Where in the world is Nizar Khazraji?

What the foreign papers are saying.
April 9 2003 4:47 PM

Looking for Mr. Khazraji

The Danish town of Sorø is not the most obvious place for a Gulf War mystery, but  on March 17 Nizar Khazraji, a former Iraqi military chief-of-staff who turned against Saddam Hussein in 1996, disappeared thereand has yet to be found. Last Sunday, the Copenhagen daily Politiken cited a confidential March 28 report (English summary here) prepared by a former CIA head of counterterrorism claiming the agency had spirited him out of Denmark.

When he vanished, Khazraji was under a lenient Scandinavian version of house arrest while a Danish magistrate investigated him for alleged war crimes against the Kurds during the 1980s—a charge he has denied and denounced as politically motivated. If the United States was involved in his disappearance—which occurred while Khazraji took a walk in the woods—it aborted a judicial investigation in a sovereign country that also happens to be a member of the "coalition of the willing."

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Why would the United States take such a risk? Perhaps because it saw Khazraji as a key figure in turning the Iraqi army against the Baathist regime—and perhaps more. In a New Yorker piece in March 2002, Seymour Hersh wrote: "The C.I.A.'s brightest prospect, officials told me, is Nizar Khazraji. … As a Sunni and a former combat general, Khazraji is viewed by the C.I.A. as being far more acceptable to the Iraqi officer corps than [Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmed] Chalabi, a Shiite who left Iraq in 1958." That Khazraji sees himself in similar terms was obvious in a Dec. 2, 2002 interview with the London-based daily Al-Hayat, when he declared, "I am sure that as soon as we set foot in Iraq, military units will join us. … There are a large number of officers and soldiers who are ready to work with us so that we can fight our way to Baghdad."

Even if the paper trail doesn't prove U.S. responsibility, reports of Khazraji's presence in the Gulf are copious enough that it can be assumed he has at least crossed U.S. radar screens since his escape. The Politiken article was the only one to cite an actual document (the author, Vincent Cannistraro, refused to comment), however it was the Danish tabloid B.T. that first suggested a CIA link, in a story summarized by the weekly English-language Copenhagen Post:

In a detailed report, B.T. described how the plot to abduct the army officer … was planned. It is claimed that the head of [CIA] operations booked in at the Radisson SAS Royal Hotel, and, together with three other agents (staying at other hotels), kept Khazraji under surveillance, in order to determine routine security procedures surrounding the Iraqi general.

Due to insufficient police monitoring of Khazraji's movements, it was apparently easy for the US agents to drive off with Khazraji in a Ford Mondeo, en route for Saudi Arabia, via a military airbase near Hamburg.

On April 2, it became apparent that the Danes had not ruled out American involvement. The justice minister, Lene Espersen, sent a letter to the U.S. Embassy in Copenhagen asking for a response to the accusatory press reports. Espersen implicitly discredited an alternative theory, which neither she nor Khazraji's family ever seriously played up: his abduction by Saddam's henchmen. In her letter, the minister asked the embassy for information about the circumstances of Khazraji's disappearance and his whereabouts "in order to avoid unnecessary—and potentially harmful—public myths and thus to preserve the excellent relations between Denmark and close friends and allies such as the United States." The U.S. embassy denied any involvement, though it was unclear why it should have been considered an authoritative source on what was purportedly a CIA plot.

No clearer are the myriad reports on Khazraji's whereabouts. The Politiken article placed him in Kuwait. Another article in KurdishMedia.com said he was in the Kurdish town of Suleimaniyya, though it cited Danish press reports situating him variously in Saudi Arabia and Turkey. The London-based Saudi daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat also claimed he was in Kurdistan. Iran's IRNA news agency thought he was in Qatar, while Khazraji's son said he was in Hungary, presumably with an Iraqi opposition military force the United States is training there. A U.S. spokesman in Hungary denied the story. The Qatari and Hungarian angles can be taken with a grain of salt: If the United States had Khazraji, they would hardly have sent him to Doha to appear next to Tommy Franks. And Hungary is the last place Khazraji would have gone; the men there are Chalabi loyalists, and he and Chalabi are adversaries.

Eventually, Khazraji will probably reappear, most likely in Iraq, with a good explanation for how he got there that will exonerate almost everybody. The Danes will be left holding the file on a half-finished judicial inquiry—perhaps of a man who will by then be a senior Iraqi official.

Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut and author of The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon's Life Struggle, which the Wall Street Journal listed as one of its 10 standout books for 2010.