Top secret documents obtained by The Telegraph in Baghdad show that Russia provided Saddam Hussein’s regime with wide-ranging assistance in the months leading up to the war, including intelligence on private conversations between Tony Blair and other Western leaders.
Moscow also provided Saddam with lists of assassins available for “hits” in the West and details of arms deals to neighbouring countries. The two countries also signed agreements to share intelligence, help each other to “obtain” visas for agents to go to other countries and to exchange information on the activities of Osama bin Laden, the al-Qa’eda leader.
The documents detailing the extent of the links between Russia and Saddam were obtained from the heavily bombed headquarters of the Iraqi intelligence service in Baghdad yesterday.
The sprawling complex, which for years struck fear into Iraqis, has been the target of looters and ordinary Iraqis searching for information about relatives who disappeared during Saddam’s rule.
The documents, in Arabic, are mostly intelligence reports from anonymous agents and from the Iraqi embassy in Moscow. Tony Blair is referred to in a report dated March 5, 2002 and marked: “Subject – SECRET.” In the letter, an Iraqi intelligence official explains that a Russian colleague had passed him details of a private conversation between Mr Blair and Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister, at a meeting in Rome. The two had met for an annual summit on February 15, 2002, in Rome.
The document says that Mr Blair “referred to the negative things decided by the United States over Baghdad”. It adds that Mr Blair refused to engage in any military action in Iraq at that time because British forces were still in Afghanistan and that nothing could be done until after the new Kabul government had been set up.
It is not known how the Russians obtained such potentially sensitive information, but the revelation that Moscow passed it on to Baghdad is likely to have a devastating effect on relations between Britain and Russia and come as a personal blow to Mr Blair. The Prime Minister declared a “new era” in relations with President Putin when they met in Moscow in October 2001 in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks.
In spite of warnings by the British intelligence and security services of increasing Russian espionage in the West, Mr Blair fostered closer relations with Mr Putin, visiting his family dacha near Moscow, supporting the Russians in their war in Chechnya, and arranging for the Russian president to have tea with the Queen.
Mr Blair was surprised and dismayed when Mr Putin joined France in threatening to veto the American and British resolution on Iraq in the UN, but continued to differentiate between President Putin and President Jacques Chirac.
The Prime Minister refused to join the French, German and Russian leaders in their summit on Iraq this weekend, but still regarded Mr Putin as an ally in global politics.
The list of assassins is referred to in a paper dated November 27, 2000. In it, an agent signing himself “SAB” says that the Russians have passed him a detailed list of killers. The letter does not describe any assignments that the assassins might be given but it indicates just how much Moscow was prepared to share with Baghdad. Another document, dated March 12, 2002, appears to confirm that Saddam had developed, or was developing nuclear weapons. The Russians warned Baghdad that if it refused to comply with the United Nations then that would give the United States “a cause to destroy any nuclear weapons”.
A letter from the Iraqi embassy in Moscow shows that Russia kept Iraq informed about its arms deals with other countries in the Middle East. Correspondence, dated January 27, 2000, informed Baghdad that in 1999 Syria bought rockets from Russia in two separate batches valued at $65 million (£41 million) and $73 million (£46 million). It also says that Egypt bought surface-to-air missiles from Russia and that Kuwait – Saddam’s old enemy – wanted to buy Russian arms to the value of $1 billion. The Russians also informed Iraq that China had bought military aircraft from Russia and Israel at the end of 1999.
Moscow also passed on information of Russians who could help Iraqi politicians obtain visas to go to many Western countries.
The name of Osama bin Laden appears in a number of Russian reports. Several give details of his support for the rebels in Chechnya. They say bin Laden had built two training camps in Afghanistan, near the Iranian border, to train mujahideen fighters for Russia’s rebel republic. The camps could each hold 300 fighters, who were all funded by bin Laden.
Training materials found at the complex give insight into the Iraqi intelligence gathering methods. One certificate shows that a Rashid Jassim had passed an advance course in lock-picking.
Other papers found at the headquarters include reports on the succession in Saudi Arabia and on US-Yemen relations.
The intimate relationship between Baghdad and Moscow is further illustrated by copies of Christmas cards – in the Christian tradition – sent by Taher Jalil Habosh, the head of the Iraqi intelligence service, to his Kremlin counterpart.
Russia has been a key ally of Baghdad since the 1970s and was one of Saddam’s main arms suppliers. The Iraqis are understood to owe Moscow more than £8 billion for arms shipments. Russian oil companies had longed to forge links with Saddam Hussein to help develop Iraq’s vast oil reserves.