Danish police on Tuesday were investigating the disappearance of former Iraqi Gen. Nizar Khazraji, a top military defector who has aspired to a leading role in toppling Saddam Hussein even though he faces prosecution for war crimes in Denmark.
Khazraji vanished after stepping outside his home to smoke a cigarette Monday morning, according to his family. A hero of the Iran-Iraq war and a former military chief of staff, he has been under police supervision and forbidden to leave Denmark since his indictment in November for alleged war crimes against Kurds in the 1980s.
The general's son said he fears Iraqi spies abducted Khazraji, who has survived several assassination attempts during seven years in exile. Danish authorities said they were hunting for Khazraji and had alerted Interpol, but did not consider the case a kidnapping. U.S. officials denied a rumor that the missing general had taken refuge in their embassy in Copenhagen.
A well-sourced expert at a think tank in London asserted that Khazraji had traveled clandestinely to the Persian Gulf with the help of U.S. agents to participate in a propaganda campaign aimed at the Iraqi military during an invasion. If that is true, Khazraji would be likely to turn up soon in the media.
"I think it was already prearranged," said Mustafa Alani of the Royal United Services Institute, which is affiliated with Britain's Defense Ministry. "He's vital. He's crucial. He's a highly respected figure from the top rank to the bottom rank. If you put his voice and picture in the media, a lot of Iraqi army officers will decide not to fight."
The general's son doubted the theory that his father's departure was voluntary because he says Khazraji would not suddenly leave home without telling his family.
"If the CIA or the NSA [National Security Agency] wanted something with my father, they could have talked to the Danish government through diplomacy," said Ahmed Khazraji, 38, in a telephone interview. "They wouldn't have to do James Bond stuff. We are hearing a lot of rumors and we hope one of the good ones is true. But we are Iraqis and we know how the regime functions. It could be ugly."
The elder Khazraji's image as an honest, third-generation soldier has made him a potential candidate for a leadership role in Iraq if Hussein is ousted. The military would be vital to preserving order.
Khazraji, 64, belongs to the Sunni Muslim minority, like most of Iraq's political and military elite, but he disagreed with Hussein's decision to invade Kuwait in 1990 and fled Iraq in 1996.
A personal appeal from Khazraji during a U.S. invasion could bring even some of Hussein's most loyal forces such as the Republican Guard over to the side of U.S. forces, Alani said.
Toby Dodge, an Iraq expert at Warwick University in England, says that even members of Iraq's military brass "worship Khazraji."
"He could play a role as a rallying figure," Dodge said. "He was careful not to align himself with the opposition or with Washington."
Because he has kept a careful distance from an Iraqi exile community known for infighting and dubious ethics, the general has been regarded as one of the few defectors with a potential power base in his homeland.
Civilian exiles retort that Iraq needs to establish a real democracy, not install another uniformed strongman tarnished by an authoritarian tradition. The Danish indictment last year foiled Khazraji's plans to go to the Middle East and join efforts against Hussein. Danish prosecutors charge that he is responsible for summary executions, pillage and beatings of Kurds during a campaign in northern Iraq between 1984 and 1988.
The general denies the charges, which were filed by Kurdish militants but did not have the backing of some major Kurdish groups. Experts such as Alani and Dodge question the strength of the case.
Khazraji's son said his father's ambitions are limited to toppling the Iraqi regime. In recent days, though, the son said, Khazraji chafed at his idleness. The former general communicated eagerly with friends in the Iraqi diaspora via phone and e-mail, according to the son.
"He wanted to help in turning the military against Saddam Hussein," said Ahmed Khazraji, who lives in Norway and hurried to Denmark on Monday. "He doesn't have political ambitions."
Five months ago, Ahmed Khazraji said, the family learned that the Iraqi government dispatched a hit team to kill his father, but the mission was aborted when the team got as far as Germany. Iraqi intelligence agents had previously tried to kill Khazraji when he lived in Jordan and Spain.
"Iraqi intelligence knows the real threat could come from the military establishment in Iraq," the son said. "That's why they would want to get rid of him. Hussein feels very cornered now."
Whether he was kidnapped or he fled, Khazraji would have had trouble leaving Denmark: He was forced to surrender his passport after his indictment in November. The court allowed him to move around the country while awaiting trial, but police visited him three times a week at his apartment in Soroe, a town about 40 miles from Copenhagen.
On the day he disappeared, Khazraji awoke near dawn and watched the news on television, according to the family. At about 7:30, he told his younger son he was going down to the street for a cigarette; he always smoked outside because his wife has asthma, according to the son. The family called the police when he did not return for breakfast.
There are no eyewitness reports of the general's movements in the street or of activity suggesting an abduction, said a Danish official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Although they fear the worst, the general's family has received phone calls and heard reports that their father is safe and variously in northern Iraq, Jordan or attending a summit of military exiles in Turkey, a rumor which has also reached Danish investigators. Alani said he had information that Khazraji was in Kuwait or Saudi Arabia, two of the bases for the U.S. military force amassed in the region.
A U.S. Embassy official denied speculation that the U.S. had a hand in the disappearance. "The rumors that he had taken refuge in the embassy are not true," the official said. "We don't have any knowledge of his whereabouts."
If the general surfaces, Denmark will try to have him brought back for trial, the Danish official said.