Man charged as Iraqi agent over Congress trip

WASHINGTON Wed Mar 26, 2008 8:19pm EDT

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - An Iraqi-American who helped organize a controversial U.S. congressional trip to Baghdad in 2002 was charged on Wednesday with working for ousted Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's government, which paid for the visit, the Justice Department said.

The indictment against Muthanna al-Hanooti said Iraq's foreign intelligence service funneled $34,000 through the Islamic charity Life for Relief and Development to pay delegation expenses.

It said al-Hanooti had been a lobbyist and public-relations coordinator for the charity, based in Southfield, Michigan.

The indictment did not name the three lawmakers who took the trip in September-October 2002, less than six months before the U.S.-led invasion to oust Saddam.

But during the time in question, Democratic U.S. Reps. Jim McDermott of Washington, Mike Thompson of California and David Bonior of Michigan, who were all opposed to war against Iraq, took a highly publicized trip to Iraq.

Delegation members said during their trip they warned Saddam's government it must allow U.N. arms inspections, and McDermott charged that President George W. Bush was willing to "mislead the American people" about the need for war.

Republicans accused delegation members at the time of sounding a bit like spokesmen for the Iraqi government and threatening to undermine U.S. efforts to assemble an international coalition against Iraq.

Thompson said on Wednesday the trip had been approved by the U.S. State Department and the United Nations.

"I was determined to learn as much as I could before voting on whether or not to commit US troops to war," he said.

"Obviously, had there been any question at all regarding the sponsor of the trip or the funding, I would not have participated."

ECONOMIC SANCTIONS

McDermott spokesman Mike DeCesare said the congressman, a medical doctor, had gone on the invitation of a Seattle church group. "We went to see the plight of children under economic sanctions in Iraq," DeCesare said. "In terms of who or whatever from Michigan, we didn't know them or anything about them."

The indictment said al-Hanooti traveled to Baghdad with the delegation.

Bonior left office in 2003. He later served as manager of John Edwards' unsuccessful 2008 presidential campaign.

Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd said, "None of the congressional representatives are accused of any wrongdoing, and we have no information whatsoever that any of them were aware of the involvement of the Iraqi Intelligence Service."

Al-Hanooti was arrested on Tuesday when he entered the United States from abroad, Boyd said.

He was charged with working as an unregistered Iraqi agent, violating economic sanctions against Iraq and making false statements. He was released on $100,000 bond with an electronic monitor after an initial court appearance in Detroit.

The indictment said Saddam's oil ministry gave al-Hanooti two million barrels of oil in exchange for his help, and he resold the oil.

It said al-Hanooti traveled to Iraq and met with Iraqi intelligence agents, who asked him to publicize the negative effects of economic sanction against Iraq, and he reported to the agents information about members of Congress.

The charity says on its Web site it was founded in 1992 by "Iraqi-American professionals" to respond to a humanitarian crisis after the 1991 Gulf War. It said it has provided more than $50 million in humanitarian assistance worldwide.

The group was not immediately available for comment on the al-Hanooti indictment.

(Additional reporting by Joanne Allen, editing by Todd Eastham)

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