The dozen top Iraqi leaders captured by U.S. forces this week and now undergoing interrogation may become key to proving the Bush administration's prewar case against Saddam Hussein's government, administration officials said yesterday.
"There are people who in large measure have information that we need . . . so that we can track down the weapons of mass destruction in that country. We need information so we can track down terrorist links between Saddam Hussein's regime and various terrorist networks, and we need to track down other people," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told reporters yesterday. "There's a lot of very important projects we've got."
So far, though, administration officials said their captives had yet to give up that kind of critical information, and U.S. officials seemed to be preparing the public for the possibility that they might fail to find bombs, missiles and artillery shells filled with chemical or biological agents, or to find records or other evidence further linking Iraq to the al Qaeda terrorist network. Both allegations were central to the administration's case that the U.S. military should invade Iraq and depose Hussein.
This week, several administration officials suggested that such weapons were destroyed before U.S.-led forces took control of the country, and that only high-level Iraqi officials can lead them to evidence that they once existed.
The pace of detentions increased dramatically this week as the White House increased its pressure on Syria, which it had accused of harboring several top Iraqi leaders, and as U.S. military forces were able to close off more escape routes out of Iraq.
On Thursday night, a joint CIA-military team captured the man believed to be the mastermind of the 1993 plot to assassinate former president George H.W. Bush. The arrest of Faruq Hijazi, a former Iraqi intelligence officer, was announced yesterday.
The Iraqi ambassador in Tunisia when the war started, Hijazi was traced by U.S. intelligence to Damascus after he left Tunis last week. When U.S. officials first asked the Syrian government for information about him, the Syrians responded they didn't know where he was.
By midweek, however, Hijazi was taken into custody by the Syrians -- who, following a request from Washington, delivered him to U.S. officials. In his NBC interview Thursday with Tom Brokaw, President Bush said Syria was doing a better job tightening the border to prevent Iraqi officials from fleeing. He added, "As we find people that have escaped into Syria, we're giving the Syrian government the names of the people. And they appear to want to be helpful."
Besides Hijazi, Rumsfeld yesterday listed a number of other important former Iraqi government officials taken into U.S. custody this week. They include the trade minister, the director of military intelligence, the deputy chief of tribal affairs, a former member of the Revolutionary Command Council, the commander of Iraqi air defenses and the head of what Rumsfeld described as "the American desk of the Iraqi intelligence service," who he said was captured in a shootout with coalition forces in Baghdad.
Tariq Aziz, Iraq's deputy prime minister who was for years the government's public face, also surrendered this week.
Aziz "knows how the regime operated, the lines of communication, how Iraq kept tabs on us; he knows about Iraq's smuggling and financial networks, and how it moved money around internationally," said Kenneth M. Pollack, a former CIA Iraq analyst and director of research at the Saban Center of the Brookings Institution.
More than that, said Pollack, "he was the symbol of this vile regime . . . for the Iraqi people too."
Unlike many of the key operatives apprehended during the Bush administration's war on terrorism who are in CIA custody, the senior Iraqi leaders are under U.S. military control. They are being questioned by military and CIA interrogators with the help of Arabic-speaking interpreters. They are among 7,000 to 7,500 prisoners now in U.S. or coalition hands in various locations throughout Iraq.
About 1,000 other prisoners have been released, Rumsfeld said. He said some 200 to 300 prisoners are being questioned each day to determine as quickly as possible who else can be released.