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Iraq paid for lawmakers' trip, indictment charges

THE NATION

March 27, 2008|From Reuters

WASHINGTON — An Iraqi American who helped organize a controversial U.S. congressional trip to Baghdad in 2002 was charged Wednesday with working for ousted Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's government, which paid for the visit, the Justice Department said.

The indictment against Muthanna Hanooti said Iraq's foreign intelligence service funneled $34,000 through the Islamic charity Life for Relief and Development to pay delegation expenses.

It said Hanooti had been a lobbyist and public relations coordinator for the charity, based in Southfield, Mich.

The indictment did not name the three lawmakers who took the trip in September-October 2002, less than six months before the U.S.-led invasion.

But during the time in question, Democratic Reps. Mike Thompson of St. Helena, Jim McDermott of Washington and David E. Bonior of Michigan, who all were opposed to war against Iraq, took a highly publicized trip to the country.

Delegation members said that during their trip they warned Saddam's government it must allow U.N. arms inspections, and McDermott charged that President Bush was willing to "mislead the American people" about the need for war.

Republicans accused delegation members at the time of sounding like spokesmen for the Iraqi government and threatening to undermine U.S. efforts to assemble an international coalition against Iraq.

Thompson said Wednesday that the trip had been approved by the State Department and the United Nations.

"I was determined to learn as much as I could before voting on whether or not to commit U.S. troops to war," Thompson said.

"Obviously, had there been any question at all regarding the sponsor of the trip or the funding, I would not have participated."

McDermott spokesman Mike DeCesare said the congressman, a medical doctor, had gone at the invitation of a Seattle church group.

"We went to see the plight of children under economic sanctions in Iraq," DeCesare said. "In terms of who or whatever from Michigan, we didn't know them or anything about them."

The indictment said Hanooti traveled to Baghdad with the delegation.

Bonior left office in 2003. He later served as manager of John Edwards' unsuccessful 2008 presidential campaign.

Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd said, "None of the congressional representatives are accused of any wrongdoing, and we have no information whatsoever that any of them were aware of the involvement of the Iraqi Intelligence Service."

Hanooti was arrested Tuesday when he entered the United States from abroad, Boyd said.

He was charged with working as an unregistered Iraqi agent, violating economic sanctions against Iraq and making false statements. He was released on $100,000 bond with an electronic monitor after an initial court appearance in Detroit.

The indictment said that Saddam's oil ministry gave Hanooti 2 million barrels of oil in exchange for his help and that he sold the oil.

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