Prosecutors: Metro area men spied for Saddam

Attorneys, relatives deny charges, say some were coerced by Iraqi regime
Paul Egan / The Detroit News
DETROIT — Associates of Najib Shemami looked forward to the cheeses, pistachios and other imported delicacies he would bring back home from his occasional trips abroad.

The U.S. Justice Department, however, says the Sterling Heights resident was taking other treats — information about dissidents — to the government of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein on his trips to Iraq.

Shemami’s lawyer, Edward Wishnow, denies the allegations and says the naturalized citizen was a victim of Iraqi intimidation.
Shemami, 60, is one of five Metro Detroit men to face espionage charges in similar cases in the past three years. The local cases are among about a dozen nationwide that mostly arose from secret Iraqi Intelligence Service files seized during the fall of Baghdad in 2003.

Officials allege the Iraqi expatriates put lives at risk by feeding information about dissident groups and individuals in the United States to Saddam’s Mukhabarat intelligence service. Like Shemami, many of those accused say they are loyal Americans who, fearing imprisonment and torture, were coerced into providing meaningless or easily available information when they needed Iraqi government permission to travel to their homeland.

Shemami is to stand trial in federal court in Detroit on Jan. 22 on charges he secretly acted as a foreign agent for the Saddam regime. He is accused of giving up the names, in 2002, of Iraqi-Americans who were likely to serve as U.S. military guides after the U.S. invasion. Wishnow says Shemami feared torture when he was approached by Iraqi Intelligence Service officers on a business/humanitarian trip to Iraq, and the names he gave were simply other Iraqi-Americans Shemami disliked.

Dissidents are wary
Nabil Roumayah of Southfield, a longtime member of the exiled Iraqi Democratic Union, which opposed Saddam’s governing Ba’ath Party, said he and other Iraqi dissidents in the United States knew they were being spied on since the 1980s but still don’t know the fate of relatives back in Iraq, who may have been questioned, imprisoned or otherwise punished.

“I’m sure a lot of our people got hurt because of the intelligence reports these people were giving to the Iraqi government,” Roumayah said. As for claims that they were coerced, “The whole community here was leaned on, but people did not sell their souls or lie for Saddam.”

In addition to Shemami, the following current and former Detroit-area residents have been charged with acting or conspiring to act as unregistered foreign agents of Iraq, a 10-year felony:

• Ghazi Al-Awadi, an Iraqi-born U.S. citizen, died last year at age 79 before completing his 18-month prison sentence. To date, he is the only local defendant convicted and sentenced.

Awadi, a Dearborn resident, admitted to obtaining information about the activities of individuals and groups in the United States who were opposed to Saddam and passing the information on to Iraqi intelligence agents. Iraqi officials paid him more than $1,000.

Awadi’s lawyers said intelligence officials pressured him when he tried to return to Iraq to arrange for his son’s wedding and “no information has been presented to suggest that Mr. Awadi provided any information not already known to the Iraqi regime.”

• Jamal Bidawid, formerly of Sterling Heights, allegedly fed to Iraqi intelligence information about local opposition groups from 1998 to 2002 and received thousands of dollars in payments. At one point, Bidawid asked the Iraqis for money to establish a small newspaper as “a platform for counter information,” the 2007 indictment alleges.

Bidawid, 67, who was also an Iraqi-born U.S. citizen, died in 2007 before he went to trial. “I don’t believe it,” his daughter Balsam Bidawid of Hazel Park said when she learned of the charges. “He was not a spy.”

• Muthanna Al-Hanooti, 49, a former official of the Southfield-based Muslim charity Life for Relief and Development, was indicted on conspiracy and other charges in March. He is accused of working with Iraqi intelligence officials to get the U.S. to lift economic sanctions and organizing a trip to Iraq by former U.S. Rep. David Bonior and other congressmen that was secretly funded by the Iraqi Intelligence Service. He is from Dearborn Heights.

In return for his services, Al-Hanooti allegedly received a potentially lucrative contract to buy 2 million barrels of Iraqi oil.

Al-Hanooti plans to vigorously fight the charges, said his Detroit lawyer, James C. Thomas.

• Issam George Hamama, 58, a former Sterling Heights resident who lives in California, worked as an Iraqi translator for the U.S. military until the indictment against him was unsealed in November.

Hamama allegedly wrote a letter about 1991 to an Iraqi cabinet minister, offering to work to counteract Iraqi traitors in the U.S. From that date, Hamama met periodically with representatives of the Iraqi Intelligence Service and received periodic payments for providing information about anti-Saddam individuals and groups inside the United States, the indictment alleges.

Hamama’s Washington, D.C., attorney, Haytham Faraj, said Hamama has received “multiple accolades” from military commanders for his work as a civilian translator. “We are confident that the evidence will vindicate Mr. Hamama as the honorable, patriotic, loyal American that he is,” Faraj said.

FBI aware of concerns
Brian Young, an assistant special agent in charge of the FBI in Detroit who has spent much of his career focused on national security issues, said the FBI is aware of concerns that some Iraqi-Americans were coerced into providing information to the Iraqi Intelligence Service. Similar complaints might be heard from citizens who complain thugs pressured them to allow their homes to be used to deal illegal drugs, he said.

“We’re here to help them,” Young said. “There are ways we can help them. They also have to say, ‘Hey, we need help.’ ”

The idea of foreign agents secretly keeping tabs on those who might disagree with a foreign regime should concern all Americans, Young said.

“It goes against those freedoms that we enjoy every day;” he said.

Neither Young nor Acting U.S. Attorney Terrence Berg would say whether more alleged Iraqi foreign agents could be charged, but Young said: “We still have information that we’re examining.”

Roumayah said he believes “there are a few big fish they haven’t charged,” and “the whole community is waiting.”

James Blatt, an attorney who represented William Benjamin, an Iraqi-born California man acquitted of similar charges in February, said defendants such as Benjamin were in fact victims of a corrupt Iraqi regime. Intelligence officers would demand bribes from Iraqi-Americans seeking to re-enter the U.S. and try to depict the visitors as agents so they could seek more money they would purportedly pay to the “spies” but would in fact keep, Blatt said.

“This is the worst that America has to offer — to go after decent American citizens … because someone says you’re a spy,” Blatt said.