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.
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.
Iraqi ambassador standing by Hussein
Diplomat to Russia backs pre-war remarks against U.S. intervention
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