BAGHDAD — They made an unlikely pair: One was a jolly Kurdish intelligence officer, the other a Falloujan with ties to the insurgency.
Yet twice a week for several months, Gen. Hussain Ali Kamal, head of the Interior Ministry's spy service, broke bread with a burly man in his 20s code-named Muslah, or the reformer, who often wore a traditional Arab dishdasha robe.
"What did Saddam Hussein ever do for Iraq?" Kamal said to the former member of Hussein's Baath Party, trying to flip him to the side of the new Iraqi government. "The Iraqis have nothing."
That's true, Muslah acknowledged. "But we have to fight the Americans. The Americans are occupiers," Kamal recalled him saying.
"But the Americans will leave," Kamal countered, "and we will have a country to build."
So the exchange went, twice a week for two months. "It was the most enjoyable work I've had," said Kamal, who finally got the big tip he sought.
The victory for Kamal would prove fatal for Muslah.
Kamal did not have to look far to see what could happen to those working for Iraq's new intelligence network. His office wall is lined with the color portraits of 20 officers who have been assassinated over the last year, a reminder that intelligence assets often wind up dead when operations are bungled and covers blown.
In the \o7dishdasha\f7-and-dagger world of Middle East intelligence, Iraq's new spy outfit remains a faltering upstart, hamstrung by a lack of experience, outmatched and infiltrated by its rivals inside and outside Iraq and beholden to multiple masters.
"We are facing the same problems as all Iraqi security forces," Gen. Mohammed Shahwani, director of the Iraqi National Intelligence Service, said in an interview in his spacious Green Zone office. "Every problem we have has to do with finding out ways to infiltrate."
Hussein's complex of intelligence organs and network of spies, commonly referred to as the Mukhabarat, inspired fear in Iraq and abroad. Its 50,000 or more operatives were known for their ruthlessness and tradecraft as well as a reach that extended to Europe, where they once almost assassinated exile leader Iyad Allawi, who became the first post-Hussein prime minister.
With most of its former intelligence officers either in hiding, in the insurgency or too politically radioactive to touch, rebuilding Iraq's spy services has meant largely starting from scratch.
"I can take any tank driver from the former regime and put him into a tank," said Babekir Zebari, chief of staff at the Defense Ministry. "How can I take a former intelligence officer and put him in the same job?"
Iraq's spy services were scrapped with the April 2003 dissolution of Hussein's regime. That, some critics say, was among the biggest mistakes made by former American civilian administrator L. Paul Bremer III. Another may have been his decision to keep the Iraqi intelligence service from conducting its own operations.
Some Iraqi officials wish Iraq had followed Iran's example. In the years after Iran's 1979 revolution, Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini opted to retain and even upgrade the bulk of deposed Shah Reza Pahlavi's intelligence service. Its successor agency has become one of the most feared clandestine services operations in the world.
"We should have given amnesty to everybody except the criminals," said Younadam Kanna, an Iraqi lawmaker and leader of a Christian political party.
Gone with Iraq's Mukhabarat were operatives with decades of clandestine services experience. Indeed, U.S. and Iraqi officials suspect that many of Hussein's former operatives have joined the insurgency, contributing their skills in espionage, infiltration and subversion.
Efforts to bring some of them back to their old jobs have become a politically explosive issue in an Iraq increasingly riven by tensions between majority Shiites and minority Sunni Arabs.
"Almost all Iraqis with any previous experience in the intelligence business are Sunni Arab, increasing the risk of penetration of the new intelligence apparatus by the insurgency," said Wayne White, a former State Department intelligence official who worked on Iraq.
The transitional Iraqi government's spy system is a three-pronged operation, largely set up by U.S. and British officials, that Iraq's intelligence officials call "the friends"; it includes Shahwani's national intelligence service as well as intelligence branches in the defense and interior ministries.
The heads of all three coordinate their activities through an umbrella group called the National Intelligence Coordination Commission, chaired by National Security Advisor Mowaffak Rubaie, a former doctor and Shiite activist who spent years in Britain after he was imprisoned and tortured by Hussein's regime.
On good days, the services busy themselves with the minutiae of information-gathering as well as infiltration, counter-terrorism, counterinsurgency and counterintelligence operations.