced SAY-jer) “I know everything about his finances. You will be very interested in what you find in this man’s house, which is only a couple of blocks from here.”
Over more visits in subsequent days, the Sheik provided statements, papers, and evidence pertaining to Abu Seger. He told us of vast quantities of cash and gold shipped into Samarra. We began putting together a case and a plan to apprehend Abu Seger. And the Sheik and I were becoming fast friends. It was always a pleasure to see the black Mercedes pull up.
Not everyone appearing at the police station arrived in a chauffeured limousine bearing crucial intelligence. Some came under cover of darkness and left nothing except memories of themselves I know I will never shake. Like the young woman in a burka, speaking perfect English, pushing her grandmother in a wheelchair.
“I am living in slavery,” she said. “I do not want to live as a slave any longer.” The grandmother never spoke, and I had no idea if she understood any English at all, but I could see by her expression and demeanor that she was totally on her granddaughter’s side.
My American translator immediately offered the young woman a job as a translator.
“We want you to come to work right away,” he said. The emotions chasing one another on the young woman’s face while she considered this offer were complicated, ranging from joy to terror.
“Well, there might be a problem,” she said. “I will have to go home first. I hope I can return tomorrow.”
I walked her outside.
“I hope you come back. But please,” I said, “be very, very careful. Don’t do anything that might put you in danger.” I could only imagine her home situation. A father, a husband, brothers? How well I knew what it was to live under the fist of a tyrannical patriarch.
When she left, it was with a sense of fatalism that I watched her push her grandmother’s wheelchair beyond the glow of the streetlight. I kept my eyes on them until they vanished.
I never saw her again.
And a night or so later, well after dark, a girl, much younger, perhaps eleven, appeared at the station, alone. She wore a scarf on her head, her best shoes, a coat, and she was carrying a little suitcase.
“I need help,” she said. “I want to leave. My father and uncles are making me do things I don’t want to do.”
Appalled, I brought her inside. But the moment she caught sight of the two Shia policemen, popping cashews into their mouths and eyeing her like jackals looking at a baby rabbit, she shrank back.
“I can’t,” she said. “I can’t.” And in the next moment she was out the door, hurrying into the darkness with her little suitcase.
Watching her disappear, I’d never felt quite so helpless.
She, too, I never saw again.