AUCKLAND, New Zealand – Saddam Hussein's stepson, being held in Florida for immigration violations, has admitted he made an error in his application for an entry visa to the United States, officials in New Zealand said Friday.
The Iraqi leader's stepson, Mohammed Nour al-Din Saffi, a citizen of New Zealand, now accepts he will be deported from the United States after failing to get the proper visa to cover his flight training program, New Zealand Foreign Ministry spokesman Brad Tattersfield told The Associated Press.
Saffi, a 36-year-old engineer with the national airline, Air New Zealand, was enrolled for a pilot recertification course but entered the U.S. on a tourist visa. He was planning to study at a flight school believed by the FBI to have been used by one of the Sept. 11 hijackers.
Saffi was arrested by immigration and FBI officials in Florida on Wednesday.
Jimmy Brooks, director of air freight company Tiger Lines Cargo, claimed Friday he sent Saffi to a Miami flying school to get his Boeing 727 pilot's license re-certified.
Brooks told The Associated Press that Saffi planned to work part time for his Auckland-based company as a flight engineer. The company has yet to begin operations.
Brooks said Saffi was supposed to practice in a simulator with two U.S.-based pilots.
"We didn't know he needed a student visa," Brooks said.
An INS official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said in Washington any foreign national who enters the United States has a responsibility to enter the country under the proper visa.
A State Department official said Saffri could have taken advantage of a visa waiver program that Washington maintains with a number of friendly countries, including New Zealand. It enables prospective visitors to arrive at a U.S. port of entry without a visa. They are subject to scrutiny by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which can deny admission if its database shows they are not qualified for entry.
Berton Beach, a vice president of operations with Aerospace Aviation Center in Florida, said the company was unaware of the visa requirements.
Beach said the company filed an application with the Justice Department to allow them to train Saffi. It included an authorization to conduct a background check, his passport, national identification card, his address and his employers' address.
The company received approval from the Justice Department on June 26.
A spokesman for Prime Minister Helen Clark said the government had "no evidence that he is connected to terrorist activity or to terrorist organizations."
Tattersfield said Saffi had contacted New Zealand Embassy officials in Washington "who are convinced that Saffi entered the United States for the purpose of study."
"Saffi accepts he has made a mistake.... He's going to be deported, within a matter of days," Tattersfield said.
New Zealand police said they cooperated with U.S. authorities over Saffi's arrest.
Detective Superintendent Bill Bishop, the National crime investigations manager, said Saffi was "one of several" people being monitored by police, but declined to say whether Saffi posed any security threat.
Saffi is the eldest son of Samira al-Shahbandar, Saddam's second wife. His father is Nour al-Din Saffi, an aviation engineer and former head of Iraqi Airways.
Mohammed Saffi is believed to have left Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War – first to neighboring Jordan and then to New Zealand where he has been for six years – following an argument with his mother.
The reason for the argument was not clear, but according to rumors in Baghdad, he and his father were afraid of Saddam's wrath. The father is believed to be living in exile in Jordan since Saddam fired him from his airline post.
In his hometown of Auckland, neighbors described Saffi, his wife and teen-age son and daughter as a quiet, "nice" family who mixed mainly with friends in the Middle Eastern community.
"They're just an ordinary family trying to make a life for themselves here," said Dawn Levert, who lives just across from the Saffi home on a tree-lined suburban street.
Saffi's wife had been "distraught and angry" when their identity was first revealed by local media last year.
Next-door neighbor Ann Ake said that aside from visitors from the local Middle Eastern community, the family mostly kept to themselves.
"They have lots and lots of visitors of their own (Iraqi) nationality and they seem quite sociable to their own people," she said.
Saffi's modest house in a leafy lower middle class suburb of Auckland was besieged Friday by New Zealand media.
Curtains were draped over all the windows and knocks on the door were unanswered. Somebody answering the telephone hung up quickly each time the number was called, saying: "No thank you."