Embassy failed Americans caught in Iraq, panel hears

September 26, 1990|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- When Iraqi troops massed on the border of Kuwait two days before their Aug. 2 invasion, American businessman Michael P. Saba worried that perhaps he should cancel his planned trade trip to the Iraqi capital of Baghdad.

Mr. Saba telephoned the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad for advice. It told him "that there was absolutely no reason for Americans not to come to Iraq, and I should proceed to Baghdad."

So, he left the next day, only to experience upon arrival a "sense of pending doom" after learning that the troop buildup was continuing and diplomatic ties between Iraq and Kuwait had been severed. Should he cut short his stay? He checked with embassy officials again. "I was told consistently not to be alarmed, that there was no problem," he said.

Then came the invasion. The airport closed, and Mr. Saba was trapped in Baghdad.

He eventually escaped on his own, after becoming exasperated with what he described as further well-meaning but bumbling efforts by embassy officials.

Mr. Saba told his story yesterday to a House Foreign Relations subcommittee, and panel members seized on the message to criticize the State Department for failing to act quickly to warn U.S. citizens in Kuwait and Iraq before the invasion and for not offering them enough help afterward.

"Everybody in the world who had anything to do with this region knew this invasion was going to take place except this State Department and other people in this administration," said Representative Lawrence J. Smith, D-Fla.

"We didn't issue any warning to the Americans who were there -- non-governmental -- to get out. We didn't provide them any capability to get out. We didn't tell them we would help them to get out. We did nothing, zero, to protect the lives and safety of Americans. . . . This administration blew it badly."

Elizabeth Tamposi, assistant secretary of state for consular affairs, said that embassy officials in Kuwait and Iraq have done the best they can under difficult circumstances. She said the State Department's contingency plans for such a crisis have been carried out as they should be.

But Mr. Saba said that at times there seemed to be no planning at all, and he offered several examples.

When he first heard sketchy reports of the invasion, for instance, he said that he and other Americans telephoned the embassy, only to be told that "they were evaluating the situation and we should contact them later. I went to my room, tuned in to the BBC on my radio and discovered that there had been a massive invasion of Kuwait by Iraq that morning and that the United States was already sending warships into the gulf in response."

He and other Americans, mostly businessmen, contacted the embassy again, insisting on a briefing, and he said officials told them that cars would be sent to pick them up for a 6 p.m. meeting. No cars ever came, so the businessmen rode to the embassies in taxicabs.

About 25 to 30 Americans showed up for the meeting, Mr. Saba said, which mostly resulted in "a lot of confusion regarding procedures." Those who attended filled out registration cards for the embassy and were told the briefing would become a daily event.

"At the second meeting, we were told that they had lost the registration cards," Mr. Saba said.

"I believe the embassy personnel, as individuals, were working very hard. But they seemed to have no procedures for dealing with such a crisis."

The Americans began hearing that it was possible to leave the country by crossing into Jordan or Turkey by land, but Mr. Saba said embassy officials didn't seem to know much about that and advised him and others to "stay put."

When he and others asked for a list of other Americans in town and the hotels where they were staying, the embassy refused, citing the Privacy Act.

After a few more days, he and another American decided to try to drive to the Jordanian border, eight hours away. They knew of perhaps eight others who would also be trying to leave by that route. They asked the embassy to contact the U.S. Embassy in Amman, Jordan, "so that they could have vehicles waiting for us at the border. . . . The embassy said that they would see what they could do."

The next day, he and his companion hired an Iraqi taxi driver who took them all the way to the Jordanian border. "We were stopped by Iraqi troops once and released," Mr. Saba said. "We had no trouble getting across the border, but there was no American Embassy vehicle waiting on the other side." They hitched a ride the rest of the way.

Later, he said, the U.S. Embassy in Jordan told him "that it was not authorized to talk directly to our embassy in Baghdad but that both embassies had to pass all their messages to each other through Washington and they had not heard we were coming."

State Department foul-ups also occurred on the home front, he said. Shortly after he telephoned his wife back in Illinois to tell her he had reached Jordan safely, she got a call from the State Department's Kuwait Task Force, which reported that her husband was fine and was staying at the Sheraton Hotel in Baghdad.

"This was particularly upsetting since she had already called the task force to inform them that I had left Iraq and had called from Jordan," he said.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.