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Ever since the CIA withdrew its support for his plan to topple Saddam Hussein in 1995, Gen. Wafiq al-Samurai has intentionally stayed at the edges of the exiled Iraqi opposition. The former chief in Saddam’s military intelligence has not spent his energy jawing with Pentagon officials or bending the ear of the State Department. Al-Samurai never tapped into the millions of dollars the United States made available to Saddam’s enemies. Now that the general is back in Iraq, he is finding that his outsider status is paying off.

In the week since Iraq’s northern provinces have fallen to U.S. forces, al-Samarai’s armed convoy has clocked hundreds of miles from Mosul to Kirkuk and to the general’s hometown of Samara, a holy city 60 miles north of Baghdad.

These are busy times for the general, and he moves around with military precision. When meetings with tribal leaders east and west of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers run into overtime — usually around the fourth post-lunch cup of sweet tea — al-Samarai looks at his watch and toward the door.

It’s been a long path to the present. In 1994, al-Samarai defected to Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq to help plan a coup from within the country’s dissatisfied military ranks. The plan failed when promised support from the Clinton administration evaporated. He was repeatedly targeted for assassination by Saddam’s intelligence agents. Soured by his experience with American policymakers and other Iraqi opposition leaders, al-Samarai moved his family to London to begin a life in exile.

A standoffish figure with dyed black hair that hides his years, al-Samarai learned only halting English in his 8 1/2 years in Britain. In 1994, it was al-Samarai who disclosed that Iraq was in possession of at least 20 warheads filled with VX and anthrax, but he remained an infrequent guest on news programs.

Still, the general was working.

TRIBAL IMPRESSIONS

When al-Samarai returned to Samara last week, it was to pave the way for U.S. Marines advancing north from Baghdad.

The general, using his deep connections to local tribal leaders, negotiated for the Americans to move into the city of 200,000. Apparently convinced that Samara posed no threat, the U.S. troops were gone within 48 hours.

Al-Samarai says that’s the way he planned it. The departure of the Americans was what impressed Samara’s 18 tribal families, most of whom are related to the general. “We always knew this man would be back again,” said Sheik Ahmad Nawaf al-Hassan, a tribal chief lunching with al-Samarai on Monday. “We are all with the general.”

In Samara and other northern cities, it appears many Iraqis are “with the general.” When al-Samarai defected from Saddam’s regime in 1994, he was on the run from the Iraqi leader’s intelligence operatives, who had uncovered his plan to topple Saddam.

InsertArt(1871566)“I had stopped taking orders from Saddam,” al-Samarai said in an interview here. He said he had secretly recruited hundreds of officers from within Saddam’s ranks. When the plan failed, al-Samarai said, he kept in touch from London.

In clandestine phone calls and coded communications sent with couriers posing as pilgrims to Iraq’s holy sites, the general rallied his supporters in the military. From their side, the tribal leaders, some of them army officers, bribed phone operators for untapped international calls to al-Samarai.

“Sometimes we would speak every day,” said Abdul Razak al-Samarai, a former intelligence chief from the southern Najaf district and a relative of the general. “There were many occasions when he would send us information weeks before we heard it locally,” marveled al-Samarai supporter Sheik Ahmad.

PITFALLS OF U.S. SUPPORT

In postwar Iraq, where opinion polls are nonexistent, the political barometer is read in other ways.

In al-Samarai’s case, it’s through the greatly varied group of supporters who gather around him. Al-Samarai’s security detail is Kurdish, on loan from Masoud Barzani, a Kurdish rebel leader who gave al-Samarai refuge when he defected in 1994. Kurdish, Turkomen and Arab leaders from Kirkuk have been present at meetings with the general.

Al-Samarai says he is in contact with the U.S. military, which he thanks for “kicking out Saddam Hussein.”

But the general, backed up by several roomfuls of nodding tribal leaders this week, says the American military occupation should end as soon as possible.

“We are ready to cooperate with the Americans,” he says. “But only temporarily.”

Al-Samarai’s ability to get right to work on Iraq’s virtually empty political landscape could make his political vehicle, the National Salvation Movement, a force to be reckoned with in postwar Iraq. Drawing on his quiet pursuit of support while in exile, al-Samarai appears to have a head start on other opposition leaders through influential local organizers like former military officers.

By working on his own, the general says, he has managed to avoid appearing too close to the Bush administration, a pitfall of other exiled Iraqi opposition groups now jockeying for power in Iraq. Asked why he didn’t join up with other Iraqi opposition groups abroad, al-Samarai gestured to his roomful of supporters and asked. “Why should I?”

(MSNBC.com’s Preston Mendenhall is on assignment in Iraq.)

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