In his struggle to figure out and foil the American invasion plan as it was unfolding in late March and early April 2003, Saddam Hussein may have fielded a few tips from an old ally: the Russian government.
But it seems possible the Russians’ “help” created more confusion than clarity for the clueless Iraqi leader.
As described in a lengthy report released Friday at the Pentagon, Iraqi documents captured by U.S. troops say the Russians collected information about U.S. troop movements and battle plans at the outset of the invasion by tapping sources inside the American military. And they say the intelligence was passed to Saddam.
But was the information useful? In at least one case, the Pentagon report suggests it did more harm than good for Saddam. In fact it may have reinforced in Saddam’s mind a mistaken impression about the timing of the U.S. ground assault into Baghdad — an impression that permitted U.S. forces to preserve an element of surprise.
Referring to a Russian letter to Saddam that claimed the Russians had “sources” inside the U.S. Central Command, which planned and executed the invasion, the Pentagon report said, “Such external sources of information were only one of the fog-generators obscuring the minds of Iraq’s senior leadership.”
That letter was dated March 24, five days into the war.
Sources from inside Central Command
The unclassified Pentagon report does not assess the value or accuracy of the information Saddam got or offer details on Russia’s information pipeline. It cites captured Iraqi documents that say the Russians had “sources inside the American Central Command” and that intelligence was passed to Saddam through the Russian ambassador.
NBC News reported Friday that military investigators found no evidence of spies or moles at the headquarters. It is believed the Russians received their information via electronic eavesdropping, NBC’s Jim Miklaszewski reported.
Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman for Russia’s U.N. mission in New York, said the allegations were false.
“To my mind, from my understanding it’s absolutely nonsense and it’s ridiculous,” she said, adding that the U.S. government had not shown Russia the evidence cited in the report. “Somebody wants to say something, and did — and there is no evidence to prove it,” she said.
The Iraqi documents leave unclear who may have been the sources at Central Command’s war-fighting headquarters, which is at Camp As Saliyah just outside Doha, the capital of Qatar. No Russians were authorized to be at the closely guarded base.
A classified version of the report, titled “Iraqi Perspectives Project,” is not being made public. It was assembled by U.S. Joint Forces Command, which reviewed a vast array of captured Iraqi documents and interviewed Iraqi political and military leaders, not including Saddam.
Among the information the Iraqis said they received from the Russians:
- That the movement of U.S. troops into southern Iraq from Kuwait was a diversion. (In fact, it was the main avenue of attack, supported by special forces entering from Jordan and paratroopers flying into northern Iraq.)
- That the ground assault on Baghdad would not begin until the Army’s 4th Infantry Division was in place, around April 15. (In fact, the 4th Infantry, whose originally planned invasion route from Turkey was blocked by the Turkish government, was not yet on Iraqi territory when the Baghdad ground assault began April 7. Thus, by design or chance, the information from the Russians actually reinforced a U.S. military deception effort.)
- That the main focus of U.S. ground forces moving toward Baghdad from the southwest was the area around the city of Karbala. (This was true. After crossing a bridge over the Euphrates River outside of Karbala, the 3rd Infantry Division had a clear path to the Iraqi capital and Saddam’s chances of stopping the assault had ended.)
- That U.S. troops moving through southern Iraq would not attempt to occupy cities but instead bypass them. (This was true and was a central feature of an invasion plan that stressed speed and tactical surprise.)
Pentagon report's author surprised
The lead author of the Pentagon report, Kevin Woods, told reporters at a Pentagon briefing that he was surprised to learn that the Russians had passed intelligence to Saddam, and he said he had no reason to doubt the authenticity of the Iraqi documents.
“But I don’t have any other knowledge of that topic,” Woods added, referring to the Russian link.
In Moscow, a duty officer with Russia’s Foreign Ministry declined to comment on the report late Friday.
A Pentagon spokesman, Lt. Col. Barry Venable, referred inquiries seeking comment to Central Command. At Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Fla., officials did not immediately respond to a request.
Pavel Felgenhauer, a respected independent Moscow-based military analyst, said Friday that a Russian military intelligence intelligence unit, known by its abbreviation GRU, was actively working in Iraq at the time of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
The information about a Russian intelligence link to Baghdad was a small part of a much broader report by Joint Forces Command that attempts to explain the forces and motivations behind Iraqi military decision-making in the months leading up to the invasion and in the first several weeks after Baghdad fell in April.
The report paints a picture of an Iraqi regime that was largely blind to the threat it faced, hampered by Saddam’s inept military leadership, preoccupied by the prospect of a Shiite uprising, and deceived by its own propaganda.
“The largest contributing factor to the complete defeat of Iraq’s military forces was the continued interference by Saddam,” the report said.