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Iraqi diplomats burn, shred, await new leader

Friday, April 11, 2003

AMMAN, Jordan -- Confusion, denial and paranoia reigned in Iraqi consulates worldwide Thursday as diplomats awaited word of their uncertain future.

At the ordinarily busy Iraqi office in Amman, it was a case of shuttered diplomacy.

"The consulate is closed until further notice," read a note on the door at the embassy in Jordan -- a message reinforced when Iraqi Ambassador Sabah Yassin ignored a reporter while leaving in his chauffeur-driven Mercedes.

"Go away, we're closed!" shouted an Iraqi security man. "Can't you see the sign at the door?"

The office had served as a hub for foreign journalists and others seeking to enter Iraq -- including thousands of exiled Iraqis returning home to battle coalition forces.

In other Iraqi outposts, diplomats burned boxes of papers, shredded documents or watched television for any word of home or their new boss. In Egypt, Iraqi Ambassador Mohsen Khalil approached at least two other embassies seeking asylum, according to local diplomats who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Khalil could not be reached for comment.

Muaead Hussain, the Iraqi charge d'affaires in Berlin, spoke through the locked iron gate of his embassy.

"I haven't had contact with Baghdad for two or three weeks," Hussain said. "I have no idea what's going on there."

Hussain insisted he still represented Saddam Hussein's government. But asked whether he might switch allegiance, he said: "Why not? I am serving my country."

In Tokyo, Iraqi diplomats hauled garbage bags stuffed with shredded documents from the embassy. Neighbors whispered that the amount of trash was three times the usual level.

Boxes on fire

After watching television shots of Saddam's statue tumbling down in Baghdad, Iraqi diplomats in Brazil carried box after box of papers outside and set them on fire, according to police.

An embassy official denied documents were being destroyed. "It's all lies," said the man, Abdu Saif. "We are only burning debris and recently cut tree branches."

Defiance, rather than destruction, was the word elsewhere. In Vietnam, Ambassador Salah Al-Mukhtar said Iraqis were still fighting an enemy that had fabricated "Hollywood lies."

But First Secretary Talal Waleed at the embassy in Bangkok, Thailand, called Saddam's regime "the former government."

Most Iraqi representatives were generally thought of as members of intelligence and security agencies, said Ferhad Ibrahim, a political scientist and Middle East expert at the Berlin's Free University.

Embassy personnel, if they feared implication in serious human rights violations in Iraq, were likely to seek refuge in countries such as Syria or Libya, he said. Those who did not fear prosecution might simply stay put or eventually return to Iraq.

In Amman, the embassy had become a regional hub for travel visas. Jordan's desert highway became a lifeline to Baghdad after most international flights to and from Iraq ceased under U.N. sanctions imposed in 1990.

Travelers and Jordanian officials said, however, that Iraqi border guards had abandoned their posts Thursday.

Nasrat Ali, who works in the Iraqi Embassy's press office, insisted things were "business as usual." But some offices -- usually bustling with 19 diplomats and dozens of local hires -- were empty.

A life-sized portrait of Saddam still hung in the shabby reception room. That room, too, was empty.

There was no sign of Iraqi exiles who had flocked the embassy compound since the onset of the U.S.-led war on Iraq, seeking travel documents to return home to join the fight. About 350,000 Iraqis live in Jordan, most illegally.

Outside the two-story building, a Jordanian police car and an armored vehicle were parked near the embassy's blue gate, a copy of Iraq's historic Babylon gate of Ishtar.

Many governments were not expecting Iraqi diplomats to remain in place much longer.

"It is up to Iraq and the incoming authorities to decide what to do about sending new representatives," said Patrick Herman, a Belgian Foreign Ministry spokesman. He anticipated a decision within days.

At the dimly lighted Iraqi interest section of the Moroccan Embassy in Paris, two portraits of Saddam still adorned the walls of a two-room office.

A nervous young man named Omar Ahmed, who identified himself only as an official, said he had been there two months.

What would he do now?

"Well, I am working here, for our embassy," he said. "No more questions, please."


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