BAGHDAD, Iraq – Abu Nidal, once the world's most wanted terrorist, killed himself with a gunshot to the head last week as Iraqi officials waited in his home to take him to court, the head of Iraqi intelligence said Wednesday.
In the first Iraqi press conference on the matter, Tahir Jalil Haboush said Abu Nidal had entered Iraq illegally from Iran with a false Yemeni passport.
Iraq had never admitted Abu Nidal was in the country until reports of his death in Baghdad emerged this week. His death raised suspicions that he may have been assassinated.
Palestinian officials in the West Bank said Abu Nidal, 65, whose real name was Sabri al-Banna, had been found dead of gunshot wounds in the Iraqi capital on Friday. One Palestinian official said Abu Nidal had committed suicide, but did not explain how he could have shot himself more than once.
Haboush told reporters that an unidentified Arab state had informed his government in 1999 that Abu Nidal had entered Iraq.
He said Iraqi officials investigated Abu Nidal's whereabouts and a group of security officers was sent to his apartment with orders to bring him to court.
Haboush did not explain why it took so long for Iraq to find Abu Nidal.
When the security officers arrived at his home, Abu Nidal said he needed to go to his bedroom to change his clothes, Haboush said. A shot was fired, and the officers found that Abu Nidal had shot himself in the mouth, he said.
Abu Nidal was rushed to hospital where he died eight hours later, Haboush said.
Haboush did not reply when he was asked what day Abu Nidal died.
The intelligence chief said a search of Abu Nidal's home revealed three passports besides the Yemeni one. He did not say which countries issued the passports but added they were thought to be fake.
Security officers also found guns, false identity cards with different names and eight bags of explosives. Haboush showed pictures of the firearms — three Kalashnikov rifles and 10 pistols, two equipped with silencers.
Baghdad's confirmation of Abu Nidal's death came amid claims he recently held talks with Saudi and Kuwaiti intelligence agents and that plans for an American attack on Iraq were found in his apartment.
The claims, made Tuesday by a senior Palestinian official in the West Bank city of Ramallah, were quickly rejected by Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.
Haboush said agents found evidence that Abu Nidal had been communicating with another country, but gave no details.
"We also found documents that prove he had contacts with a [foreign] country," Haboush said. "Due to the current critical circumstances our country is going through, we will not name it."
At President Bush's ranch in Texas, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Nidal's presence in Iraq showed Baghdad's links to terror.
"The fact that only Iraq would give safe haven to Abu Nidal demonstrates the Iraqi regime's complicity with global terror," Fleischer said.
Abu Nidal — who was born in Jaffa, south of Tel Aviv in what was then British-governed Palestine — joined the Palestine Liberation Organization and rose to become a close aide to its leader, Yasser Arafat. But he fell out with Arafat in the 1970s, accusing him of being soft, and formed the radical Fatah-Revolutionary Council.
The faction killed at least 275 people in a campaign of terror that spanned several continents. Among its most notorious attacks were assaults on El Al airline ticket counters at the Rome and Vienna airports in 1985. Eighteen people were killed and 120 wounded.
After Abu Nidal's group killed Arafat's deputy, Salah Khalaf, known as Abu Iyad, in Tunis in 1991, its activities declined. Abu Nidal moved around the Middle East as one state after another indicated he was not welcome.