On a stretch of highway in the mountains of northern Iraq one chilly autumn evening in 1990, a Polish intelligence officer pulled four bottles of Johnnie Walker Red out of a satchel and passed them to six new friends -- from the United States.

Drink, was the command.

Although they had not had a bite to eat all day, the Americans, all serving intelligence officers, obeyed the order and downed the whisky in silence, emitting an occasional grimace and a sigh. The booze was meant to help camouflage the Americans as drunken Eastern Europeans, but it had no effect. Perhaps it was their training, or maybe nerves, but stone cold sober, the six agents and their Polish chaperons reached the border crossing between Iraq and Turkey at sunset.

The whisky-soaked ride culminated one of the most remarkable clandestine operations of the Persian Gulf War, following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in August of 1990. Less than a year after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Polish intelligence agents trained to serve the Warsaw Pact smuggled six American intelligence officers out of Iraq, eluding President Saddam Hussein's pervasive and ruthless internal intelligence apparatus.

The escape came after the six agents spent weeks on the run in Kuwait and Baghdad while White House and CIA officials desperately searched for a way to save them. Eventually, they turned to the Poles, who had ties throughout Iraq because of construction work carried out there by Polish engineering firms. With the help of a senior spy flown in from Warsaw, the agents were given refuge at a Polish construction camp. And in the end, a civilian Polish technician turned bus driver for refugees with a knack for improvisation stumbled on a way to get them out.

The daring exploit, masterminded by a man who for 20 years had battled the CIA as a Warsaw Pact spy, was one of three covert Polish actions during the gulf war that aided the allied war effort, according to Polish and U.S. sources.

Using skills and knowledge acquired during their late autumn escapade, the Poles carried to freedom 15 other foreigners, mostly Britons, held hostage by the Iraqis as part of Saddam's "human shield" campaign to deter an allied invasion. Polish agents, mining information from Poland's substantial construction business in Iraq, also provided the United States with detailed maps of Baghdad and particulars about military installations scattered throughout Iraq, as has previously been reported in the Polish press.

"It was high-risk," said William Webster, who directed the CIA at the time and traveled to Poland in early November 1990 to commend the Polish government for its help. The Poles "deserve a lot of credit. It was a good beginning for our relationship in the future." Officially, a CIA spokesman declined last week to comment on the extraction of the agents, saying the agency never discusses covert operations.

The Polish operations, which heralded the birth of what have since grown to be close ties between Poland's State Security Bureau and the CIA, helped prompt the United States to change its policy and back Poland's demands to renegotiate the $33 billion it owed to 17 foreign governments, including the United States, U.S. officials said.

Following the escape of the six Americans via Turkey, Webster brought a letter to Warsaw from then-President George Bush announcing U.S. plans to push other governments to forgive half of the debt, or $16.5 billion, Polish officials said. A deal was signed to that effect with the so-called Paris Club of creditors on April 21, 1991.

Politically, however, Polish officials contend that little resulted from the operations during which Polish intelligence officers and civilians risked their lives for Americans. Poland's efforts to join NATO, considered a critical element in the coming of age for Eastern Europe's largest and most populous country, remain stymied by a lukewarm Western response.

"We proved to the Americans that we are not only a reliable partner but that we are a reliable partner which can carry out sensitive, delicate missions on behalf of the American government," a senior Polish diplomat said. "After this operation many of us hoped things would develop faster. They haven't."

Details of the operation have been patched together from interviews with Polish participants and current and former U.S. officials. While hints about it have popped up sporadically in the Polish press over the last four years and in a recently published Polish book about the country's secret services, the accounts have been inaccurate in many details.

The story of the Americans' escape from Iraq combines all the fixings of a high-wire thriller -- tension, heroism, dumb luck and street smarts -- with an additional ingredient: a bittersweet tang typical of Poland's stormy history, which crested again in 1989 with the collapse of communism.

The man who carried out the plan to save the Americans, for example, worked as a spy in the United States in the 1970s and played an important role in several espionage operations pulled off by Warsaw Pact agents in the ensuing years, Polish sources said. Then he crowned his career as an operative by saving the lives of men from the very agency he had fought for two decades.

Several of the participants, including Polish intelligence officers involved in the operation, spoke on condition of anonymity, citing fears that agents from the Iraqi secret service would attempt to kill them if their identities became known.

The story begins on Aug. 2, 1990, when Saddam's tanks rolled into Kuwait. The six American officers were in Kuwait on a covert mission at the time near Kuwait's border with Iraq and were unable to seek the support of the U.S. Embassy because they did not have diplomatic cover identities.

Both Polish and U.S. sources said the Americans were investigating Iraqi troop movements. Polish sources said all worked for the CIA, but one U.S. official recalled that several were military intelligence officers, serving with the Defense Intelligence Agency.

The Americans fled to Baghdad with hundreds of other foreigners. As they scrambled to stay ahead of Iraqi intelligence, moving from place to place, the fact that they were trapped quickly attracted attention at the highest levels of the U.S. government. The problem was discussed at meetings of the National Security Council, U.S. sources said, and CIA director Webster kept the White House informed of every development in the operation.

"They were the most sensitive people there," even though they were not taken hostage as other Americans were and directly threatened by the Iraqis, another former U.S. official said. "It was a big deal for us," said another former senior U.S. official. "They were in terrible jeopardy."

In late August, a representative from the CIA contacted a high-ranking Polish intelligence officer in Warsaw and requested assistance in slipping the Americans out of Iraq. According to Polish and U.S. sources, the Bush administration had appealed to both the British and the French intelligence agencies for help but had been rebuffed because those countries were too busy worrying about their own people, who were in danger too.

Among the reasons for choosing Poland was the fact that it had several thousand people in Iraq working on construction contracts, and that allowed Poles to move with relative ease without attracting undue attention.

"We knew it was very essential, very important for our new relationship," said the former minister of internal affairs, Krzysztof Kozlowski, in explaining his country's willingness to engage in such a high-risk operation. "We needed cooperation from the Americans. We knew your support was essential for the creation of our new democracy."

Kozlowski assigned one of his best officers to the case, a man known for finding creative solutions to intractable problems. For weeks the officer labored in Warsaw attempting to figure out a way to help the six Americans. Meanwhile, the agents took refuge at a Polish construction camp outside of Baghdad.

"Every week as we prepared the action the situation changed in Iraq," a Polish intelligence officer said. "Every day was worse. New restrictions on foreigners, people getting taken hostage."

Saddam moved quickly to enforce a ban on diplomats traveling outside Baghdad and established military checkpoints on all highways. The only foreigners with any freedom of movement were those working in Iraq on government contracts, which included many Poles.

Eventually, bureaucratic wrangling broke out between Washington and Warsaw as the Poles attempted to work out a plan. In an effort to cut the mounting red tape and avoid the stultifying fears of both governments, the Poles demanded that their intelligence officers be smuggled into Iraq to run the operation from Baghdad. Washington agreed. But before the operation got underway, said one U.S. source with direct knowledge, the CIA spent several weeks helping train the Polish intelligence officers involved. "Our guys were just astounded at {the Poles'} willingness to do this," a former U.S. official said.

Soon after their arrival in Baghdad, the Polish spies met the Americans. By one Polish account, at least, they were in dire need of rescue.

"When we met the chief, he was in bad shape, completely wet {with sweat}, worn out," one Pole recalled. "We told him, 'We have come as Polish officers to take you out of Iraq.' We felt very proud. We, as officers of a small country, were coming to save an American chief. For him it was real tension, life and death. For us it was just an operation."

Polish intelligence officers said that despite their past as Warsaw Pact spies they felt comfortable helping their former enemies.

"Most of us weren't believers, just professionals," the Polish officer said. "Besides, these guys were CIA guys. If they were caught in Iraq, that's the death penalty. We said these guys are our colleagues. We had to help them."

Quickly the Poles provided the Americans with fake passports from a Slavic country. One problem surfaced immediately: The Americans were unable to pronounce their names on the passports. So the Poles banned them from speaking in the presence of Iraqis.

Polish officers then went to work scouring the city for checkpoints, studying the roads out of the city and toward the border. They walked and drove the streets, switched cars to determine which one would catch the Iraqis' eye and which license plate would allow passage with relative ease.

They also experimented with identities.

"It was not a problem for me to be different people," the officer recalled. "One day a driver, one day a journalist, one day a diplomat."

At one point, driving the streets of Baghdad with the Americans, an Iraqi car piloted by a drunken driver nearly sideswiped the group. "That would have finished the operation," the officer said.

The Americans were obedient, according to the Polish account, although under a tremendous amount of stress. "They were so squeezed they had no chance to leave by themselves," the Pole contended. "They couldn't even pronounce their names. They fulfilled all of the orders, they were very disciplined." One day after several weeks in Iraq, a signal came that they had to get the operation moving. An Iraqi acquaintance told one of the Poles that people had begun to ask questions. But the officers needed the help of some Polish civilians. The activities of one man in particular caught their eye.

In the pre-dawn hours of Aug. 18, a middle-aged Polish technician guided a convoy of 13 buses carrying Vietnamese, Filipinos, Americans, Germans and Poles to Iraq's border post at Trebil before the crossing into Jordan.

The crossing had descended into chaos. But in the madness, the Pole took a walk and found a small gap in the border fence. Ever the technician, he began to untwist the wires. Soon he had a gaping hole. About an hour later, his 430 charges were in Jordan, having slithered out of Iraq through the breach in the fence.

Word of his creative heroics spread quickly in the Polish community and piqued the curiosity of Polish agents. The technician was summoned to the Polish Embassy, where an officer escorted him to the roof for a chat. "It's better up here," the technician recalled the then-stranger as saying. "We can have a drink and speak privately."

Without revealing any details, the officer told the technician his help was needed to save some important Americans. Would he be willing? The technician was flabbergasted. "Why didn't you put them in my convoy of 430," he asked. "This is too sensitive," came the reply.

The technician agreed.

Several weeks later, the departure was arranged. The Polish officer in charge of the escape sent a cable to Warsaw for relay to Washington informing of his plans to set off with the Americans. But at the last minute, a reply arrived, canceling the scheme.

The problem was that the Americans lacked exit visas from the Iraqi government in their fake passports. Washington insisted that exit visas be obtained.

Several more weeks passed during which the officer worked around the problem and another departure was prepared. At 2 a.m. on the morning he had planned to carry out the deed, the officer sent Washington another cable informing the U.S. government that they would move at 5:30 a.m.

At 5 a.m. a reply arrived, this time "advising" cancellation. The difficulty now was that the CIA did not want the Polish officer who commanded the operation accompanying the Americans. But the Polish civilians refused to carry out the plan without his presence. So the Polish group decided to ignore the CIA cable. As dawn broke, the six Americans piled into a convoy of cars and headed off -- north to Turkey.

In one of the cars, the technician tried to train the Americans to pronounce the Slavic names written in their passports, but to no avail. Several sported broad mid-Western accents. The technician began to worry about bumping into a Polish-speaking Iraqi. Thousands of Iraqis studied in Poland in the 1980s.

Just north of the Iraqi city of Mosul, the nightmare came true.

At a military checkpoint, an Iraqi officer approached one of the cars, looked at some of the passports, and said in perfect Polish, "How lucky I am to see my best friends."

"My heart was going through my mouth and out the other way at the same time," the technician recalled.

The technician leaped from the car and following Slavic tradition grabbed the security agent and planted three kisses on his cheeks followed by a classic bear hug, thereby moving him away from the car. They exchanged pleasantries, the technician complimented his Polish, they talked about the weather and the world.

"Ah," the technician said, remembering the passports, "you must check these."

"No problem," the Iraqi replied, "You are friends, you can go." Closer to the Turkish border, the Polish officer stopped the convoy on an abandoned stretch of highway and walked to the technician's car. Pulling bottles of Johnnie Walker Red from his satchel, he passed the whisky to the American passengers.

The idea was to get them intoxicated so as to make them appear as drunken Slavic workers, fitting an Iraqi stereotype of Eastern Europeans. That would make the passage into Turkey that much easier. But that part of the operation failed. "We were as sober as mules," a Polish participant said with a smirk.

At the border, the Polish officer advised the Americans to walk slowly to the Turkish side to meet Polish officials waiting for them there.

They didn't.

"They ran like sportsmen," the technician said.

Washington Post staff writers R. Jeffrey Smith and A. D. Horne contributed to this story from Washington.