Iranian Smuggled Iraqis Into U.S. Via Columbia

If Osama bin Laden could smuggle terrorists into the United States to carry out attacks why couldn’t Saddam Hussein do the same?

That is the unstated question that lurked in the background of a criminal proceeding that concluded last week in Washington, D.C.

On October 3, a Washington jury convicted Iranian national Mohammed Hussein Assadi of smuggling Iraqis into the United States via Cali, Columbia, and other locations in South America.

Within a week of that verdict, the Central Intelligence Agency released a letter sent by CIA Deputy Director John McLaughlin to Senate Intelligence Chairman Bob Graham (D.-Fla.). A war with Iraq, McLaughlin told Graham, would increase the risk of Iraqi terrorist attacks on the United States involving chemical or biological weapons (CBW).

"Baghdad for now appears to be drawing a line short of conducting terrorist attacks with conventional or CBW against the United States," said McLaughlin. "Should Saddam conclude that a U.S.-led attack could no longer be deterred, he probably would become much less constrained in adopting terrorist actions. Such terrorism might involve conventional means, as with Iraq’s unsuccessful attempt at a terrorist offensive in 1991, or CBW."

The U.S. government does not know how many Iraqis have entered the United States illegally in recent years.

In their indictment of Assadi, prosecutors listed ten different individuals who "are citizens of Iraq who sought to come into the United States illegally" with Assadi’s help. These known Iraqi interlopers, however, were mostly Chaldean and Assyrian Christians who believed they could win asylum after arriving in the U.S., and who agreed to help the government by providing evidence against Assadi. Other Iraqi illegal aliens remain at large.

"There is simply no way to know all those who illegally entered the United States through this defendant’s efforts," Assistant U.S. Attorney Laura Ingersoll said in a memorandum to the court.

In testimony, an Iraqi Christian named Yaser Sitto described the well-worn path alien smugglers have beaten between Baghdad and the United States.

Sitto said he left Baghdad with his wife and two children sometime in 2000. They traveled to the Kurdish-controlled area of Northern Iraq, where Sitto eventually purchased a set of "Northern Iraq" passports from a commercial vendor at a place called the "Market of Passports." According to Sitto’s testimony, the family used these passports, issued by a country that does not exist, to travel through Turkey to Ecuador and, eventually, to Columbia.

Sitto and family began their journey in the "middle" of 2001 by crossing from Iraq into Turkey. From there, it became their quest to hook up with a smuggler in Ecuador named "Maher the Palestinian."

How did Sitto learn about Maher?

"I got his number from someone I met on the border of Iraq and Turkey whose name was Cesar," Sitto testified.

Arriving in Quito, Ecuador, Sitto made a deal with "the Palestinian." In exchange for $19,000, Maher would secure European passports for Sitto and his family, and purchase airline tickets for them to fly to Miami. But when Sitto tried to depart from Guayaquil, Ecuador, with Italian passports provided by "the Palestinian," he and his wife were arrested. They spent 25 days in prison, apart from their children.

Sitto gave up on Maher, and was soon contacted by Assadi. Assadi brought the family by bus to Cali, Columbia. Under surveillance by Columbian police, Assadi tried to get the family on another plane to Miami, again with falsified European passports. The Columbians arrested Assadi and deported him to the United States where he was arrested.

In the indictment of Assadi, prosecutors said the Iranian coached his Iraqi clients to hide their Arab identities. He told "aliens to alter their appearance to conform to the stolen and falsified European passports given to them," said prosecutors. He instructed them "to carry nothing identifying them as Arab while traveling to the United States."

He told one Iraqi client to "shave his moustache," and instructed the man’s wife to "dye her hair blonde."

A saboteur sent by Saddam may not need such rudimentary advice. But it seems reasonable to assume that if Mohammed Assadi could smuggle entire Iraqi families across our porous frontier, Saddam Hussein could smuggle a terrorist or two.


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