For more than six months, until just before the outbreak of the Gulf War on Jan. 16, Mohamed al-Mashat, Iraq's ambassador to the United States, had staunchly defended his country’s military annexation of oil-rich Kuwait the previous August. The oftentesty Mashat charged that the U.S. media were influenced by Israeli lobbyists, resulting in an “avalanche of lies” that distorted American views of Iraq. But when President Saddam Hussein recalled his government’s envoy in Washington on the eve of the war,
Mashat, 60, did not go home. Instead, on Jan. 15, he flew to London and then to Vienna where in late February he applied at the Canadian embassy to immigrate as an independent retiree.
That procedure can take as long as one year. But a mere four weeks later, on March 27, Canadian officials approved his application; three days later, Mashat landed in Canada with his wife and son—and effectively disappeared. Indeed, it was not until last week that the diplomat’s presence became known to the Canadian public and, more surprisingly, to the ministers of immigration and external affairs.
While the Canadian officials who processed Mashat’s application appeared to have followed regulations, their actions embarrassed their political bosses in Ottawa. Immigration Minister Bernard Valcourt, appointed to the post on April 21, told reporters he was “furious” that neither he nor the previous and present ministers of External Affairs, Joe Clark and Barbara McDougall, learned about Mashat until he already had a visa. “I find it incredible, unacceptable that this could happen,” said Valcourt, who ordered an internal inquiry into the case.
And McDougall, who had served as immigration minister before her move to External Affairs in the April cabinet shuffle, revealed that during the period when Mashat was gaining entry to Canada, she turned down an application by another high-ranking Iraqi official. Meanwhile, opposition MPS pounced on the issue. Said NDP External Affairs critic Svend Robinson: “This makes us look like a dumping ground for one of the chief apologists of Saddam Hussein.”
Canadian officials denied that the so-called fast-track admission of Mashat resulted from his status as a senior official who might be able to provide valuable intelligence. A spokesman said that immigration officers rushed the former ambassador’s application only because of
concerns that “his life may be at risk.” For his part, Gerry Cummings, a spokesman for the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service in Ottawa, said that the CSIS had no involvement in the affair beyond a routine security check in Vienna. And in Washington, spokesman Richard Boucher said that the state department had not been forewarned about Mashat’s application to move to Canada.
Still, some observers contend that Iraqi embassies are Hussein’s outposts for surveillance
and repression of Iraqi dissidents in foreign countries, and for the procurement of weapons. John Thompson, a military affairs specialist at the Toronto-based Mackenzie Institute, said that Mashat’s intimate knowledge of Iraqi embassy activities would make him useful to Western intelligence services. Otherwise, said Thompson, “I see no reason for us taking him in.”
Amid such speculation, Mashat surfaced in Vancouver late in the week and, in an interview on CBC TV’s The Journal, denied that he had traded a promise of intelligence or money for quick admission to Canada. “For a long time I was thinking about retirement,” he said. The
war, he added, helped convince him to “start a new life with my family.” But he refused to comment on Hussein’s regime, saying only that “I had some reservations on his policies.” That reluctance to set himself apart from Hussein could result in a cool reception from the Iraqi-Canadian community, particularly among refugees who fled Iraq’s Baathist regime and who are now stuck in a backlog of more than 100,000 claimants waiting to have their applications processed. Abo Sara, who has spent three years in Toronto waiting to obtain landed-immigrant status, told Maclean ’s that it was unfair that Mashat’s application was processed so quickly. And Montreal resident Amer Alroubaie, a 44-year-old Iraqiborn economist, said that most Iraqi-Canadians are surprised that the government helped someone who was so close to Saddam Hussein. “Iraqis here disagree with the government’s decision to let him come,” said Alroubaie. “The majority have no sympathy for this man.”
The man at the centre of the storm is no stranger to life in the West. Bom in 1930 near Baghdad, Mashat earned a master’s degree in criminology at the University of California at Berkeley and a PhD in sociology at the University of Maryland at College Park. During that time, he married his first wife, an American Roman Catholic, with whom he had two children. The marriage ended in divorce in 1972 after the couple had moved to Iraq, and Mashat’s ex-wife and both children returned to the United States. Soon after, Mashat married his current wife, an Iraqi, and they have a 17-year-old son. While in Iraq, Mashat taught at Baghdad University and later became involved in politics while serving the country as undersecretary of education, and of labor and social affairs. During the 1960s, he joined the socialist Baath party and met Hussein. Before his posting to Washington, Mashat had been ambassador to Austria, France and Britain.
^ At week’s end, it was clear that by f gaining access to Canada as an immi§ grant, Mashat may have played out his ° greatest act of diplomacy. Some observers say that had he requested asylum or refugee status, the former ambassador would have jeopardized the lives of family members still in Iraq. By applying as an immigrant, they say, Mashat was able to avoid publicly denouncing Saddam’s Iraq. But in Toronto, refugee claimant Sara said that such niceties would do Mashat little good if he chose to return to Iraq. “Saddam would kill him right away,” Sara said. “He would make hamburger out of him.” And although Mashat maintains that “I love Iraq,” he has bought a $222,000 house overlooking Vancouver harbor—apparently bent on settling in.
JAMES DEACON with GLEN ALLEN in Ottawa and DAN BURKE in Montreal
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