The 'Wolf' Who Would Be King

At first glance, the scene inside the presidential suite of Baghdad's Ishtar Sheraton hotel seems almost, er, presidential. Armed bodyguards, tribal leaders and hangers-on mill about as a man in a well-tailored suit signs official papers and huddles with aides. The boss is Muhammad Mohsen Zubaidi, a former Iraqi exile who slipped back into town even as the regime was collapsing; immediately after liberation, he began acting like the new power broker in Baghdad. One member of Zubaidi's throng last week was a new assistant with a sheaf of papers. His job: moving families who'd become homeless during the war into houses abandoned by aides and bodyguards of deposed dictator Saddam Hussein.

Zubaidi's freshly printed stationery states only that he heads "the executive council of Baghdad," and many in his entourage insist they're just volunteers. Someone has even removed the words "presidential suite" from the presidential suite (nail holes leave an imprint that can still be read). Yet Zubaidi, whom some now call the "mayor of Baghdad," claims that community leaders on a 22-member executive council, formed April 17 (apparently at Zubaidi's invitation), "elected me, and I'm working with the U.S. military to help rebuild Iraq." "I have money," he told NEWSWEEK in an interview (explaining only that the funds came from "donations"). "I have medical supplies for hospitals. I have the Iraqi people."

After three decades of Saddam's brutal rule, many Iraqis are engaged in power grabs, small or large. Tribal sheiks, dressed in gauzy black robes, are jockeying to advance their clans' interests. Impoverished families are "liberating" the posh homes of Saddam's minions. Returning Iraqi exiles--from religious clerics to former politicians--are staking their claims to rule congregations and communities. Yet none of these men-who-would-be-king is more audacious than Zubaidi, a 51-year-old former secret agent. Zubaidi spent much of the past 23 years as a clandestine operative for the Iraqi National Congress, which was aiming to topple Saddam. Only a select few knew his real identity then. Most knew him only as "Al Deeb," or "the Wolf."

Zubaidi ran networks of informants and saboteurs inside Iraq from his base in nearby capitals like Damascus, Amman and Beirut. "He was extremely successful," says Zaab Sethna, spokesman for INC head Ahmed Chalabi. Among other exploits, he's credited with spiriting key defectors to the West. These include former military-intelligence engineer Adnan Ihsan Haidary ("who made a big splash at the Pentagon," says Zubaidi), former Iraqi Intelligence Service officer Jamal Ghurairy and Uday Hussein's girlfriend, Lisa.

One operation that made headlines was the defection of Saddam's alleged mistress, Parisoula Lampsos. She told sordid tales about the Iraqi strongman--such as the story that Saddam was never happier than when watching films of his enemies being tortured. "She was Saddam's best girlfriend," Zubaidi claims. "We brought her to Jordan, then to Syria and Lebanon, back to Syria and Jordan and finally to Thailand--all without any passport!" The Pentagon (which supports Chalabi and the INC) concluded she was the real deal, while the CIA (which loathes Chalabi and the INC) cast doubt on key parts of her story.

After a career in the shadows, the Wolf is loving the limelight. Since making his hazardous return to Baghdad on April 8--ducking fire, he says, from the Saddam Fedayeen--he's been helping to organize joint police patrols with the U.S. military and delivering aid to looted hospitals. He even made arrangements to send his own representative to this week's OPEC meeting in Vienna. That gambit earned him a quiet reprimand from INC head Chalabi, as well as a sharp rebuke from Washington's interim civil-administration head, retired Lt. Gen. Jay Garner. One problem is that Garner's team includes an American diplomat, Barbara Bodine, who is Washington's "coordinator" for the central Iraq region, and who also has been dubbed the "mayor of Baghdad." "Zubaidi's got to be the world's only so-called mayor who's appointing ministers and sending representatives to OPEC," Bodine told NEWSWEEK after arriving in Baghdad last week. "Just because he's trying to organize things doesn't make him credible."

Chalabi has his own gripes against his colleague. For starters, INC officials learned from television reports that Zubaidi had begun politicking in Baghdad. INC spokesman Sethna recalls: "First we got a call from someone in London who said, 'Al Deeb is on Al-Jazeera TV saying he's running Baghdad.' We all said, 'Wait, that can't be. Al Deeb never appears on TV--he's a secret agent'." Finally, on April 16, Chalabi himself arrived in Baghdad and summoned the Wolf to the seedy Iraq Hunting Club, where the INC had set up shop. Zubaidi did not respond at first, and when the reunion finally happened, it was initially tense. (Chalabi now claims that Zubaidi has fallen under the spell of U.S. intelligence agents, a claim the Wolf denies.) As far as the INC is concerned, Zubaidi is now a rogue operator--"off the reservation," says Sethna. That's fine by him. "I'm just a politician who loves my country," Zubaidi says, wearing sneakers and a jogging suit to a midnight interview. "Now that Saddam is gone, there is no need to be the Wolf anymore. Just call me 'the Lamb'."