Hussein era secrets may lie buried

Times Staff Writer

Saddam Hussein carried to the grave many of the most closely guarded secrets of the labyrinthine nation he ruled for 24 years.

Even many Iraqis who are not mourning the execution Saturday of the fallen dictator are wistful about losing the opportunity to learn more about the crimes of his regime.

Investigators are still scouring the globe for billions of dollars Hussein transferred to foreign accounts before his fall in 2003. Human rights agencies continue to search for mass graves of thousands of unaccounted-for victims of his reign.


Historians are still trying to understand why Hussein risked economic ruin when he invaded Iran in 1980 and international condemnation when he invaded Kuwait in 1990, putting him on a collision course with the United States that eventually would lead him to the gallows.

Researchers still wonder how much support Hussein received from Western governments and corporations for his weapons programs and gas attacks on Iraqi civilians.

And many Iraqis continue to harbor more tragic questions about the fate of tens of thousands of loved ones taken away by his security forces.

Hussein’s execution came sooner than many here expected. The former president was convicted Nov. 5 for his involvement in the executions of 148 Shiites from the town of Dujayl. Even U.S. officials who were closely monitoring the legal proceedings were surprised that his appeal was rejected so quickly by Iraq’s Justice Ministry and that his execution was so swiftly carried out.

Judge Radhi Radhi, who heads the Commission on Public Integrity, Iraq’s national anti-corruption agency, still wants to know what happened to all the money. Immediately after the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003, troops discovered sealed cottages containing washing-machine-sized stacks of $100 bills. Nearly $500 million was found in Lebanon, according to U.S. officials, who feared that the money had been secreted there to fund future insurgent efforts.

But billions of dollars from Hussein’s regime are missing, Radhi said. After three years of searching, he said, he has found only a fraction of the funds.

“He used to work out agreements with foreign companies through the United Nations Oil for Food program to sell oil for higher prices and take a percentage of all oil profits,” Radhi said. “Where is this money now? We have only been able to retrieve a small amount.”

Radhi said he was also working with U.S. advisors to find money Hussein paid to companies in advance of services and goods being delivered.

“None of these companies have confessed that they received money from Saddam in advance,” the judge said.

Radhi said he would have asked Hussein about the money -- and another, more personal matter.

“I would immediately ask him, ‘What sin did I commit that caused your men to break my skull at the jail of the Baath [Party] intelligence service?’ ” he said. “I would also ask him about my two cousins who were taken from their university and we never heard anything more about them. I don’t know where their bodies are buried.”

Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish legislator, said he had hoped Hussein would be questioned about the Anfal campaign, a brutal military operation that killed as many as tens of thousands of Kurds by gunfire and poison gas. Hussein was the chief defendant in the ongoing Anfal genocide trial, and Othman said he was worried that the ex-dictator’s execution would undermine those proceedings and other planned cases.

Othman said Hussein should have been forced to testify about his involvement in poison gas attacks in the Kurdish town of Halabja, where 5,000 are believed to have died; his brutal crackdown on southern towns after a 1991 Shiite uprising; his destruction of the southern marshlands and the homes of the Marsh Arab tribes and his alleged assassination orders against political opponents.

“Had these cases been brought to trial, a lot of information would have been revealed ... about the bad policies of the old regime,” said Othman, who believed that so many terrible revelations would have undermined support for the Sunni Arab-led insurgency in Iraq.

“No one could have defended the things we would have brought out in these trials,” Othman said. “Shedding light on all that has happened is more important than the execution of one man.”

Another unanswered question is why Hussein misled the world to believe he had weapons of mass destruction. Former U.N. weapons inspector David Kay reported to Congress that Hussein’s own generals did not know that he had abandoned his nuclear weapons program until the U.S. military began massing on Iraq’s borders.

Joost Hiltermann, Middle East director for the International Crisis Group, said he wanted to know the extent of collusion by Western governments and companies with Hussein’s regime. Hiltermann referred to Frans van Anraat, a Dutchman convicted in 2005 of supplying Hussein with chemicals used to make mustard gas and nerve agents, as one example of Western collusion. The Iraqi army later used the chemicals against Kurds and Iranians.

But less widely known, said Hiltermann, is that the U.S. government kept a close eye on Iraq’s chemical weapons as far back as 1983, even as the Reagan administration was giving Hussein a high level of assistance in its war with Iran.

Recently declassified documents reveal that though U.S. officials criticized Iraq’s use of chemical weapons against Iran, the Reagan administration sent several high-level delegations to Baghdad to reassure Hussein of continued support in the war.

“The U.S. will continue its efforts to help prevent an Iranian victory, and earnestly wishes to continue the progress in its relations with Iraq,” Lawrence S. Eagleburger, then an undersecretary of State, said at the time, the documents show.

Hiltermann recently completed a book that he said will reveal details about a Clinton-era State Department review of U.S. involvement with Hussein.

“I know for a fact that in the 1990s, the Clinton State Department ordered lawyers to go through their documents to make sure that there was nothing that would create credibility problems for the U.S. in any future tribunals for Saddam Hussein,” said Hiltermann, who interviewed an attorney who worked on the internal review. Hiltermann said he was unaware of the conclusion of the review.

Hiltermann said that with Hussein’s death, much of what the former dictator knew about U.S. and other Western countries’ involvement with his Baath government could be found only in inaccessible classified documents and papers looted by Iraqi political parties from Baath Party offices and military installations after the invasion.

“Basically it was a free-for-all. People went into all kinds of offices, and a lot of those documents are still with them,” he said. “In many cases political parties seized them to serve their own interests.”

Still more documents were gathered by the U.S. government shortly after the invasion, Hiltermann said. He assumed that some of the documents used against Hussein during the Dujayl case were from the U.S. archives.

Other documents show that Hussein met with U.S. officials just before he invaded Kuwait in 1990, leading some to speculate that American diplomats led him to believe his military move against the neighboring state would be tolerated by the George H.W. Bush administration.

But Hiltermann said that only a few people know what was really said in those meetings, “and Hussein was one.”

Sofia Suhail, an independent Iraqi legislator whose father was assassinated by Iraqi agents in Beruit more than 20 years ago, said she always wanted to ask Hussein a question close to her heart.

“I have always wanted to know, during all his months of detention, did Saddam ever feel guilty for what he has done? All the killing, the assassinations, the fear. Did he ever admit to himself that he was wrong? Did he pray to God to forgive him?”