The decision by Iraq's number two diplomat at the United Nations to request political asylum in the United States could prove to be an intelligence windfall. But much will depend on what he knows about the intentions of President Saddam Hussein, especially his weapons program.
Mohammed Humaimidi, the second most senior Iraqi diplomat in the United States, requested political asylum by walking into a police station just a few blocks from U.N. headquarters in New York. The status of two other Iraqi diplomats posted to the United Nations remains unclear. They as well, may be ready to defect.
Over the past decade, a handful of other Iraqi envoys have done the same, including Mohammad Al-Mashat, who had been Iraq's ambassador to Washington prior to the Gulf War. Khidhir Hamza, the man who oversaw Iraq's nuclear program defected in 1994, providing western intelligence agencies with a wealth of information about Saddam Hussein's nuclear capabilities. "He has nuclear bomb technology, in making the bomb," Mr. Hamza says. "All the components needed for making the bomb, except the core, the fissile material core, the nuclear material."
This latest Iraqi diplomat to request asylum might know if Baghdad has since been able to acquire the nuclear fuel needed for a bomb. That, according to Richard Butler, the Australian diplomat who headed a team of U.N. weapons inspectors in Iraq until they were pulled out in 1998. "It's possible that he would have some sense of whether everyone's worst fear has been fulfilled," Mr. Butler says, "namely that because of the breakdown that has taken place in Russia over its armed forces, its scientists and its research establishments, whether some special fissionable material, the material you need to make the core of an atomic bomb, whether some of that may have been smuggled out of Russia to Iraq. That is a very grave fear that many people have."
U.S. intelligence officials will certainly want to find out all they can concerning Baghdad's diplomatic and military intentions from this latest Iraqi defector.
"There was so much that they sought to keep concealed from us when we were on the job and if he knew just a fraction of that," Mr. Butler says, "even two or three pieces of information, he could well fill in some important gaps."
But since Mohammed Humaimidi was posted at the United Nations, Richard Butler and others agree whatever intelligence he could pass on will likely have more to do with Iraq's diplomatic strategy than its weapons program including incentives Baghdad could be offering countries such as Russia to block support for new sanctions.
Until recently, Edward Walker was the top American diplomat responsible for the Middle East. "One of the things he can give us is a better fix on Iraqi plans and diplomatic plans and some of the approaches that they've been engaging in," Mr. Walker said. "One of the incentives that Iraq has been able to give people is tilting their business to them and the kinds of quid pro quo that they get for that is what we'd be interested in knowing."
An FBI source says he's not aware of any threats made to the Iraqi diplomat or his family since the asylum request was made. It's a request that is certain to be granted. "I think that everybody knows what happens to people who cross Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Mr. Walker says. "I think this is a very blatantly clear case of someone who would be shot if he went home."
Iraq's ambassador to the United Nations has not commented on the status of some of his diplomatic staff, saying only that three Iraqi diplomats posted to U.N. have finished their terms. But nothing has yet surfaced on the whereabouts of the two other diplomats.