Whatever Happened to General Khazraji?

In December 2002 I wrote a piece for CounterPunch about General Nizar al-Khazraji, the Iraqi officer who had fled Iraq in 1999, and gone into Spanish, then Danish, exile. A top officer under Saddam Hussein, he is widely accused of responsibility for the use of nerve and mustard gas against Kurdish civilians in Iraq, as well as Iranian soldiers, and the death of some 5,000 gassed Kurds in the town of Halabja in March 1988.

I am aware that the Halabja incident has been blamed by some on Iran, and am taking no position on the question, but am merely noting that Khazraji has been seen as a prime suspect in Iran-Iraq War crimes. Pursued by Birgitte Vestberg , a public prosecutor of such crimes, he was indicted and placed under house arrest in his apartment in Sorø, a suburb of Copenhagen, in November 2002. This was widely seen as an embarrassment for the U.S. State Department and CIA, which had favored him as leader of post-Saddam Iraq.

The Khazraji story was well covered in the mainstream press, and widely discussed within the bourgeoning antiwar movement, which noted the hypocrisy of selecting the general to lead a “liberated” Iraq. The gist of my story was that his arrest in Denmark was a setback for the Powell camp within the Bush administration, and a plus for the Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz cabal that favored convicted swindler and long-time Iraqi exile Ahmad Chalabi as postwar satrap in Iraq. (Chalabi, of course, is despised by the State Department and CIA.) In any case, Khazraji did not face Danish justice, but while taking a walk and a smoke March 15, 2003, five days before the U.S. assault on his country, disappeared. His son Ahmad al-Khazraji reported him missing on March 17.

Family members expressed concern that Iraqi agents had abducted him, a singularly unlikely scenario. The Danish press more plausibly alleged that CIA agents had busted him out; the newspaper BT reported that he had been spirited to Saudi Arabia from whence he could help plan U.S. and British attacks on Kirkuk. The Telegraph reported March 23 that, “According to Iraqi exiles in Jordan, the US is using Nazar Khazraji, a former Iraqi army chief of staff who defected in 1996, to help secure the defection of senior army officers. Gen Khazraji is said to be playing a key role in contacting officers and persuading them to turn against Saddam.”

The Danish government issued an order for Khazraji’s arrest and all-points bulletin on Khazraji via Interpol. It said it would demand his extradition from any country where he might be located. Danish Justice Minister Lene Espersen felt obliged to officially request of U.S. Ambassador Stuart A. Bernstein an investigation into possible prior American knowledge of Khazraji’s disappearance. The embassy denied any such knowledge. But where was Khazraji, in the weeks following his departure? His son in Denmark suggested that he might have gone to Hungary to work with exiled Iraqi soldiers assembled there by the U.S. A Kurdish news website reported on April 11 that he was in the Kurdish city of Suleimaniyya, but other reports placed him in Saudi Arabia and Turkey. The Danish press reported he was in the Union of Arab Emirates or Kuwait. The London-based Saudi newspaper Al-Shaq al-Awsat suggested Kurdistan, the Iranian news bureau IRNA, Qatar. Albawaba.com reported that the CIA had taken Khazraji to Kuwait. Julie Flint, of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, reported that Khazraji was sighted “in Turkey, northern Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia” in March and April.

Complicating matters, Arab News and al-Jazeera reported that Khazraji had been assassinated on April 10, in the holy city of Najaf, outside the Ali Mosque, his body hacked to death to angry Shiites along with that of Islamic scholar Abdul Majid Al-Khoei, in an incident that also claimed the lives of a U.S. Special Forces bodyguard and three others. Khazraji and Khoei were supposed to have been en route to a U.S.-sponsored meeting with opposition leaders in Nassiriya. But while the report of Al-Khoei’s death was confirmed, that of Khazraji was not. Later Arab press accounts stated he had been killed, but not in the Najaf incident

Meanwhile, on April 11, Danish police tapped a telephone call from Khazraji to the mobile phone of his son, in the Sorø apartment, perhaps from Mosul; the evidence was presented to the Sorø Municipal Court.

On April 16 Al-Sharq Al-Awsat reported that the family had left the Copenhagen suburb; they have relocated to Norway. On April 23 the Copenhagen Post indicated that Khazraji was presumably alive, in northern Iraq. On May 21, the Danish newspaper Politics quoted his son as stating that, while he was not personally in touch with his father, “we have learnt” from “trustworthy persons” that “he is in Iraq and he is in a good health condition and he is involved in politics.”

Web-surfing suggests there has been very little reportage on the Khazraji story in the last eight months. It seems likely to me that the 65 year old general is alive and working with U.S. forces, although he is not the neocon’s favorite and, given his international outlaw status, may be kept under wraps for the time being, even though he enjoys some support among members of the puppet Iraq Governing Council. (Last April Adnan Pachachi, asked by the Dubai-based Gulf News if a high-ranking appointment might go to the general, replied, “Why not?”) Some have suggested that Khazraji facilitated the quick collapse of the Iraqi military during “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” and that he retains important connections among the disbanded Iraqi officer corps. Just thinking aloud here, but I wonder: should the Bushites’ plans for a “restoration of sovereignty” to Iraq by June (or whenever) go sour (as seems likely), and civil war ensue, Khazraji might be the man to straighten out the mess the State Department attributes to Defense Department blundering.

But why am I writing about this now, since there’s been no recent news about Khazraji? Because I read an interesting article in the Independent (February 8) by Raymond Whitaker and Kim Sengupta about the collapse of Tony Blair’s “45 minute case.” It attributes the allegation that Saddam was 45 minutes away from launching a chemical or biological attack on western interests (actually it now seems the allegation pertained only to battlefield mortar shells or small caliber weaponry) to “an Iraqi exile who had left the country several years previously,” “a serving officer in the Iraqi army, with the rank either of full colonel or brigadier,” who was in Iraq during the 1991 war but then “fled, possibly to Scandinavia.” Jack Straw told Parliament the man was not a defector but “an established and reliable source” who had been “reporting to us secretly for some years.” He had “military knowledge,” and maintained contacts with serving officers in Saddam Hussein’s armed forces. “The fate of the officer who provided the information,” according to the Independent, “remains a mystery. There are rumours that he is dead or missing.”

Now, this description doesn’t fit Khazraji to a T, since he is commonly described as a defector. But he has been a maverick, declining to participate in Iraqi exile leaders’ meetings, and anyway, isn’t an Iraqi officer who “fled” and subsequently provided intelligence information to western governments a defector by definition? “Brigadier” in British usage could refer to a lieutenant general, and the other details also pan out. So I wondered if maybe Khazraji might be the mystery man, and if so, having served the cause of bringing Britain into a war which might yet propel him into power, might yet serve the Anglo-American occupation by employing his connections in the humiliatingly demobilized Iraqi Army, and applying his sternly methodical violence to bring order to the chaos invasion has unleashed in his country.

It is highly odd that the man whom Bush administration officials told Seymour Hersh in March 2002 was the “CIA’s brightest prospect” for Iraq, who reportedly was serviceable to the invaders last spring, and who is probably still alive (despite interesting reports of his demise) is not the subject of discussion. Thus this submitted, merely to encourage such discussion and investigation.

GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author of Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa, Japan, Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa, Japan

He can be reached at: gleupp@granite.tufts.edu



Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu