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Miscast Characters Accused of Plot to Kill George Bush : Kuwait: Iraq's alleged infiltrators--a ragtag crew including a smuggler and nurse--face sentencing today.

October 30, 1993|MARK FINEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KUWAIT CITY — Wali Ghazali and Raad Assadi had little in common before they were arrested by accident in the desert north of here--two alleged assassins wandering, unarmed and on foot, in the general direction of Iraq, the day after they were supposed to have blown former President George Bush to bits.

They were both Iraqis and just a few years apart in age. Both had slipped illegally across the porous Kuwaiti frontier less than 48 hours before, just one day after they met for the first time in the front seat of a Toyota Land Cruiser packed with paying passengers and, only they knew, 180 pounds of plastic explosives in the chassis.

As Ghazali alone would later admit, both men were recruited for the job that the Kuwaitis now consider the crime of the century by Iraq's dreaded intelligence service, the Mukhabarat.

There is, however, one far more troubling similarity between Ghazali, a meek and weepy male hospital nurse, and Assadi, a bumbling career whiskey smuggler--indeed, one shared by all 12 of their fellow defendants. It is a simple, glaring similarity that jumps out of hundreds of pages of testimony in a trial that most courtroom observers here say will probably seal the two men's fate at the gallows of Kuwait's State Security Prison after verdicts are rendered today.

It is the simple fact that the men are the most unlikely candidates for their alleged crime--a sophisticated conspiracy, American investigators had said, that was hatched at the highest levels of the Iraqi government to assassinate Bush here last April. The Clinton Administration used this conspiracy theory to justify missile strikes on the Iraqi capital three months before the suspects' trial ended last month.

An extensive review of the public testimony in this case shows little sophistication in the assassination attempt. Even Kuwait's prosecutors appear to concede that the mission was entrusted almost entirely to a pathetic group of booze-runners and convicts, a grocer, a shepherd and a single, hapless victim of circumstance.

Abdul Samad Shatti--the Kuwaiti State Security Police colonel who was the only official to present his government's case under oath before the three-judge panel--said in long and sometimes contradictory testimony that fewer than half of the 14 accused in the case had any connection to the Iraqi intelligence service.

All but one of the defendants denied any knowledge of a plot to kill Bush.

All of them recanted their earlier videotaped confessions, which several testified they had made only after they were beaten during pretrial interrogations--which defense attorneys said were patently illegal, if only because none of the defendants had lawyers present.

The trial had to be postponed for at least three weeks immediately after it began because none of the defendants had even met their lawyers before they were placed in a courtroom cage on opening day; pretrial visits are required under Kuwait's constitution.

"The investigations were ridiculous and not serious," Najib Wuggayan, a Kuwaiti attorney who represents two defendants, told the court in his closing arguments last month.

Wuggayan, who later said he is sure that most of the defendants will be acquitted, appealed for a dismissal--for lack of evidence and for procedural violations. Among them were Kuwait's decision to permit U.S. investigators to interrogate the defendants, also without legal representation, before their trial even began.

"What I have witnessed in this case is a blunt interference, which reaches the extent of insolence, by the American . . . authorities," Wuggayan told the court in September.

Later, Wuggayan asserted that none of the trial testimony had proved a wide conspiracy or high-level Iraqi involvement.

But in interviews, senior Kuwaiti officials and Western diplomats said there is considerable evidence to support the American theory that Iraq was deeply involved in this case.

Officially, Baghdad has denied any involvement in the alleged plot against Bush. As one Iraqi official asserted at the time, "this so-called plot to kill Bush is not even amateurish, let alone professional."

But Sheik Saud al Sabah, Kuwait's information minister, said in an interview, "The fingerprints of Iraqi intelligence were all over the operation."

He said much of that evidence remains outside the court record. The key to the case, he said, is a Kuwaiti undercover agent who accompanied the group on their mission but could not testify for fear that he will be discovered by the Iraqis.

Saud, a respected attorney and member of Kuwait's royal family, called the circumstantial evidence in the case "overwhelming," and added: "We're entirely convinced of it."

So are U.S. officials, who, in a week's visit to Kuwait, amassed the evidence that Washington presented to the United Nations just hours after 23 Tomahawk cruise missiles exploded in the heart of the Iraqi capital.

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