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U.S. nearly ignored Iraqi nuclear scientist, intermediary says

Central Command apologizes for mistaken raid on house

From Maria Fleet

Iraqi nuclear scientist Mahdi Obeidi said he told the CIA that he was concerned about his family's safety.
Iraqi nuclear scientist Mahdi Obeidi said he told the CIA that he was concerned about his family's safety.

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(CNN) -- The high-ranking Iraqi nuclear scientist who led U.S. officials to hidden centrifuge blueprints and components told CNN he was detained by the Army despite the fact that he was already cooperating with the CIA, and the intermediary who facilitated his contact with the U.S. government said he was initially ignored.

Mahdi Obeidi, who headed Iraq's gas centrifuge program for enriching uranium before the Persian Gulf War, said he hid the parts in his garden 12 years ago under orders from Saddam Hussein's son Qusay and Saddam's then-son-in-law, Hussein Kamel. (Full story)

Obeidi said he decided to cooperate with the United States days after American troops entered Baghdad but said he was afraid to talk to U.S. soldiers.

He instead approached international journalists at random outside the well-known Palestine Hotel in the Iraqi capital until he was able to convince one to contact David Albright, a former weapons inspector he had met in the 1990s.

Albright, who heads the Institute for Science and International Security, a nuclear nonproliferation institute in Washington, said he talked to various agencies for a week before the CIA became interested in interviewing the scientist.

U.S. officials initially did not understand the significance of Obeidi's offer, Albright said.

"I have never seen anything like it. Obeidi is sending all sorts of signals, and they just missed it completely," Albright said. "They were going to walk away from him."

Obeidi said: "After David made the first contact, I told them that I had very important information at my disposal. I told them about the intentions and the presence of designs, of documents and of a critical component."

Once U.S. agents realized the potential significance of his offer, "they were really filled with joy that such a thing could happen," he said.

"I told them my only concern is about myself and my family and that this matter needs to be taken with utmost care, and they promised me that this matter would be the greatest concern to them."

Despite those assurances, on June 3, two days after he turned the nuclear components and documents over to the CIA, the U.S. Army broke down the door of his home and took him away.

"They took me outside, and they handcuffed me. I saw tens of soldiers and tens of tanks and Hummers and helicopters were all around," Obeidi said. "And then I was taken to the side, and I was put on one of these Hummers ... and they took me to the airport."

The U.S. military is using the Baghdad airport to hold detainees.

Obeidi was held for a day before the problem was straightened out, he said.

David Kay, the CIA's new chief weapons inspector in Iraq, blamed the mistake on a lack of coordination between the many units operating in the country.

"We're taking steps to ensure we're all singing off the same sheet of music," Kay said. "Coordination is essential to the effort we're engaged in, and we have learned from our mistakes."

U.S. Central Command apologized in a statement. "Mr. Mahdi Obeidi's detainment was unfortunate, and we are working with other agencies in Iraq to avoid this happening in the future," the statement said. "Central Command appreciates Mr. Obeidi's cooperation with the U.S. government and the coalition."

Once released, Obeidi resumed his meetings with CIA personnel, whom he said he believed had agreed to move him and his family out of the country for protection in return for handing over the documents and designs. But he said he then began to think that the CIA was going back on its word.

"First they have promised that they will make all the attempts to safeguard me ... and then what happened they told me that they have looked and they have investigated this matter, and they have discovered that there is more that I can offer, and they are ready to take the news to the media," he recalled.

Albright advised Obeidi at that point to go public with his story.

"I think what happened unfortunately is there is no policy in the U.S. government to allow these scientists to come to the U.S.," Albright said. "... There is no plea-bargain policy."

When CNN asked about the scientist's case, the CIA said it was moving Obeidi to a safer place and asked that the network refrain from airing anything until he and his family were out of Iraq.

CNN later interviewed Obeidi under an agreement not to reveal his location. Obeidi in turn had consented with his handlers not to reveal much about his removal from Iraq or future plans.

"I think a scientist is a scientist," Obeidi said. "He is a man that is used for a task, and he is used to do his task well. ... The Iraqi scientists should be treated with respect."

When asked about the lessons learned from the U.S. handling of his case, Obeidi replied, "The scientist is in search of the truth and the scientist should be well handled. Because whatever information he has that could serve the cause of humanity, he should volunteer without having to feel any fear of the consequences of doing it."

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