Acting With A Clear Conscience

Daoud Salahuddin, a fugitive on U.S. murder charges, in Tehran. He says he stopped working for the Iranian government in the 1990s.
Daoud Salahuddin, a fugitive on U.S. murder charges, in Tehran. He says he stopped working for the Iranian government in the 1990s. (By Karl Vick -- The Washington Post)
By Karl Vick
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, July 31, 2006

TEHRAN -- More than "Hassan" or "Yusuf" or even "David Theodore Belfield," the name that appeared on the wanted posters after he killed a man, the pseudonym that suggests just how long Daoud Salahuddin has been on the lam in Iran is the one on his Yahoo e-mail account: David Janssen.

Janssen played "The Fugitive" in the television series that was famous more than a generation before there was a blockbuster movie. A younger man would have written "Harrison Ford."

"In many ways I'm like Rip van Winkle," said Salahuddin, 54. "I just woke up after 20 years."

In other ways, however, he's uniquely up to date. Salahuddin, the name Belfield took after converting to Islam at age 18, fled to Iran after gunning down an Iranian political dissident in the front hall of a Bethesda home on July 21, 1980. By his own account, he carried out the assassination at the behest of the Islamic republic's government -- which, in later years, also solicited him to assassinate Saddam Hussein.

He fought the Russians in Afghanistan, ferried messages to Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi and witnessed at ground level the 1991 U.S. bombing of Baghdad, where he traded life stories with Palestinian terrorist Abu Abbas. In the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, he drew double takes when he showed up in "Kandahar," an award-winning art film that acquainted curious Americans with Afghanistan, the country they were preparing to invade.

Reared in middle-class Long Island, Salahuddin has spent half his life in the mesh of religion, politics and intrigue that Washington finds itself struggling to negotiate -- and many ordinary Americans struggle simply to understand.

"No, I'm not old enough to be the Zelig of political Islam," Salahuddin said during a series of interviews in Tehran and at his apartment on its outskirts. "But I've been some places."

He does not rule out going to more. As the Bush administration keeps alive the option of using military force against Iran over its nuclear program, the fugitive offers a reminder of this country's capacity for the asymmetrical warfare it pioneered.

"They aren't into that anymore. They haven't been for a long time," said Salahuddin, quickly adding: "Oh, if they get hit, all bets are off. If they get hit, it opens up a Pandora's box.

"When you think about it," he said, "these guys will do anything."

Still a Wanted Man

What Salahuddin did was buy a postal uniform, hide a 9mm pistol under a package and knock on the door of a man who formerly worked for the shah of Iran. He shot Ali Akbar Tabatabai at the request of the government that had replaced the monarchy, an Islamic republic that Salahuddin, like many others, then regarded as the best hope of realizing the ideal laid out in the Koran, which weds governance with faith.

The Koran's model, so different from the modern traditions of the secular West, unites an array of movements under the broad heading of "political Islam." What divides them are sharp differences over what an Islamic government should look like and what means are acceptable in pursuing it.

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