The man who turned himself in to U.S. forces in Iraq is no gray Iraqi bureaucrat. According to U.S. intelligence, Gen. Amir al-Saadi is the Iraqi official who served as Baghdad’s superweapons czar prior to the Gulf War — and the man who created the chemical weapons that killed thousands of Kurds in 1988 and extended the range of Scud missiles that killed dozens of Americans, Saudis and Israelis in nighttime raids during the 1991 war.
AL-SAADI, CHOSEN by President Saddam Hussein to represent Iraq in its negotiations with the United Nations, is more than just a “senior figure” as described by U.N. officials. He was the organizational genius behind the Iraqi superweapons program, a cultured engineer with a Ph.D. who speaks at least three languages fluently and is considered intensely loyal to Saddam.
Since the end of the Gulf War, al-Saadi became the contact person for the U.N. inspection teams, making and breaking deals for a decade. He was also the man responsible for rebuilding the nation’s devastated infrastructure. His successes in both realms endeared him to Saddam, officials told NBC News on condition of anonymity.
As long ago as July 1993, al-Saadi dismissed the idea that Iraq had a credibility problem with the United Nations, saying “trust is a two-way street” and denouncing U.N. inspectors as “spies.”
In what is believed to be his only television interview with U.S. media, he told NBC’s Tom Aspell that the difficulty was that negotiations were “open-ended, so to speak.”
“We never know exactly what is needed from us — in detail,” he said. “We have repeatedly asked, ‘What is required from us?’ Tell us in advance so that we can prepare things and try and do what you want.”
“But it’s been open-ended. They always come up with various questions, conditions or demands after each visit of the inspection team,” al-Saadi said.
THRILLING SADDAM Al-Saadi’s title of general is largely honorific. Like many of the Iraqi superweapons scientists, al-Sadi was educated in the West, with a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Munich and practical experience working in the arms industries of the former East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia during the Soviet era. Both his English and German are flawless.
He first endeared himself to Saddam by developing the al-Abbas missile, the extended-range Scud that was used first against Iran in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, and then against Israel and Saudi Arabia in the Gulf War.
As senior deputy minister of Saddam’s Ministry of Industry and Military Industrialization during the Iraqi weapons buildup of the 1980s, al-Sadi was responsible for integrating all the superweapons programs — nuclear, chemical, biological and missile — plus building engineering facilities for those programs, procuring equipment, negotiating with foreign suppliers, securing financing and keeping his immediate boss, Gen. Hussein Kamel, happy.
Kamel was Saddam’s son-in-law, nephew and protege until he defected to Jordan in 1996, then returned to Baghdad, where Saddam had him and his brother killed.
Working with Iraqi intelligence, al-Saadi built a vast suppliers’ network during the 1980s that sold Iraq the components, technology and training necessary to develop its own chemical and nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.
LINKS TO AN ATLANTA BANK
Al-Sadi also was responsible for the colossal amount of money required to pay the superweapons bill, U.S. officials say. The vast sums were as carefully and clandestinely collected as the components themselves, requiring an elaborate subterfuge involving, among others, the Atlanta branch of the Banco Nazionale del Lavoro, or BNL, according to U.S. intelligence.
In one of the most bizarre aspects of one of the most bizarre weapons procurement efforts in history, al-Saadi befriended the branch’s manager, Christopher Drogoul, who became the superweapons program’s chief fund-raiser, raising more than $5 billion, U.S. officials say.
In September 1993, Drogoul pleaded guilty to concealing billions of dollars in loans to Iraq, most of which were not guaranteed by the government, a violation of the bank’s internal limits and state and federal laws requiring accurate disclosure to government banking authorities, including the Federal Reserve. Drogoul was sentenced to 37 months in prison.
U.S. officials also say al-Sadi even set out to make a deal that would have permitted the Iraqi superweapons ministry to sell oil directly to a joint venture that included an established U.S. oil company, making American motorists part of the weapons financing scheme.
So that Iraq’s superweapons team had more leverage in the deal, its part of the joint venture was to be managed by a London oil company owned by the brother of one of al-Saadi’s deputies, the man responsible for the Iraqi nuclear weapons program.
That deal fell through only because it was scheduled to be finalized on Aug. 15, 1990, two weeks after Iraq invaded Kuwait.
Robert Windrem is an NBC News investigative producer.