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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Iraqi Ambassador Carries On His Job

The larger-than-life portraits of Saddam Hussein have been taken off the walls of the gloomy Iraqi Embassy in Moscow, the former Iraqi dictator is dead or in hiding and many members of his government are under arrest. But Iraqi Ambassador to Russia Abbas Khalaf, who served for 18 years as Hussein's Russian translator, says he was not about to repudiate his former boss.

"I'm not going to be like others and criticize Saddam Hussein the day after he is removed," said the 48-year-old, whose frequent appearances on Russian television helped fuel anti-American and antiwar sentiment here.

Before the fighting began, Khalaf told the Kommersant newspaper: "We are not going to line the Americans' path with flowers -- we will cut them to bits. Everywhere where people suffer aggression, a person can become a living bomb."

In his first postwar interview with a U.S. newspaper Thursday, Khalaf was more conciliatory, predicting that Iraq could one day become a "good partner" to the United States.

The government Khalaf represents no longer exists, of course, but the embassy still shows signs of life. The ambassador says he and his staff are still issuing visas and handling other diplomatic chores, even though there is virtually no travel to or from Iraq and no authorities there other than Americans.

Khalaf, in aviator glasses and an open-necked shirt, looked more like a boxing promoter than a diplomat. He defended his wartime rhetoric.

"As you know, when I was speaking against the intervention of the United States and England, I was protecting my motherland," he said. "I believe it is not a disgrace for a person to protect his own motherland. If you, as an American, consider it a disgrace -- well, that is a dubious position to take.

"As a human being, not as a diplomat or an ambassador, I cannot agree with the American invasion of our country," he said. "It would have been better if it were Iraqi tanks, and not American, that had done this. I believe that any changes should be up to the Iraqi people."

The United States has called on other nations to expel Hussein's ambassadors, including Khalaf. But the Kremlin says that as long as there is no officially recognized government in Iraq, the current ambassador will continue in his post.

Khalaf said he did not expect to face arrest if he returned to Baghdad. "Why?" he asked. "What have I done? I have not -- thank God -- spilled any blood."

During the war, Khalaf watched television coverage and, he says, felt both fear for his parents in Iraq and anger at the Americans. But he was relieved that most of the Iraqi government's predictions about an U.S. occupation proved wrong. "We thought that everyone working under the Saddam Hussein regime would be killed or arrested," he said. "So we were very much scared."

Khalaf was born in Baghdad to a prominent family of Shiite Muslims. He graduated from Moscow State University with a degree in journalism in 1985. That same year, he had a lucky break: He struck up a friendship with Yevgeny Primakov, then director of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. Primakov became prime minister in 1998.

After returning to Baghdad, Khalaf joined the Foreign Ministry. His superiors knew that he spoke fluent Russian and had studied Soviet foreign policy. In 1986, he was summoned to meet Hussein. The Iraqi president needed a Russian translator. It was not a job that Khalaf sought. Nor could he have refused, "It was not a question of whether you liked him or not. We worked by order, not by offer," he said.

After the Sept. 11 terror attacks, and after tensions between Washington and Baghdad escalated, the government in Baghdad decided that Moscow could play a critical role in staving off military action. Hussein then dispatched Khalaf to Moscow.

During the war, the United States accused Russian companies of supplying Iraq with jamming equipment and other high-technology military hardware. Khalaf scoffed at these claims. "Russia has not rendered Iraq any technical aid or given them any weapons," he said.

Russian and American technology was smuggled into Iraq through what he called certain "Arab and European countries."

The ambassador was more cautious in talking about whether the Baghdad regime had nuclear, chemical or biological weapons.

"If Saddam Hussein had such weapons, he would have used them," he asserted. But he said he would not necessarily have known if such programs existed. "Such problems are not discussed at the political level," he said. "You know that interpreters have access to only a very narrow circle of problems or issues."

Iraqi officials had hoped Russia could somehow stop the looming war. Primakov traveled to Baghdad March 17, three days before the first bombs struck the Iraqi capital. After the meeting, Primakov told reporters, he asked Hussein to relinquish power and avoid war.

Khalaf added that Primakov suggested Hussein step down as president, name a new prime minister and call elections while remaining commander-in-chief of Iraq's armed forces. "He considered it a betrayal on the side of Russia," Khalaf said.

Khalaf declined to say how he felt about Hussein's torture and killing of thousands of Iraqis. But Hussein was not as unpopular as many Iraqis now claim, he said. "I've seen a lot of revolutions and coups in my life," he said. "And I've witnessed a lot of people who quietly changed their skins."