When the Iraqi who could be considered more responsible than any other for the US invasion six years ago quietly returned last March to the land his lies helped shape, Iraq was entering one of its most stable and promising phases in six years of turmoil
Rafid Ahmed Alwan – otherwise known as Curveball – slipped back into Baghdad after 10 years of exile in Germany.
Before the invasion, Curveball had become the CIA's most valuable source on Iraq's fictitious chemical and biological weapons programme, a man who underscored the White House's push for war through a litany of lies that later claimed the careers of the former secretary of state Colin Powell, and CIA chief George Tenet.
Both were forced to admit they had gone to war partly on the word of a collaborator whom no American agency had even debriefed until one year after Baghdad fell.
Curveball was a trained chemical engineer, who had been taken straight from university to work in a division of Saddam Hussein's intelligence services, known as division four, which dealt with the former dictator's pet projects. That much was true. But he also harboured illusions of grandeur; a life in a new land with riches, unveiled women and a new Mercedes.
The Baghdad he returned to in March must have seemed almost unrecognisable. Curveball stayed with a nephew in Baghdad's north-east who he told he was planning to return for good from Germany, which has continued to offer him sanctuary.
The plump 42-year-old saw none of his old friends or colleagues during his visit; nor did he bother the alumni of Baghdad University of Technology – a campus still reeling from the conduct of its former student.
"Are you here to talk about uncle coming back again?" his nephew asked expectantly last week, believing the Guardian was facilitating Curveball's travel. "He hasn't been gone long and we are expecting him soon."
Had he gone near his old workplace, the Saad State Company for Housing and Construction, Curveball would have found his former colleague Dr Abdul Salam Jeber at his desk. He agreed to talk for the first time about his three months in CIA custody, which he now knows were caused by Curveball, a man he barely knew, but never trusted.
Two months after Baghdad fell, Jeber was approached by his boss who told him a group of Americans wanted to meet him. At the time, the American military was scanning Iraq intensively, looking for proof of a chemical and biological weapons programme. They were building their case on the word of Iraqi collaborators who had filled in the dots when United Nations weapons inspectors could not.
There were about six high value informants, used by the US and Britain, none more so than Curveball.
As the ultimately fruitless search intensified, Curveball remained under the protection of his German handlers, who drip-fed reports to the CIA throughout the lead-up to the invasion and the increasingly desperate months that followed.
Their man was sticking to his story. He had provided highly detailed and technically specific information about several facilities around Iraq that apparently masqueraded as agricultural plants. Jeber worked at one of them, the al-Hakem plant, south-west of Baghdad.
"They were expecting to find information about fermentation projects for bacterial weapons. I was the chief of the fermentation section of the company at the time," he said. "I know exactly what all the facilities were used for and there was no dual purpose for any of them.
"The Americans interrogating me didn't understand that if a project like that was to be started, a minimum of 200 people would know about it; there would be technical reports, chemical process designs, mechanical design, installation, then operation. Any one of the 800 employees in Saad Company may well have known about it."
Jeber was moved around Iraq from American-run prisons at Baghdad airport, to Camp Bucca near the Kuwaiti border, desert tents nearby, Abu Ghraib, and a small room in one of Saddam Hussein's over-run palaces. He estimates he was interrogated at least 50 times – always the same questions.
He was blindfolded and sleep-deprived for days then enticed with fruits and family visits. It was a classic counter-espionage routine designed to break defences that didn't exist.
"They said I had signed an agreement not to disclose information to foreigners, which is totally true. We all had to do that," he said.
"I now know that the 15 July date they kept talking about was a date in which Rafid had told them about an important moment in the so-called dual purpose facility. They also asked me about the three tucks that he talked about."
Jeber was given $1,000 and released in September 2003. Within eight months Tenet and Powell had resigned. He is, however, satisfied at a serendipitous achievement that he lays at Curveball's feet. "It was very important to get rid of Saddam," he said. "I never expected he would be removed from Iraq.
Should Curveball return, he faces a highly uncertain future in Iraq. Ba'athist militias still see him as an enemy. His friends seem to have largely disowned him and his family has scattered to the four winds. The wife he abandoned when he fled to Germany will have nothing to do with him. Tracked down at her home in Baghdad, she sighed and, holding her three-year-old son said: "My life with him was lie after lie after lie."
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