The Foreign Ministry in Minsk has strongly criticized a British newspaper report saying that one of Saddam Hussein's chief aides was carrying Belarusian passports when he was captured last week in Iraq. But U.S. officials are now backing the report. The journalist who reported the story from Baghdad yesterday, Patrick Cockburn, is a prominent expert on the inner workings of Saddam Hussein's regime. He told RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz he thinks former senior Iraqi officials may be trying to pass through Minsk in order to seek shelter in Ukraine and parts of Russia.
Prague, 25 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. officials have confirmed a news report by a British journalist in Baghdad saying a chief aide to Saddam Hussein obtained Belarusian passports for himself and other officials in Hussein's regime.
"The New York Times" today quoted two unnamed U.S. officials as saying that the Belarusian passports, which were being carried by Abid Hamid Mahmoud al-Tikriti at the time of his arrest in Iraq last week, may have been intended for Hussein's sons.
The U.S. officials would not disclose exactly where or when the Belarusian passports had been issued and in whose names. But Washington suspects Mahmoud picked up the passports while in Syria.
Belarusian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Savinykh has dismissed the reports and said the passports most likely are forgeries. But he said today that Minsk is prepared to lead an official investigation if asked to do so by the United States.
Before his arrest last week, Mahmoud was number four on the U.S. list of the 55 most-wanted Iraqis. Mahmoud told U.S. interrogators that he spent time in Syria after the war with Hussein's sons, Uday and Qusay, until he was expelled by Syrian authorities under U.S. pressure. Mahmoud also claims he last saw Hussein alive in Baghdad several days after a U.S. attempt to kill the former Iraqi leader with a massive air raid on 7 April.
Patrick Cockburn, a journalist for the London-based newspaper "The Independent," reported the discovery of the Belarusian passports yesterday in a story he filed from Baghdad. He spoke to RFE/RL about his sources and the implications of the story.
"My information is that Abid Hamid [Mahmoud al-Tikriti], a chief aide of Saddam, had gone to Syria, had obtained Belarusian passports and had come back to Iraq [with those passports in his possession]," he said. "There was no evidence that he received assistance from the Syrian government. And I don't know if these were passports which had been obtained illegally -- which is not uncommon in the Middle East -- or whether they were passports issued by the [Belarusian] government."
Cockburn explained that the passports are now in the hands of U.S. intelligence officials and that he did not study the actual documents: "I haven't seen the passports. The information, as it said in the ['Independent' newspaper article], came from Mr. [Hoshyar] Zebari [of the Kurdistan Democratic Party in Iraq]. And I have confidence in the information. The Kurdistan Democratic Party has been involved in the hunt for Saddam and officials of the [former] Iraqi government."
Cockburn's previous work on the inner workings of Saddam Hussein's regime has included interviews with members of Hussein's family and has been widely praised by critics.
In 1999, Cockburn and his brother co-authored "Out of The Ashes: The Resurrection of Saddam Hussein." That book, which was highly critical of U.S. policy toward Baghdad, helped Cockburn earn his reputation as one of the world's foremost commentators on modern Iraq.
Cockburn told RFE/RL he does not think it would be possible for Hussein -- if he is still alive -- to use a Belarusian passport in order to escape the massive U.S.-led manhunt now under way. But he says some members of Hussein's family or other high-ranking Ba'ath Party officials could do so.
"There are people who are less notorious than Saddam, who, if they had the right kind of passport, could use them," Cockburn said. "I think it would be difficult for Saddam to use that kind of passport. But there are other [Iraqi] officials who are less notorious. So it might be possible [for them] to use them."
Cockburn stressed that he has no evidence suggesting the Belarusian government has tried to help any ousted Iraqi official seek shelter outside of the Arab world. He also said he thinks that Belarus is so tightly controlled by its president, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, that it is unlikely Minsk would risk drawing the ire of Washington by sheltering members of Hussein's regime.
But he said he thinks Minsk is a likely possible transit point for Iraqi officials trying to travel into other former Soviet republics to hide -- such as Ukraine or parts of Russia.
"Once you had got to Minsk, then there are a number of directions you could go -- where if you had enough money, you could hide out much easier than in Western Europe or Southern Europe. It's not unreasonable when you consider the situation in Ukraine, in particular. The rigor of the law, shall we say, is less in [the former Soviet republics] than it would be if you were in Central or Western Europe."
"The New York Times" report today notes that there are close ties between the intelligence services of Belarus and Russia -- including the former KGB. It also notes that Russia's intelligence services have had a long and close relationship with Hussein's government.
Cockburn told RFE/RL that well-known trading links between Hussein's regime and firms in Russia and Ukraine also make those countries more likely places for ousted Iraqi officials to try to hide.
"Obviously, there were trading links with many parts of the former Soviet Union. Notably, Russia and Ukraine. I haven't seen anything linking Belarus, in particular, to [the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein]. [But] there were trading links with Ukraine and Russia which are fairly well known."
Belarus had cultivated ties with Hussein's government. U.S. officials have previously accused it of providing military equipment to Iraq in violation of United Nations sanctions. An RFE/RL correspondent in Iraq also discovered a document dated June 2001 that detailed negotiations on military cooperation between Baghdad and Minsk.
The Belarusian ambassador to Syria, Uladzimir Lapata-Zahorski, told RFE/RL that it would not be possible for his embassy, or any other Belarusian embassy, to issue passports.
"According to consular practices which exist within the Belarusian Foreign Ministry, passports are not issued by offices abroad," he said. "We do not have 'blank' passports of the Republic of Belarus in any form. They are issued only by organs of the Interior Affairs Ministry in the Republic of Belarus, and also by the consular executive. Passports are not issued in any foreign country. There is a very strict procedure concerning passports which is overseen by the Ministry of Interior Affairs. So any sort of machinations with passports couldn't be realized -- not only in the Syrian consulate but in any other consular office abroad. Of that I am certain."
A statement issued yesterday by Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Savinykh called Cockburn's report "a simple newspaper fabrication."
"These insinuations have no relationship to reality. And from the viewpoint of common sense, they exceed even the boundaries of possibility. This applies to the whole article [by Cockburn]."
After hearing Savinykh's criticisms, Cockburn told RFE/RL that Minsk seems to be sensitive regarding the issue and is protesting too loudly for a government that was not directly implicated in his report.