A mysterious fugitive from Iraqi justice named Aiham Alsammarae, who is also a Chicago resident, is the focus of a politically fraught episode in the association between accused political fixer Antoin "Tony" Rezko, who goes on federal trial today in Chicago for graft, and Senator Barack Obama, the most spectacular Illinois presidential candidate in half a century.
"We want him back to serve his sentence of fourteen years," said an Iraqi government official in Baghdad last week. "He stole $650 million from the people of Iraq, and from the people of the United States, and he was tried and convicted in an Iraqi court in October 2006 for his crimes. We have a four-inch-thick file of his crimes. He plundered the Ministry of Electricity. Dates, bank accounts, dummy companies, a lot of them in the States. We want him, and we want the money back."
When asked why an American citizen with a dual Iraqi citizenship, who had served as the Iraqi Minister of Electricity from 2003 to 2005, after being convicted in an Iraqi court was living openly in Chicago in 2008 rather than in Abu Ghraib, the official said, "That’s what we want to know. Armed men broke him out of jail in the Green Zone. He escaped without his U.S. passport to Amman, Jordan, where he hid in the U.S. Embassy, and then to Turkey, where he called us up and bragged he had pizza and a cold beer in his hotel room. We’ve asked the FBI to help us. They sent us to Interpol. We filed a report. And nothing. It’s been a year. We want him back."
What connects the fugitive Mr. Alsammarae to the candidate Barack Obama? The short answer is Mr. Obama’s entanglement with his long-time fundraiser and friend Mr. Rezko, who was linked to Mr. Alsammarae in at least two aborted, fraudulent contracts with the CPA and the Iraqi government before Mr. Alsammarae’s conviction and flight.
The long answer starts with the fact that Mr. Aiham Alsammarae, who arrived in the United States in 1976, has been an acquaintance of the Syrian-born Mr. Rezko since they were classmates at the Illinois Institute of Technology thirty years ago.
In December 2002, Aiham Alsammarae, living in Chicago as a successful electrical engineer in Chicago, was elected at a critical meeting in London to be one of the 65 Iraqi opposition figures; he later joined the State Department’s 34-member Democratic Principals’ Working Group as part of the Free Iraqis’ Plan for a New Iraq. This endeavor led him to an appointment under Paul Bremer on July 13, 2003, as the Minister of Electricity in the transitional government of Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.
Questions are raised today by Baghdad officials and by an counterintelligence analyst knowledgeable on Iraq as to how Mr. Alsammarae was able to introduce himself so deeply into the Bush Administration’s effort to change the regime in Baghdad. Mr.
Alsammarae was photographed with the president in the Oval Office on September 22, 2003.
It is then strange to discover that, three years earlier in August 2000, Mr. Alsammarae, a board member of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, appeared in Washington alongside celebrities such as Martin Sheen and George Galloway to demonstrate against the United Nations sanctions on the regime of Saddam Hussein
and against the Clinton Administration’s military posture toward Iraq from 1998.
One suggestion is that Mr. Alsammarae was well-connected to American intelligence. Mr. Alsammarae is said to have enjoyed a strong link, dating back to his Baathist youth in Iraq, to Wafiq al-Samarrai, the head of military intelligence in Saddam Hussein’s army. Wafiq al-Samarrai is also reported to have been a Baathist official secretly linked to pre-war American intelligence. After the fall of Saddam, Wafiq al-Samarrai was an aide to President Talibani until he was identified in the Saddam trial as involved in the gassing of the Kurds; he vanished into Syria.
From mid-2003 until mid-2005, Mr. Alsammarae was the potent Minister of Electricity for the Coalition Provisional Authority, in charge of building a whole new energy structure for the devastated Iraq. He participated prominently in investment forums in the Grand Hyatt and Four Seasons hotels in Amman, Jordan. Mr. Alsammarae left his post in May 2005.
Two months later it was reported in Chicago that as early as 2004, while Mr. Alsammarae was a minister with authority to approve contracts, he had joined with Mr. Rezko and the London-based General Mediterranean Holdings, headed by the billionaire British investor Nadhmi Auchi, in a contract to construct a 250-megawatt plant in the Kurdistani city of Chamchamal.
A member of the development team at Mr. Rezko’s Chicago-based company Rezmar said in 2005 that Mr. Rezko possessed a "formidable overseas network of business relationships" that permitted Rezmar to join together up to 30 companies in order to begin the plant’s construction as early as January 2006.
In addition, in April 2005, one month before Mr. Alsammarae left his post, his Ministry of Electricity signed a contract for $50 million with Companion Security to provide training to Iraqis to guard electrical plants by flying them to Illinois for classes.
Companion Security was headed by a former Chicago policeman with a troubled history, Daniel T. Frawley, in partnership with Mr. Rezko and in association with Daniel Mahru, the lawyer for the original contract and Mr. Rezko’s former business partner. In April 2006, Mr. Frawley entered negotiations with Governor Rod Blagojevich’s staff to lease a
military facility in Illinois to be a training camp. In August 2006, Mr. Frawley started negotiations with Mr. Obama’s U.S. Senate staff to complete the contract.
The discussions with Mr. Obama’s staff continued over many months, including e-mails and conferences with an Obama staffer, Seamus Ahern. Questions raised by this contact go to the issue of whether or not Mr. Obama ever favored Mr. Rezko’s commercial ties. Mr. Obama has said often that he performed no favors for Mr. Rezko.
The timeline of Companion discussions in 2006 is important to note: April 2006 Frawley speaks to governor’s office; August 2006 Frawley speaks to senator’s office; October 2006 indictment of Rezko revealed; October 2006 Rezko arrested upon return from Syria; October 2006 Alsammarae convicted in Baghdad and makes his first escape attempt; December 2006 Alsammarae escapes form Baghdad.
Did Mr. Obama’s staff and Governor Blagojevich’s staff not know how these events related to their discussions with Mr. Frawley? Importantly both Governor Blagojevich’s office and Mr. Obama’s office later explained they did not know of the link between Mr. Frawley and Mr. Rezko. Senate staffs are expected to perform due diligence on inquiries, such as is this matter about campaign contributions or unsavory activity. What was the nature of Mr Obama’s staff’s inquiry into the Ilinois resident Mr. Frawley’s ability to secure a contract with the CPA’s Ministry of Electricity in Bagdad from April, 2005?
Oddly, after Mr. Alsammarae left his ministry post in 2005, he was reported that summer to be forming a Sunni political organization with participation by insurgents, some of whom threatened in public declarations to murder him. An intelligence analyst with knowledge of Syria commented that this episode may illustrate Mr. Alsammarae’s
then-strong, active links to the Baathist elite in exile in Syria, who have been a major source of money and operations to the Iraqi insurgency these last years; and that Mr. Alsammarae’s freelancing rankled the so-called foreign elements in the insurgency.
The strangest of all events was not Mr. Alsammarae’s arrest for theft in August 2006, nor his conviction in a Baghdad court in October 2006, but rather the two jailbreaks in October and December 2006. In the first instance, private armed men he may have hired took him from his jail cell in the Green Zone soon after his conviction in court. A
report indicates that he was stopped at the Bagdad Airport carrying a Chinese passport. American officials later returned Mr. Alsammarae to Iraqi custody. At least one American with the International Police Liaison Officer program lost his job because of this first jailbreak.
This is about the time that Mr. Alsammarae’s family in the United States sought help; there is a report that Mr. Alsammarae’s daughter appealed directly to the office of U.S. Senator Barack Obama.
The second jailbreak, in mid-December, was successful, yet after more than a year leaves behind a list of sobering questions. Who overpowered the Iraqi police guards and drove Mr. Alsammarae from the Green Zone to the Baghdad Airport? How did Mr. Alsammarae win a place on an outbound aircraft without proper documents? What does it mean that Mr. Alsammarae later hinted that he flew on an official aircraft from Baghdad to Amman, Jordan?
According to an Iraqi official with knowledge of the case, the Iraqi government wants to know how Mr. Alsammarae was able to go from Iraq to Jordan without a passport. This official also wants to know why the U.S. Embassy in Amman gave Mr. Alsammarae shelter.
And how did Mr. Alsammarae obtain a new U.S. passport to travel from Amman to
Turkey? Days afterward, from his Turkish hotel room Mr. Alsammarae telephoned not only the Iraqi government to taunt them after his escape, boasting of pizza and cold beer, but he also called a New York Times reporter, James Glanz, and boasted of his getaway, which Mr. Alsammarae described as "the Chicago way."
When asked if Mr. Alsammarae believed the American authorities would arrest him once he returned to Chicago, Mr. Alsammarae told the New York Times, "I hope they are smarter than that." One explanation for this strange sequence of improbable facts is that Mr. Alsammarae "played the sectarian card to the Americans," according to an Iraqi politician with close knowledge of the case — meaning that Mr. Alsammarae claimed to be a persecuted Sunni partisan who was about to be murdered by Shia partisans if he remained in Iraqi custody.
Mr. Alsammarae, who returned to Chicago by January 2007, is no longer voluble about his adventures. Mr. Alsammarae has not answered repeated requests to comment on the Iraqi government-submitted Interpol warrant for his arrest. Multiple digital and hard copy messages left at Mr. Alsammarae’s company, KCI Engineering Consultants, Inc, over the last week have not been not returned, despite the assurance of his receptionist that, though he is away, he picks up his messages. A recording at his office extension gives a mobile phone number for him that is now disconnected; he does not answer his e-mail at the address given by the receptionist.
A possible explanation for Mr. Alsammarae’s reluctance, after years of flamboyant public statements, is the report that the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, Patrick Fitzgerald, has required Mr. Alsammarae’s testimony before the grand jury with regard to the federal investigation of Mr. Rezko’s commerce overseas as well as in Chicago.
Why is what Mr. Alsammarae knows important to the grand jury as well as to political observers? An Iraqi politician with extensive knowledge of the Iraqi diaspora before and after the fall of Baghdad explains, "Aiham Alsammarae is the weakest link in the chain of people who stole money from the CPA and the Iraqi people since 2003. The evidence against him is strong and convincing. His conviction is a problem for the people in his gang. The Baathists." An Iraqi official with knowledge of the case agreed, commenting, "Baathists are like a cult. Viscious sons-of-guns. They don’t talk."
Who are the people who have most to worry about what Mr. Alsammarae knows and can tell the federal court in Chicago, and the Iraqi court in Baghdad when Prime Minsister Nouri al-Maliki’s government recaptures Mr. Alsammarae?
The man with the most to lose right now is Mr. Rezko, because he is already in custody as a flight risk and on trial for gross graft in Illinois, the first of what is said to be many trials against the Chicago political elite that Chicago columnist John Kass calls "the combine." Potential revelations in that four-inch-thick file in Baghdad about Mr. Rezko’s link to Mr. Alsammarae threaten indictment and trial on two continents.
The second man with much to lose regarding what Mr. Alsammarae knows is the mysterious and genuinely powerful Nahdmi Auchi of London, a British citizen who, born in Iraq in 1937, has been for decades closely linked with the Baathists. In 2005, Mr. Auchi was reported to have involved his company in the Chamchamal electrical generating plant deal that was used as a major ploy for the plundering of the Iraqi Ministry of Electricity. As recently as this month, Mr. Auchi’s representative denied that Mr. Auchi’s company, General Mediterranean Holding, invested in the Rezko-Alsammarae deal for Chamchamal in 2004-2005, a denial that does not explain the well-sourced 2005 published reports of the linkage.
Iraqi government officials in Baghdad speak bluntly of Mr. Auchi as a "Saddam guy," and as a member of the Baathist gang who have beggared Iraq for 50 years, a gang that
now, exiled to Damascus, Syria, and headed by men wanted for war crimes in Iraq, aims to continue plundering Iraq by using their stolen fortune to corrupt other regions and perhaps some day to return to Baghdad.
A stunning 2004 Pentagon report obtained by Bill Gertz of the Washington Times has identified Mr. Auchi not only as a man who, before the fall of Saddam, had managed to "arrange for significant theft from the U.N. Oil-for-Food Program. . . .", who not only had, before the fall of Saddam, sought to "bribe foreign governments and individuals before Operation Iraqi Freedom to turn opinion against the American-led mission to remove Saddam Hussein," but also since the fall of Saddam had engaged in a "conspiracy" over cell phone contracts under the CPA by "unlawful activities working closely with Iraqi intelligence operatives."
What is most striking about this Pentagon report is that it is from the year 2004, when Mr. Auchi traveled by private aircraft to Midway Airport in Chicago and then to a fete at the Four Season Hotel, where he met with his business partner in Chicago real estate, Mr. Rezko, as well as with Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich. Also present that night, according to a fresh report by James Bone and Dominic Kennedy of the London Times, was State Senator Barack Obama, who had recently won the Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate seat that next fall. Bone and Kennedy report that Mr. Auchi and Mr. Obama shook hands. Mr. Obama’s aide does not now recall the handshake but does agree that Mr. Obama was present in the hotel that evening.
It may be significant that in a snapshot from the April hotel meeting that shows Governor Blagojevich making remarks to a dinner table beside a smiling Mr. Auchi, there is a third well-dressed man in the photograph, mustachioed, jovial, receding hairline, who greatly
resembles other photographs from November 2004 of Iraqi CPA Minister of Electricity Aiham Alsammarae.
Mr. Alsammarae may or may not have been in the room that night. Pictures are useful indicators but his presence is not confirmed. However, he is certainly now accused and convicted of having been in a conspiracy in Iraq with two other men in that room: Tony Rezko, who is regarded by some intelligence analysts as a money-handler for unsavory
agents in his native Damascus, and Nadhmi Auchi, who is regarded by Pentagon analysts as a money-handler for Baathist-linked agents in the Middle East..
A lingering question about that Four Seasons evening four years ago is, did Mr. Alsammarae, if he was present, meet the senatorial candidate, Mr. Obama?
Today the questions include: does Senator Obama know that, through his unfortunate association with Mr. Rezko, he was once exposed to grand larceny at the Iraqi Ministry of Electricity from 2003 to 2006? Does Senator Obama know that the Iraqi government wants Mr. Alsammarae returned to face his punishment and to cooperate in ongoing discoveries about additional crimes? Does Senator Obama know that there is a fugitive in Chicago who creates unhappy questions about his recent political associations?
Additional reporting by Aaron Klein.