A PoW's exit: US airlifts Saddam out of Iraq

By Robert Fisk, Middle East Correspondent

07 April 2004

The United States has secretly flown Saddam Hussein out of Iraq and imprisoned him under high security at a vast American air base in the Gulf Arab state of Qatar.

After his capture last December, he was initially taken by helicopter to a US aircraft carrier in Gulf waters for extensive interrogation. After lengthy questioning, he was transferred to Qatar, although the emirate's royal family was not even told of his presence.

Amid the bloody and growing insurgency in Iraq, by Sunnis and Shias ­ which continued across the country yesterday with more than 20 American soldiers reported killed in clashes ­ US officials refused to discuss Saddam's place of imprisonment. Many Iraqis still believe he is in Iraq, possibly at the big US base at Balad, 60 miles north of Baghdad on the road to Tikrit, Saddam's home.

But the increasingly sophisticated guerrilla attacks against the Americans raised fears that insurgents would try to stage a spectacular prison escape for the former Iraqi dictator, so Qatar was chosen as the safest place to hold him within the Middle East.

Under international law and the Geneva Conventions, it is legal for an occupying power to move a prisoner of war outside the frontiers of the country of which he is a citizen, which is why the Americans almost immediately made Saddam an official PoW, an act which initially surprised both US politicians and members of the Iraqi Governing Council.

Under the terms of the Conventions, the International Committee of the Red Cross visited Saddam earlier this year but will not say where the meeting took place. Ironically, the world knows almost less about Saddam since his capture by US special forces in northern Iraq than they did when he was still on the run. Even senior Qatari intelligence officers ­ who have just arrested two Russian agents for the murder of a Chechen refugee in the capital, Doha ­ were not informed of Saddam's presence in the emirate, home to the largest US military base in the Middle East.

With thousands of US troops and hundreds of intelligence men, Saddam is as well-guarded as he would be at Guantanamo Bay. Unhappily for the Americans, however, Saddam's repeated interrogations are yielding little of interest. He does not want to help the FBI-CIA team who are questioning him and gives vague replies to many of the questions he is asked, often stating the Iraqi government's official position on the Iran-Iraq war, the invasion of Kuwait and UN sanctions.

Several of the FBI interrogators have said that Saddam was surrounded by so many sycophants during his dictatorship ­ who said only what their master wanted to hear ­ that he had no real idea what was going on in Iraq.

But Saddam remains equally ignorant of his immediate future. Although a war crimes tribunal was set up in Baghdad within six weeks of his capture ­ with 15 judges, 45 Iraqi lawyers and a team of American assistants to advise them ­ Iraqi legal sources say the US government is reluctant to open trial proceedings against the ex-dictator before the American elections in November.

They say that an almost equal reluctance is being displayed over Tariq Aziz, Saddam's former deputy prime minister, who is being held prisoner by the US at Baghdad airport.

Both men, the sources point out, have an intimate knowledge of Washington's constant support for the Baathist regime in the 1980s and would undoubtedly try to avoid responsibility for their war crimes by making speeches in court that would provide details of the close relationship between US administrations and the regime. Saddam met the US Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, in 1983 ­ when Iraqi forces were using gas in the Iran-Iraq war ­ and Mr Rumsfeld, who was on a mission from President Ronald Reagan, later met Tariq Aziz.

Mr Rumsfeld said last year that he warned Saddam at their 1983 meeting against employing chemical warfare, but American journalists later discovered US documents that proved he had made no such comments. Mr Rumsfeld then said he had given his warning to Tariq Aziz the following year. Either way, this US government is in no mood to have a public debate on the subject at a Baghdad court in the run-up to the November elections. US researchers have proved that some of the chemicals used by Saddam's army in the early 1980s were exported by US companies.

Saddam's trial has been made even more problematic by the probable appearance in Iraq of the French lawyer Jacques Vergès, who says that Saddam's nephew, Ali Barzan al-Tikriti, has sent him a formal invitation to defend the former dictator.

M. Verges defended the Gestapo officer Klaus Barbie in France and is head of an organisation to support Slobodan Milosevic at the Hague trials. He has already agreed to defend Tariq Aziz in Baghdad.

The only war crimes trial to take place in the near future is likely to be of Ali Hassan al-Majid, known as "Chemical Ali" for his gassing of Kurds at Halabja. Since he is also likely to be charged with war crimes against Shias, his trial would have the support of two of Iraq's principal communities at a time when the US and any new Iraqi authority will be anxious to prevent the resistance war spreading. Saddam's appearance at the "Mother of All War Crimes" trial may still be a long way away.