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Originally published Thursday, March 27, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Did Iraq's spy unit pay for McDermott's trip?

Saddam Hussein's intelligence agency secretly financed a trip to Iraq for three U.S. lawmakers -- apparently including Rep. Jim McDermott -- during the run-up to the U.S.-led invasion, federal prosecutors said Wednesday.

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Saddam Hussein's intelligence agency secretly financed a trip to Iraq for three U.S. lawmakers — possibly including Rep. Jim McDermott — during the run-up to the U.S.-led invasion, federal prosecutors said Wednesday.

The three anti-war Democrats made the trip in October 2002, while the Bush administration was trying to persuade Congress to authorize military action against Iraq. While traveling, they called for a diplomatic solution.

Prosecutors say that trip was arranged by Muthanna Al-Hanooti, a Michigan charity official, who was charged Wednesday with setting up the junket at the behest of Saddam's regime. Iraqi intelligence officials allegedly paid for the trip through an intermediary and rewarded Al-Hanooti with 2 million barrels of Iraqi oil.

The lawmakers are not named in the indictment but the dates correspond to a trip by Democratic Reps. McDermott of Seattle, David Bonior of Michigan and Mike Thompson of California. None was charged and Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd said investigators "have no information whatsoever" any of them knew the trip was underwritten by Saddam.

"Obviously, we didn't know it at the time," McDermott spokesman Michael DeCesare said Wednesday. "The trip was to see the plight of the Iraqi children. That's the only reason we went."

If some of the money came from sources with secret connections to Saddam, DeCesare said, that would be "outside our purview."

During the trip, the lawmakers expressed skepticism about the Bush administration's claims that Saddam was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction.

Though weapons of mass destruction ultimately were never found, the lawmakers drew criticism for their trip at the time.

Oklahoma Sen. Don Nickles, the second-ranking Senate Republican at the time, said the Democrats "sound somewhat like spokespersons for the Iraqi government."

Al-Hanooti was arrested Tuesday night while returning to the U.S. from the Middle East, where he was looking for a job, said his attorney, James Thomas. Al-Hanooti pleaded not guilty Wednesday to charges of conspiracy to act as an unregistered agent of a foreign government, illegally purchasing Iraqi oil and lying to authorities. He was held on $100,000 bail.

Thomas said Al-Hanooti would "vigorously defend" himself against the charges but he could not discuss the specifics since he had seen none of the evidence.

Al-Hanooti worked on and off from 1999 to 2006 as a public-relations coordinator for Life for Relief and Development, a Michigan group formed after the first Gulf War to fund humanitarian work in Iraq. FBI and Joint Terrorism Task Force agents raided the charity's headquarters in 2006 but charged nobody and allowed the agency to continue operating.

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Prosecutors said Al-Hanooti was responsible for monitoring Congress for the Iraqi Intelligence Service. From 1999 to 2002, he allegedly provided Saddam's government with a list of U.S. lawmakers he believed favored lifting economic sanctions.

DeCesare said McDermott was invited to go to Iraq by the Church Council of Greater Seattle and was unaware of any other funding for the trip.

In 2004, McDermott returned a $5,000 contribution made to his legal-defense fund by a Detroit-area businessman who also was a donor to Life for Relief and Development, the group Al-Hanooti worked for.

McDermott returned the donation after the businessman, Shakir al-Khafaji, admitted financial ties with Saddam's regime.

McDermott's defense fund was created to pay expenses from an unrelated lawsuit.

Material from The Seattle Times archives is included in this report.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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