Iraqi authorities on Sunday announced the arrest of one of Saddam Hussein’s half brothers, a former domestic security chief who is suspected of helping fund this nation’s insurgency from Syria. Both U.S. and Iraqi officials said Syria detained him and turned him over to Iraqi authorities.
Sabawi Ibrahim Hassan Tikriti, No. 36 on the list of the United States’ 55 most-wanted Iraqis, was head of the former regime’s dreaded General Security Directorate. Authorities say he tortured and killed Iraqis who spoke out against Hussein.
U.S. and Iraqi authorities confirmed Sunday night Syria’s involvement in Hassan’s capture but declined to offer details. A Bush administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, called the arrest significant.
“He was a high-ranking official in the Saddam Hussein government and active in the support of the insurgency,” the official said. “He’s someone the Iraqis have been after a long time.”
U.S. and Iraqi officials suggested that Syria’s arrest of Hassan was a gesture of “goodwill.”
The government in Damascus has come under intense international scrutiny in recent weeks for a variety of reasons. While Washington has been pressing its accusations that Syria is harboring members of Hussein’s regime, many Lebanese have alleged that Syria, which has had troops in Lebanon for decades, played a role in the Feb. 14 assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri in Beirut. And Israel has blamed Damascus for a suicide blast that killed five people Friday in Tel Aviv. Syria has denied involvement in both events.
In a statement Sunday, Iraqi authorities charged that Hassan had contributed greatly to “planning, supervising and carrying out many terrorist acts inside Iraq.”
The office of the interim Iraqi prime minister said the arrest showed “the determination of the Iraqi government in chasing and detaining all criminals who have committed massacres and have their hands stained with the blood of the Iraqi nation. We will bring them to justice so that they are punished.”
Washington had offered a $1-million reward for Hassan’s capture, but it was unclear whether the bounty would be paid and, if so, to whom.
Syria released no immediate statement on the arrest of Hassan. According to Associated Press, two senior Iraqi officials said he had been captured in the northeastern Syrian town of Hasakah, about 30 miles from the Iraqi border. They said 29 other members of Hussein’s collapsed Baath Party had also been captured. It was unclear when the arrests had been made.
In Syria, the Baath Party has been in power since 1963. Although Baghdad and Damascus were often at loggerheads during Hussein’s reign, U.S. and Iraqi officials believe that many leading figures in Iraq’s Baath Party escaped to Syria after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003. Officials say some of the billions of dollars looted from Iraq’s treasury may have been stashed in Syria and used to fund the insurgency in Iraq.
Just last week, Iraqi state television aired a series of “confessions” by suspects described as captured insurgents who spoke of being trained and paid by Syrian intelligence agents. Among them was a man who identified himself as a lieutenant in the Syrian intelligence service given the responsibility of recruiting rebels to fight in Iraq.
Also aired were purported confessions from alleged fighters from Iraq, Sudan and Egypt, who all implicated Syria in the Iraqi insurgency. The charges could not be independently verified, and Syrian officials denied the allegations.
The Bush administration has stepped up pressure on Syria in recent weeks. On Feb. 18, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called on Damascus to crack down on what she called insurgent operations out of Syria that were “endangering Iraqi stability.”
Military commanders say Syria is the major transit point for young men from other nations who come to Iraq to fight U.S. forces and their allies. Iraqi and U.S. officials have suggested that Syria could crack down on the travel if it wanted.
The Bush administration official said Washington would continue to pressure Syria directly and indirectly for better cooperation on curbing support for the insurgency in the wake of Hassan’s arrest.
“We’re concerned about a number of foreign regime elements in Syria, but this is certainly one of the more prominent ones,” the official said. “It’s something important, but it’s not the end of the issue.”
Times staff writers Josh Meyer in Washington and Salar Jaff and Raheem Salman in Baghdad contributed to this report.