The former oil minister of Iraq during the Saddam Regime, Amer Mohammed Rasheed al-Obeidi has just been released from prison after nine years. Amer Mohammed Rasheed turned himself in to US forces in late April 2003. He had been included on the so-called “Deck of Cards” as the six of spades, because of his previous involvement in the Iraq WMD programs. The same quality of intelligence that got the WMD question wrong, was also used to create the so-called “black-list” of Iraqis to be detained. Some of them turned out to be vigorous Saddam opponents. No matter…once captured they spent a long time in jail simply because the system was designed to detain people, not release them. Getting someone out was much harder than putting them in.
Rasheed had been one of the chief interlocutors with the UN inspectors. I knew him very well from my years as Deputy Chairman of the UN inspection team called UNSCOM. I also debriefed him after he was in US custody when I led the Iraq Survey Group which was charged with resolving what happened to Saddam’s WMD programs after the invasion. In my final report to Congress and the President (the so-called Duelfer Report) I included an annex on the detainees who had been captured–like Rasheed–because of past involvement with WMD. I emphasized there was no longer any need to incarcerate them. I made this point multiple times at the White House as well. Nevertheless, the US bureaucracy could not agree to release him even though the original reason for detaining him was no longer operative. There was especially strong resistance from civilian leaders at the Pentagon who were adamant about not releasing anyone who might have some connection to “regime crimes.” So, despite multiple attempts to have him released, there was always someone who voted “no,” frequently because they did not yet know about the case. And since no one wanted to be accused of erroneously releasing a Saddam thug, Rasheed lingered in prison. Compounding this was the influence of the new Iraqi leaders who were not keen to dismiss anyone from the previous regime, and especially someone who knew a great deal about the the oil transactions with the Saddam regime. Many of these new Iraqi leaders had strong financial stakes in the illicit oil trade under Saddam. Simply recall the great flow of oil through Kurdistan to Turkey during the 1990’s. Current leaders personally benefited from oil transactions with the likes of Udey Saddam Hussein. Rasheed would know this.
Rasheed, because he was a talented technocrat knew an enormous amount about the Iraqi oil dealings–and he knew when the system was being used by regime members such as Saddam’s son Udey in illicit ways. He was also aware of when oil allocations were made with the aim of influencing the Security Council–such as when top levels of the Russian government were given highly lucrative oil allocations (There is a complete list of the illicit oil allocations in the “Duelfer Report” which includes allocations to the Russian ambassador, Office of the President of Russian, and others.) An engineer by training (he studied in England) he was a technocrat and a very good one.
Ultimately, full authority for detention of Iraqis captured during the US occupation shifted to the government in Baghdad. “Justice” is at best a work in progress and at worse, a tool of the leadership. Rasheed continued to languish in prison on the weakest of rationales…they were continuing to “investigate” his case. I wrote about this August 9, 2010 in Foreign Policy (“The Iraqi Who Knew Too Much”)
Rasheed is in his 70’s and when I last saw him, not in good health. Finally he is out. While I suspect a condition of his release may be that he remain silent, the world could still learn a lot from him–about Iraq and about ourselves.