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GlobalSecurity.org In the News

ABCNews.com September 26, 2002

Saddam's Minister of Mass Destruction?

Abd al-Tawab
Mullah al-Huwaysh

A Rising Star
Saddam's Right-Hand Man
Under Scrutiny From the West

By Leela Jacinto

Sept. 26 - In the khaki and gray lineup of ever-attentive aides, cabinet members, and sundry yes-men around Saddam Hussein in the photo-ops these days, one man stands out from the crowd.

Abdul Tawab el-Mulla Howeish, Iraq's deputy prime minister and military industrialization minister, has been bagging the best spot in the officially released photographs and news clips emerging from Baghdad over the past few weeks, and it's an arrangement that has not gone unnoticed in certain circles. As the head of Iraq's mammoth Ministry for Military Industrialization, the department responsible for the country's weapons development program through the 1980s - and U.S. and British officials say after the 1991 Gulf War as well - Howeish is of obvious interest for analysts and intelligence officials.

U.S. officials believe the Ministry for Military Industrialization is responsible for manufacturing Iraq's chemical and biological weapons.

But in a country where actual power is believed to flow from one's proximity to Saddam, experts have been exploring the significance of the handlebar-mustachioed, beret-sporting Howeish's constant presence at the Iraqi leader's side.

A picture, they say, is worth a thousand words - and by all accounts, analysts are boosting their word count on Howeish as the West ramps up its quest to penetrate the tight hierarchy of Baghdad's inner circle.

"There is not a lot of published information on the internal dynamics of Iraq's leadership circle," said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a Washington-based defense think tank. "These photo-ops are staged and carefully arranged, it's no accident - people didn't just mill around there."

Myself and My Brother

By all accounts, the only people allowed to mill around Saddam these days are the most trusted and loyal officials and family members, which in Iraq often tend to be one and the same.

"Myself and my brother against the world," goes an old Arab proverb, and as Washington's calls for a "regime change" increases the pressure on Saddam, his inner circle has increasingly featured members of his family, clan or tribe.

"It's important to emphasize just how tribal the Iraqi government is," said Sandra Mackey, an Iraq expert and author of the book The Reckoning: Iraq and the Legacy of Saddam Hussein. "Ever since the Gulf War, there's been a fundamental increase in the importance of the tribe in government as opposed to the educated urban elite with some technical expertise."

Like Saddam, Howeish belongs to Iraq's minority Sunni Muslim community, which accounts for about 37 percent of the Iraqi population, but has wielded power ever since the modern nation of Iraq was born in 1932.

A member of a prominent family from central Iraq, Howeish is believed to have a number of relatives in Saddam's administration, and Iraqi dissident sources say the family has large business interests in the country's thriving black market.

But the head of the Ministry for Military Industrialization's star apparently rose in Saddam's inner circle earlier this year when the 65-year-old Iraqi dictator reportedly married Howeish's daughter, Wafa, a 27-year-old graduate from the University of Baghdad.

While Saddam's personal life is a taboo subject inside Iraq, stories of his colorful sex life make the rounds in the subterranean world of Iraqi gossip and rumor. Officially, Iraqi biographies say Saddam has been married to Sajida - his first cousin and mother of his sons, Uday and Qusay - since 1958.

While Sajida is officially listed as the country's first lady, experts say Saddam has at least three other wives - or mistresses - about whom, the Iraqi press is conspicuously silent.

A Marriage Made in Political Heaven

Regardless of the official silence about his daughter's marriage to his president, sources in the Iraqi National Congress - a London-based umbrella of Iraqi opposition groups - say the marriage has proved propitious for Howeish.

"From Abdul Tawab's point of view, the marriage was a significant step towards strengthening his position in government," said an INC spokesman. "It was only after the marriage that he was appointed deputy prime minister."

In a country where asabiya - or loyalty to the tribe, clan and family - has dominated social and political relations for the past 70 years, Howeish's inclusion in the Hussein clan comes as no surprise to old Iraq hands.

The former head of the Ministry for Military Industrialization was none other than Hussein Kamel Hasan al-Majid, Saddam's once-powerful son-in-law who fled Iraq in 1995 for neighboring Jordan only to return a year later, when he was promised a presidential pardon.

Within days of his return to Iraq however, Kamel was killed in what was officially called "a gunfight" but is widely believed to be a punishment for ratting information to the international intelligence community.

Lessons Well Learned

Iraqi exiles say the sordid family drama not only attracted unwelcome international attention, it also taught Saddam a lesson or two.

With Howeish at the helm of the critical Ministry of Military Industrialization, some exiles say Saddam is avoiding the same mistakes.

"Kamel's personality was arrogant," said Munther al-Fadhal, a lawyer from Baghdad who was acquainted with the Howeish family before he fled Iraq for the Netherlands in 1990. "Tawab [Howeish] is not an arrogant person. He is a more calm personality."

On the military front, many Iraqi defectors say the Kamel debacle also resulted in heightened state surveillance and an all-pervasive climate of fear among Baghdad's top military and scientific brass.

Western intelligence officials considered Kamel a "star defector" who provided detailed and reliable disclosures of Iraq's secret chemical and biological laboratories.

According to Khidir Hamza, a nuclear physicist who headed the Iraqi nuclear weapons program before his defection in 1994, Kamel was the last senior official to defect from the troubled Mideast nation.

"Since Saddam's son-in-law, there has not been a single high-level defector from Iraq, since nobody dares come out because they're afraid of what will happen to their loved ones," said Hamza. "That tells you how heavy the security in Iraq has been and the fact that not a single [high-level] person has managed to come out is incredible."

Old Intelligence, New Packaging

From an intelligence point of view, that represents a snag for Western spy agencies since the information provided by defectors gets outdated.

Experts also warn against the quality of information garnered from defectors who often have political agendas and occasionally embellish their accounts.

"The quality of information from [Iraqi] defectors has been good and bad," said Vince Cannistraro, an ABCNEWS consultant and a former CIA counter-terrorism chief. "But that's true of information from all defectors around the world. We've been given some crap that was clearly distorted."

Some experts say the lack of new, quality U.S. and British intelligence on Iraq was highlighted on Tuesday, when British Prime Minister Tony Blair released his long-awaited dossier of evidence against Iraq.

"It is a useful compendium of information laid out in graphic form and in totality," said Cannistraro. "But I didn't see anything new - I didn't see anything there that I hadn't seen before."

Although CIA officials declined to comment on the extent of its intelligence-gathering on Howeish, experts have no doubts that U.S. intelligence officials are closely monitoring the man.

"They certainly know a heck of a lot more about him than I do," said Pike. "And I'm sure they've done a great deal of work on who he is and why is he being so singularly promoted."

Keeper of Secrets

With U.N. weapons inspectors due to return to Iraq in October, Howeish is of particular interest to the international intelligence community especially in light of his predecessor's track record with U.N. arms inspectors.

During his brief exile in Jordan, it was Kamel, who revealed the methods employed by his men to conceal weapons, materials and important documents.

His disclosures to former weapons inspector Rolf Ekeus in the Jordanian capital of Amman led to the U.N. inspectors' subsequent discovery of what is now called the "chicken farm documents" - a trove of documents on Iraq's secret weapons program found on a chicken farm near Baghdad.

Ekeus said Kamel had extraordinary powers in the 1990s, when he was widely believed to be Iraq's second most important man, but he doesn't know if Howeish has risen to that level.

"Kamel did have extraordinary powers because he had the trust of Saddam Hussein and he was married to his daughter," said Ekeus. "I do not know Howeish, so I can tell you nothing about his power, but I can tell you that Kamel was a relatively good administrator and a very good fund-raiser. He managed to secure a lot of money from his father-in-law for his programs."

Iraq has maintained that it does not possess weapons of mass destruction, but U.S. and British officials reject the claims and are skeptical of Iraq's recent offer to accept U.N. weapons inspectors "without conditions."

Ekeus is not as pessimistic. "I do feel optimistic about these inspections because I know that they have worked in the past," he said. "I think it's important that [inspection boss Hans] Blix invites good specialists of the highest quality because it's important not to get into the politics, but into the technicalities."

It remains to be seen if the wiry man at Saddam's side will keep the politics out of the weapons inspectors' business in the future.

Copyright 2002 ABCNews.com