When the threat of Hussein hit home for Bush

Plot: Ten years ago, the world was told Iraqi agents tried to kill the president's father. But did it actually happen?

February 23, 2003|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

As president, George W. Bush speaks daily of the threat posed by Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Rarely does he mention the episode 10 years ago that made the threat very personal for him as a son, a husband and a brother.

In April 1993, Iraqi intelligence agents allegedly tried to assassinate Bush's father during a triumphal post-presidency visit to Kuwait, where he was lionized as the man who liberated the oil-rich Persian Gulf kingdom from Iraqi invaders.

As President Bush readies the country for war to remove the Iraqi regime that may have plotted to murder his father, the story of what happened a decade ago in Kuwait takes on fresh relevance.

Though significant questions remain today about the evidence uncovered by Kuwaiti and U.S. investigators, the CIA and FBI officially concluded that Iraqi intelligence agents had launched a serious attempt to kill the former president.

If the huge car bomb recovered by Kuwaiti security services had detonated, it might have killed not only its ostensible targets -- the president's father and the emir of Kuwait -- but the rest of the entourage, too, including the current president's mother, Barbara Bush, and his wife, first lady Laura Bush.

Laura Bush, whose presence in Kuwait has never before been reported in the context of the assassination plot, went on the trip while her husband stayed home in Texas, overseeing his Texas Rangers baseball team and launching a run for governor. The president's brother, Neil Bush, and Neil's wife, Sharon, were also on the three-day trip. Some accounts place another brother, Marvin, in Kuwait, too.

President Bush has made only a few public references to the plot, listing it along with other Iraqi crimes. Wary of having his single-minded focus on Iraq taken as the latest chapter in a family feud, he has played down the personal connection, usually referring to the assassins' target as "a former U.S. president."

Only once, at a Republican fund-raiser in Houston in September, did Bush slip into more colloquial and emotional wording, calling Hussein "a guy that tried to kill my dad."

Those references reflect the findings of the CIA and FBI, which prompted former President Bill Clinton to order a retaliatory missile strike against Iraqi intelligence headquarters in Baghdad on June 26, 1993. It destroyed the building and killed eight people, including a well-known Iraqi artist who lived nearby.

"This attempt at revenge by a tyrant against the world coalition that defeated him in war is particularly loathsome," Clinton told the nation. "We could not and cannot let such action go unanswered."

Many doubts

Though the government has long treated the plot as fact, some former intelligence officers and experts on Iraq believe the Kuwaitis may have exaggerated or even concocted the assassination case against the 17 people they arrested to inflame American anger against Iraq.

"It's very possible that the Iraqis tried to get Bush," says Sami G. Hajjar, a former Army War College expert on the Middle East, who says he leans toward that view. "But it wouldn't be at all a surprise if evidence emerged one day that it was staged by the Kuwaits to pump up the Iraqi threat and to ingratiate themselves with the U.S."

Others have even stronger doubts.

"I tend to be extremely skeptical about this," says a former CIA officer who worked in the region for years. "The Kuwaitis would not be reliable sources."

Most strikingly, the former FBI chemist who tested the explosive recovered in Kuwait says he told superiors it did not match known Iraqi explosives. He was astonished to hear Clinton and other officials tell the world exactly the opposite.

The chemist, Frederic Whitehurst, whose whistle-blowing in the mid-1990s led to sweeping reforms at the FBI laboratory, says he protested in letters to the Department of Justice inspector general and other top officials.

"I told the IG, there may be good reasons to send Tomahawk missiles to Baghdad. But my report did not support it," Whitehurst says.

President Bush has never expressed doubts that the plot was real. Nonetheless, most political analysts believe Bush's quest to remove the Iraqi dictator is driven mainly by other factors: a determination to avoid a repetition of the carnage of Sept. 11, 2001, and the influence of aides who have long wanted to oust Hussein.

But, political observers say, the president is influenced by his family's potentially deadly 1993 encounter.

"I think maybe it gave him a leg up in understanding the threat posed by Saddam right from the start," says James Phillips, a Middle East analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation. "He wouldn't see Saddam as history. He'd understand that revenge is very important to this guy."

Private feelings

Bruce Buchanan, a University of Texas scholar who has followed both Bush presidencies, says the Bush family is probably keeping private their strong feelings.

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