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Saddam's arms dealer awaits fate while selling wine in Chilean countryside

SANTA CRUZ, Chile—Carlos Cardoen smiled, swished the sour cherry liqueur in his goblet and downed it in one swallow.

He used to be known as one of the world's most notorious merchants of death, a "black widow spider" who made cluster bombs for Saddam Hussein during the Iraq-Iran war in the 1980s. He even hung Saddam's portrait in a place of honor in a Santiago factory.

Now, however, Cardoen is making wine and fine liqueur in Chile's Colchagua Valley, hoping it will become a popular destination someday for wine lovers worldwide. Still wanted in the United States on weapons charges, Cardoen said he'd given up arms dealing in favor of promoting tourism and the grape.

"We're trying to produce enough attractions so we can have the equivalent of the Napa Valley," Cardoen said as he showed off plans for his winery, which is already harvesting grapes even before he completes it. "This is where I have my heart. This is where I have my soul."

The charges still pending against him in Miami are unfair, he said, and prevent him from seeking treatment in the United States for recently diagnosed colon cancer.

"I have suffered 15 years of being harassed by the United States without a trial," Cardoen said, his sunny perspective briefly turning dark. "It is 99 percent political. It was my bad luck he became the guy he became."

The "he" is Saddam, who proved to be Cardoen's most receptive customer while Iraq fought Iran.

Cardoen manufactured cluster bombs, which contained hundreds of tiny bomblets in one big bomb that shredded everything over a wide area. This weapon was effective for Saddam because it reduced the need for his relatively unskilled air force to precisely target Iran's troops.

Unlike most arms dealers, Cardoen didn't hide from the news media. He said that if General Motors and Fiat could make weapons, so could he, and he openly thanked Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., for sponsoring measures in the mid-1970s that prohibited the United States from selling arms to Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.

The prohibition prompted Chilean authorities to ask Cardoen, who owned a mining company after getting a Ph.D. in metallurgical engineering from the University of Utah, to try his hand. Two weeks later, he'd produced his first bomb.

After the Iraq-Iran war began in 1980, Cardoen won a contract to sell cluster bombs and other weapons to Iraq. He said he could produce technologically simple weapons at a lower price to win business that might have gone to the traditional big arms makers in the United States and Europe.

"He was very frank and well-informed on the subjects we talked about," Cardoen said of his one meeting with Saddam in the early 1980s.

In all, Cardoen sold 29,000 cluster bombs to Iraq, generating anywhere from $200 million to $400 million in sales, according to news accounts at the time.

The business came to a shuddering stop in 1990 when Iraq invaded Kuwait, a Western ally, and Chile honored the embargo against Iraq. By then, Cardoen was building a plant in Iraq to produce fuses for bombs, rockets and artillery shells.

"Saddam owes me $50 million," Cardoen said. "He was totally misinformed about the surrounding world. He made such stupid decisions, such as invading Kuwait."

In 1993, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Miami indicted Cardoen on charges that he imported zirconium from the United States for use in manufacturing cluster bombs when he'd said he'd use the metal for mining.

Then and now, Cardoen said U.S. officials unofficially approved of his sales since they didn't want Iran under the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to win the war. Documents surfaced at the time showing that U.S. agencies knew that Cardoen was manufacturing cluster bombs for Iraq when he purchased the zirconium.

The case has never advanced. Cardoen has refused to go to the United States to be tried, and U.S. authorities can't extradite him from Chile.

He's turned his attention to transforming the Colchagua Valley, which is 2-{ hours southwest of Santiago, the capital. He built the area's finest hotel, which he recently doubled in size to 85 rooms, and an adjoining museum that houses everything from his collection of pre-Columbian jewelry to his 14 antique vehicles and the 50-million-year-old jaw of a giant shark.

He's established a small tasting room for 20 types of liqueurs made from an old tradition that he said had been lost, and he played a leading role in creating a steam engine-powered "wine train"—modeled on one in Napa—that provides lunch, an on-board wine tasting and a visit to a winery every Saturday for $80 per person.

Mention his name to most Chileans, and they note the recent news that he was diagnosed with colon cancer. Cardoen insisted that this development wouldn't slow him down, and despite chemotherapy he remains a handsome man at 62, with a healthy tan and graying temples, and he moves about normally.

The weapons charges dog him, however. Last year, he was forced to sell the Tarapaca winery in Chile after U.S. distributors learned of his past activities and stopped buying his wine.

The new winery, Vina Santa Cruz, will export to Europe, he said. In recent years, Chile's wines have become favorites around the world.

Cardoen rejected a suggestion that he's assisting the area where he grew up to make amends for the deaths caused by his bombs. The moral responsibility for his weapons, he said, "belongs to those who use them."

In the meantime, his attorney in Miami, George Mahfood, is asking the U.S. Attorney's Office to dismiss the indictment on humanitarian grounds so Cardoen can seek cancer treatment in the United States.

Even if that fails, Cardoen is convinced that he'll remain healthy enough to achieve his dreams.

"There is so much to be done," he added, standing on a terrace of his hotel. "This will change the course of destiny of the whole area. That's why I have my heart here."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): CHILE+CARDOEN

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