NEW YORK (AP) _ James H. Critchfield, a powerful CIA insider during the Cold War whose anti-Soviet missions included recruiting former Third Reich operatives and supporting the Iraqi political party that put Saddam Hussein in power, has died. He was 86.

Critchfield, a highly decorated U.S. Army colonel who led an assault battalion during World War II, died Tuesday from pancreatic cancer in Williamsburg, Va., his family said.

During a 26-year-old CIA career, Critchfield worked with the Dalai Lama of Tibet in a guerrilla war against Communist China and headed a CIA task force during the Cuban missile crisis. He also ran regional agency operations when the two superpowers raced to secure satellites first in Eastern Europe, then in the Middle East.

Timothy Naftali, an intelligence historian, said Critchfield's talents as a spymaster, soldier and diplomat put him at the heart of a half century of historic moments. He described Critchfield's role in the CIA as analogous to that of a general commanding the most crucial missions.

``What happened in Jim's lifetime was staggering,'' Naftali said. ``Fighting the Nazis, then seeing a new global conflict emerge and fighting in that, then seeing that conflict move to the Third World and becoming a general in that.''

Critchfield was best known in intelligence circles as the CIA's liaison to the Gehlen Organization, a group of former Third Reich intelligence and military officials recruited by the Army because of their purported knowledge of the Soviet Union.

That group turned out to be tainted with fabricators, double agents and war criminals.

Critchfield himself drew parallels between the moral compromises made at the end of World War II with his recommendation in the early 1960s that the United States support the Baath Party, which staged a 1963 coup against the Iraqi government that the CIA believed was falling under Soviet influence.

``We knew perhaps six months beforehand that it was going to happen,'' he said during an interview with The Associated Press last month.

Critchfield described Saddam Hussein as a minor and peripheral figure in the Baath Party at the time. Saddam did not become a force in the party until the late 1960s and seized full power in 1979.

``You have to understand the context of the time and the scope of the threat we were facing,'' Critchfield said. ``That's what I say to people who say, `You guys in the CIA created Saddam Hussein.'''

Born in North Dakota, Critchfield joined the Army and became one of the youngest colonels of World War II. He led the 2nd Battalion of the 141st Infantry of the 36th Division into France, Germany and finally Austria, and won the Silver Star, Purple Heart and Bronze Star, among other decorations.

He joined the CIA in 1948 and had long stints as chief of the Eastern European Division, and the Near East and South Asia Division. ``I covered everything from Greece to Burma,'' he said of the latter post.

With the growing political importance of Middle East oil, he became the CIA's national intelligence officer for energy in the late 1960s and early 1970s, then an energy policy planner at the White House.

He also fronted a dummy CIA corporation in the Middle East known as Basic Resources, which was used to gather OPEC-related intelligence for the Nixon administration.

The work of the Gehlen Organization resonates to this day. It has been the focus of a task force created to oversee the 1999 Nazi War Crimes Disclosure Act, which has resulted in the biggest declassification of U.S. intelligence records in history.

The task force is delving into the degree to which U.S. intelligence gave war crimes suspects jobs. For his part, Critchfield argued that the benefits outweighed the moral compromises.

Critchfield said the Gehlen group, along with former German military officers he handled, was instrumental in building a defense and intelligence network for West Germany that was folded into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1955.

Reinhard Gehlen, Nazi Germany's chief of anti-Soviet espionage, subsequently became West Germany's intelligence chief. A general Critchfield recruited became head of West Germany's military.

After retiring from the CIA in 1974, Critchfield became a consultant, corporate president and adviser to the Sultan of Oman.

Just before his death, he completed a memoir called ``Partners at the Creation: The Men Behind Postwar Germany's Defense and Intelligence Establishments,'' to be published later this year.

He is survived by his wife and four children. Burial is to be in Arlington National Cemetery.