Saddam's closest aides may be trying to flee to Belarus (Independent)
By Patrick Cockburn in Baghdad
24 June 2003
Senior officials of the former Iraqi regime may be trying to flee to Belarus, according to evidence discovered when Saddam Hussein's chief aide was captured last week.
Passports from the former Soviet republic were found with Abed Hamid Mahmoud, Saddam's close confidant, when he was detained by American troops near Tikrit a week ago, said Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurdish official privy to intelligence on the hunt for Saddam Hussein.
"Abed Hamid had just returned from Syria where he had obtained the passports, probably without the knowledge of the Syrian government," Mr Zebari told The Independent. This is the first sign that members of Saddam's inner circle are planning to flee outside the Arab world.
Belarus has poor relations with the US but it is unlikely that it would risk hosting Saddam or his sons, Uday and Qusay. Iraqi officials might find it easier to disappear in neighbouring Ukraine or Russia.
US experts were still examining bodies yesterday from a small convoy destroyed last Wednesday, near the Syrian border and close to the Iraqi city of Qaim. US soldiers from the Task Force 20 commando team injured five Syrian border guards during a firefight that broke out as they chased the convoy of suspected fugitives.
Pentagon officials would not say on which side of the border the clash occurred however. They said that support fire was given from an AC-130 Hercules gunship, but they would not disclose the number of people killed, wounded or captured. It is the first known occasion on which US and Syrian troops have exchanged fire since the start of war in Iraq.
Pentagon officials said there was no reason to suppose that Saddam was among the dead.
Iraqis familiar with security measures taken by Saddam say information about his movements based on intercepted telephone conversations should be treated with suspicion. They say he always knew his location could be identifiedif he used a satellite telephone. Up to the fall of Baghdad on 9 April, any Iraqi found with an unregistered satellite phone was executed.
It is still unclear how much information Abed Hamid Mahmoud gave his interrogators when he was captured on 16 June two days before the attack on the convoy. Mr Zebari said the capture had been kept secret for three days.
In Iraq, the Coalition Provisional Authority the occupation administration is worried that the lack of jobs, electricity and security is fuelling support for armed resistance against the Americans. A sign of concern came yesterday when Walter Slocombe, the CPA's senior adviser for security and defence, said members of the 350,000-strong Iraqi army, abruptly disbanded last month, would continue to be paid close to their original salaries.