MOSCOW - When war against Iraq seemed imminent, Baghdad's ambassador to Russia became one of Saddam Hussein's most prominent spokesmen, warning that the United States would become the target of a "holy jihad of all humanity."
Today, the larger-than-life portraits of Hussein have been taken off the walls of the gloomy Iraqi Embassy here, Hussein himself is dead or in hiding and many members of his government are under arrest. But Ambassador Abbas Khalaf, who served for 18 years as Hussein's Russian translator, said 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 anti-war sentiment here.
Before the fighting began, Khalaf told the newspaper Kommersant: "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."
Yesterday, in his first postwar interview with an American newspaper, 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 Bush administration 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 of advancing American forces. As missiles slammed into government buildings and American tanks rolled through Baghdad's streets, he says, he felt both fear for his parents in Iraq and anger at the Americans. "Would you like to see Soviet tanks in Washington?" he said. "Am I not a human being? Let the Americans arrest me for that."
But he was relieved that most of the Iraqi government's predictions about an American 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 with roots in the southern city of Kut. 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, an expert on the Arab world who would be Russia's prime minister from 1998 to 1999, had a close relationship with Hussein and played a pivotal role in Iraqi-Russian relations.
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, even if he wanted to. "It's not like in the United States - where, if you don't like the boss, you resign," he said. "It was not a question of whether you liked him or not. We worked by order, not by offer."
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 dispatched Khalaf to Moscow to become ambassador.
Embassy workers took down the giant portraits of Saddam Hussein soon after American forces entered Baghdad, on April 9. But Hussein's presence is still felt. In the reception room outside his office, Khalaf keeps a photo of himself with Primakov, who is shaking hands with Hussein.
During the war, the United States accused Russian firms of supplying Iraq with global positioning system-jamming equipment, to thwart cruise missile attacks, and other high-technology military hardware. Khalaf scoffed at these allegations. "Russia has not rendered Iraq any technical aid or given them any weapons," he said.
Russian and American technology was smuggled into Iraq, he says, through certain "Arab and European countries."
The ambassador was more cautious in talking about weapons of mass destruction.
"If Saddam Hussein had such weapons, he would have used them," he asserted. But Khalaf 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."
In the months leading up to the war, Iraqi officials hoped Russia could somehow stop the looming war. The Kremlin opposed Washington's call for military action against Baghdad, but it was far short of what the Iraqi regime wanted.
Primakov, the former Russian prime minister, traveled to Baghdad on March 17, three days before the first coalition bombs struck the Iraqi capital. After the meeting, Primakov told reporters, he asked Hussein to relinquish power and avoid war. The Russian said Hussein recalled that Primakov had asked him the same thing in 1991, then "patted me on the shoulder and walked out."
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. "It's a question for history," he said. "You know yourself that to speak emotionally, to judge emotionally a president right after a revolution - it is not for me to do this."
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."
Khalaf lost two brothers in the war Hussein launched against Iran in 1980. But he does not blame Hussein. Another brother was wounded during a shootout with would-be looters at Khalaf's home in Baghdad, he said.
Unless the Bush administration "does its best and takes every possible measure to restore normal life in Iraq," he cautioned, "everyone in Iraq would say, 'God bless Saddam Hussein. He was the best possible leader.'"