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Iraq: Arrest Of Top Aide Gives Hope That Hussein's Fate May Be Learned

Experts are conducting DNA tests on the human remains of an Iraqi convoy, destroyed in a U.S. missile attack last week, that might have been carrying deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and his son, Uday. The attack underscores the continued uncertainty over Saddam Hussein's fate. Last week's arrest of a top Hussein aide appeared to confirm the Iraqi leader was not killed during the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

Washington, 23 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The recent capture of Saddam Hussein's top security official raised hopes that he might lead U.S. investigators to Hussein or other members of his circle.

Abid Hamid Mahmud al-Tikriti is described as Hussein's presidential secretary, security adviser, and bodyguard. He surrendered on 17 June, reportedly as U.S. forces were closing in on the home where he was staying near the northern Iraqi city of Tikrit, Hussein's birthplace.

U.S. forces now have in custody more than half the 55 senior members of Hussein's government that they have designated for capture. Mahmud was fourth on the list, after Hussein and his sons, Uday and Qusay.

Mahmud has reportedly told his American interrogators that Hussein and his sons survived the U.S.-led war, and that he himself traveled to Syria with Uday and Qusay after the conflict. The U.S. Defense Department has not confirmed those claims.

Nor has the Pentagon discussed last week's bombing of an Iraqi convoy, conducted one day after Mahmud's arrest. Britain's "The Observer" newspaper reported yesterday (22 June) that Saddam and Uday Hussein were believed to be traveling in the convoy. Experts are conducting DNA tests on human remains taken from the site of the attack.

If it is determined that the deposed Iraqi leader was not on the convoy, how useful will Mahmud prove in the hunt for Saddam Hussein? Retired U.S. Army Colonel Kenneth Allard told RFE/RL that investigators should not pin all their hopes on Mahmud's arrest alone. "There are two problems. One is 'Where is Saddam?' And number two, 'What sort of network did he leave in place that is going to create the resistance that we're seeing right now?' This guy [Mahmud] is not a bad source to tell you these things, but like anything else, intelligence comes from a variety of sources. The more of these people that we pick up, the more you learn. He [Mahmud] is one link in the chain -- by no means the only one."

Allard, a former intelligence officer, said finding Hussein -- like finding his suspected chemical and biological arsenal -- will take time in a country of mostly rugged terrain that takes up nearly a half-million square kilometers of the Middle East.

Anthony Cordesman, who served many years as a senior intelligence analyst with both the U.S. State and Defense Departments, agrees. In fact, he says it is possible that Mahmud may know nothing about Hussein's fate. He says the Iraqi leader almost certainly did not let even his most trusted aides know about his plans in the event of a U.S. invasion or the locations of what he called his "boltholes," or escape routes.

"Saddam lives in an extremely highly compartmented structure, many of the people who are his loyalists are probably figures we don't know," Cordesman said. "If he has created a network of boltholes, he is well aware of U.S. intelligence capabilities and he is not going to tie himself, if he can possibly avoid it, to figures who were his known associates in the past."

Cordesman says American officials are reluctant to admit they really may know very little about Hussein's inner circle, and that arrests of officials like Mahmud may do little to help. Cordesman notes that much of the information gathered by U.S. officials about Hussein's government has come from Iraqi exiles, whom he characterizes as an unreliable source.

Still, Cordesman says, it is vitally important that Hussein be found. This regardless of comments from U.S. President George W. Bush and others that his whereabouts are unimportant as long as he has been driven from power.

"At a political level, it's understandable why American officials will constantly say [finding Hussein] is not a critical issue, because the mission is difficult almost to the point of being impossible. But the fact is it is a critical issue, it is a vital mission, and the costs of not being able to locate and destroy the leadership are very high."

Cordesman says that if Hussein is not found, the war will not have been won -- just as the war in Afghanistan continues on a less intense level despite the ouster of the Taliban. The reason: Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar have not been caught.

"Certainly the fact that the leadership of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban survived in Afghanistan helped create a situation of enduring, low-level war. And the fact is, we didn't really win in Afghanistan. Because we reduced some aspects of threat capabilities, but the basic threats remain."

Many observers have said that capturing bin Laden alive could pose complications for the United States because, as a prisoner and a defendant in a terrorism trial, he likely would portray himself to fellow Muslims as a freedom-fighter victimized by a predatory world power.

Hussein's case might be viewed as different. He has been nearly unanimously despised by world leaders, even those who vigorously opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. But Cordesman says Hussein, too, could use a trial as a way to promote his agenda, just as former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic has done during his trial in The Hague, where he faces charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

"[With Hussein], we are dealing with the broader problems the Arab world faces with the West, with the backlash from the Arab-Israeli conflict, with all of the issues which have nothing to do with Saddam which have led to Arab resentment and hostility toward the West, and the United States in particular, and that Saddam could obviously exploit in a trial situation," Cordesman said. "When we watch Milosevic be able, to at least some extent, manipulate his war crimes trial, we get an idea of the problems and the risk."

According to retired military intelligence officer Allard, there is one very effective way to prevent such a spectacle: to ensure that if Hussein is found, he must be killed, not captured, and that his death be certified to allay the fears of Iraqis that he may someday return.

Allard says it was not enough for Iraqis to witness the toppling of Hussein's statue in Baghdad. Best, he says, would be somehow to display his body for all to see, as was common in bygone eras.

"The great fear that most Iraqis have is that [Hussein] will come back," Allard said. "The [toppling of the] statue is fine; I'd much prefer his head on a pike so that no Iraqi can doubt that he is dead and he isn't coming back."

Cordesman cautions that the United States cannot be in the business of simply ordering the killing of any leader who is hostile to its interests. But he adds that given Hussein's record of violent human rights abuses, he personally would not mourn his death.