Miscast Characters Accused of Plot to Kill George Bush : Kuwait: Iraq's alleged infiltrators--a ragtag crew including a smuggler and nurse--face sentencing today.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Wali Ghazali and Raad Assadi had little in common before they were arrested by accident in the desert north of here--two alleged assassins wandering, unarmed and on foot, in the general direction of Iraq, the day after they were supposed to have blown former President George Bush to bits.

They were both Iraqis and just a few years apart in age. Both had slipped illegally across the porous Kuwaiti frontier less than 48 hours before, just one day after they met for the first time in the front seat of a Toyota Land Cruiser packed with paying passengers and, only they knew, 180 pounds of plastic explosives in the chassis.

As Ghazali alone would later admit, both men were recruited for the job that the Kuwaitis now consider the crime of the century by Iraq's dreaded intelligence service, the Mukhabarat.

There is, however, one far more troubling similarity between Ghazali, a meek and weepy male hospital nurse, and Assadi, a bumbling career whiskey smuggler--indeed, one shared by all 12 of their fellow defendants. It is a simple, glaring similarity that jumps out of hundreds of pages of testimony in a trial that most courtroom observers here say will probably seal the two men's fate at the gallows of Kuwait's State Security Prison after verdicts are rendered today.

It is the simple fact that the men are the most unlikely candidates for their alleged crime--a sophisticated conspiracy, American investigators had said, that was hatched at the highest levels of the Iraqi government to assassinate Bush here last April. The Clinton Administration used this conspiracy theory to justify missile strikes on the Iraqi capital three months before the suspects' trial ended last month.

An extensive review of the public testimony in this case shows little sophistication in the assassination attempt. Even Kuwait's prosecutors appear to concede that the mission was entrusted almost entirely to a pathetic group of booze-runners and convicts, a grocer, a shepherd and a single, hapless victim of circumstance.

Abdul Samad Shatti--the Kuwaiti State Security Police colonel who was the only official to present his government's case under oath before the three-judge panel--said in long and sometimes contradictory testimony that fewer than half of the 14 accused in the case had any connection to the Iraqi intelligence service.

All but one of the defendants denied any knowledge of a plot to kill Bush.

All of them recanted their earlier videotaped confessions, which several testified they had made only after they were beaten during pretrial interrogations--which defense attorneys said were patently illegal, if only because none of the defendants had lawyers present.

The trial had to be postponed for at least three weeks immediately after it began because none of the defendants had even met their lawyers before they were placed in a courtroom cage on opening day; pretrial visits are required under Kuwait's constitution.

"The investigations were ridiculous and not serious," Najib Wuggayan, a Kuwaiti attorney who represents two defendants, told the court in his closing arguments last month.

Wuggayan, who later said he is sure that most of the defendants will be acquitted, appealed for a dismissal--for lack of evidence and for procedural violations. Among them were Kuwait's decision to permit U.S. investigators to interrogate the defendants, also without legal representation, before their trial even began.

"What I have witnessed in this case is a blunt interference, which reaches the extent of insolence, by the American . . . authorities," Wuggayan told the court in September.

Later, Wuggayan asserted that none of the trial testimony had proved a wide conspiracy or high-level Iraqi involvement.

But in interviews, senior Kuwaiti officials and Western diplomats said there is considerable evidence to support the American theory that Iraq was deeply involved in this case.

Officially, Baghdad has denied any involvement in the alleged plot against Bush. As one Iraqi official asserted at the time, "this so-called plot to kill Bush is not even amateurish, let alone professional."

But Sheik Saud al Sabah, Kuwait's information minister, said in an interview, "The fingerprints of Iraqi intelligence were all over the operation."

He said much of that evidence remains outside the court record. The key to the case, he said, is a Kuwaiti undercover agent who accompanied the group on their mission but could not testify for fear that he will be discovered by the Iraqis.

Saud, a respected attorney and member of Kuwait's royal family, called the circumstantial evidence in the case "overwhelming," and added: "We're entirely convinced of it."

So are U.S. officials, who, in a week's visit to Kuwait, amassed the evidence that Washington presented to the United Nations just hours after 23 Tomahawk cruise missiles exploded in the heart of the Iraqi capital.

The $25-million attack on Iraq's intelligence agency, which also killed six civilians in Baghdad, was warranted under international laws that permit a nation to defend itself against external threats, U.S. Ambassador Madeleine Albright said at the time.

A Western diplomat, who has watched the proceedings here, has drawn a distinction between the information the United States presented earlier and the court testimony here.

"The purpose of this trial in Kuwait is to judge the individual guilt of the people in the dock. The (earlier) purpose of the U.S. was different"--to justify its June attack on Iraq, the diplomat said. "The U.S. investigators came up with an enormous amount of evidence--detonators, microchips and signatures that matched precisely with similar devices of Iraqi design found in Turkey and Abu Dhabi. The evidence was incontrovertible."

But none of that evidence was presented in the testimony that filled a small, stuffy courtroom here, where the 14 defendants, their heads shaved and beards long, watched the proceedings from a black steel cage.

Shatti did explain in considerable detail how Ghazali and Assadi were the ringleaders of the conspiracy; how Ghazali was trained by Iraqi intelligence in the fine art of suicide bombing and terrorist attacks; how Assadi was recruited as his partner in crime and two other Iraqis with family ties in Kuwait as their guides and drivers, and how the high-powered explosives were so deftly hidden in their Land Cruiser that Kuwaiti police missed them during three searches and found them only after Assadi pointed the way.

But Shatti's testimony indicated that only two of the 14 defendants--Assadi and Ghazali--knew of the plot to kill Bush, and he conceded that more than half of the passengers in the vehicle that day had no knowledge that there were explosives in it.

Based on their own testimony and that of Shatti, a picture has emerged of the curious collection of amateurs who allegedly were out to kill Bush.

Typical of what amounted to little more than human cargo in the booby-trapped Land Cruiser and an accompanying utility vehicle that crossed from Iraq into Kuwait with Assadi and Ghazali last April was Accused No. 3: Salem Nassir Shammari.

The 34-year-old driver from the sleepy Iraqi town of Zubayr, who is among the five defendants Shatti did identify as Mukhabarat agents, giggled when a Kuwaiti judge asked him why he looked familiar.

"I have been sentenced to prison 15 times in Kuwait, your honor," Shammari said, adding that each time he was caught by Kuwaiti police it was for possession or sale of liquor, which is banned under the emirate's strict Islamic laws.

When pressed on his involvement, he just shook his head and smiled blankly. "I didn't even know the word detonator or booby-trap until I heard it from the investigators," he said at one point.

Then there was Ali Baddai Abid, a frail, white-bearded 73-year-old who limped from the courtroom cage to stand before the judges.

He testified that he accompanied the group only to ask for money from his relatives in Kuwait.

Asked why he had told investigators a different story months before, Abid replied, "I didn't know what I was saying because I was being beaten," a charge that a court-appointed doctor later denied.

Defendant Adel Ismail Otaibi--who, like Abid and seven others, never was linked in testimony to the Mukhabarat--similarly said he paid for a seat on the trip only to visit his two daughters married to Kuwaitis. He too appeared astounded at the charges against him.

At one point, the 44-year-old grocer also from the southern Iraqi town of Zubayr tried to underscore his bewilderment by telling the judges: "I love Bush. All people of the south of Iraq love Bush."

As the anchor of the team of miscasts, Ghazali was perfect. Not only did the 36-year-old have no experience with explosives or with the much-feared Iraqi intelligence service, he had actually joined in a rebellion against Saddam Hussein after the Persian Gulf War.

Ghazali is from Najaf, the Shiite Muslim holy city that was a hotbed of the postwar uprising against Hussein; the Iraqi strongman brutally crushed the revolt there in the days after his army fled Kuwait.

Ghazali told the Kuwaiti court of his helplessness when a messenger informed him that the Mukhabarat wanted to see him in the southern Iraqi city of Basra last April 9. Iraq's intelligence service, he testified, put him in a hotel and recruited him.

"They told me to kill Bush," a quivering Ghazali said on the trial's opening day.

Later, Ghazali testified that Iraqi intelligence agents taught him how to detonate the Land Cruiser, which American sources said was outfitted with three sophisticated detonators and enough explosives to leave a crater four football fields in diameter. He said the agents taught him how to use a suicide belt loaded with explosives. Kuwaiti police never found the belt.

Ghazali said he never intended to go through with the mission. "When we entered Kuwaiti territory," he told the judges, "I prayed that God would make something happen to stop the operation, and I intended to inform the authorities at the first chance I got."

As for Ghazali's partner, Assadi clearly could not have been more different. He denied, under oath, any knowledge of the plot on Bush's life.

Throughout the trial, the 33-year-old cafe owner was confident, almost brazen, and given to sarcastic smiles that contrasted with Ghazali's tears.

"I'm a smuggler--smugglers have weapons," was a typical Assadi retort when prosecutors asked him to explain why he crossed into Kuwait on April 13--the day Bush arrived for a three-day state visit--with two Belgian-made, 9-millimeter pistols, an AK-47 assault rifle, two antitank mines and more than half a dozen cubes of plastic explosives.

As Assadi described his mission, he too said he had been recruited by the Mukhabarat.

A fellow smuggler, whom he knew doubled as an intelligence agent, had come into his cafe, offering the equivalent of $180 in cash and five cases of whiskey if Assadi agreed to drive Ghazali and the cache of explosives across the border.

But Assadi repeatedly testified he knew nothing of Ghazali's orders to kill Bush. His mission: to blow up car showrooms and shopping centers in Kuwait city.

In an effort to prove he never intended to carry out the mission, Assadi described how he buried the explosives in the desert as soon as he crossed into Kuwait and later abandoned the booby-trapped Toyota in a sheep pen--facts confirmed by Shatti's testimony.

It was only after Assadi and Ghazali parked their sabotaged Land Cruiser in the sheep pen that, Shatti indicated, an informant tipped off the police, who surrounded the site. But when the two men learned of the huge police presence, they decided to make their way back toward the Iraqi border.

It was an exit consistent with the rest of the plan's execution: The two men stole a Mercedes-Benz from a nearby street. It broke down within a few miles.

They headed off on foot. It was only when a group of Kuwaitis hunting birds in the desert spotted the two men in the 110-degree heat that police arrested them and, Shatti later testified, pieced together the plot.

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