Top science official, Saddam's son-in-law in custody
Monday, April 21, 2003
American forces and an allied Iraqi opposition group said Sunday they had taken a top Iraqi science official and Saddam Hussein's son-in-law into custody, developments that could spur the search for the vanished leader and his banned weapons arsenal. Celebrating Easter, a longtime Baghdad bishop pleaded for safeguards against religious persecution in the new Iraq.
U.S. Central Command said forces had captured Abd al-Khaliq Abd al-Ghafar, Saddam's higher education and scientific research minister, on Saturday. A spokesman for the London-based Iraqi National Congress said Abd al-Ghafar could be an important find.
"We know about his background, and he is certainly involved with those banned programs," Haider Ahmed said.
Ahmed further stated that Saddam Hussein's son-in-law and one of Saddam's bodyguards, both hiding in Syria, were persuaded to leave that country and surrendered to members of the congress in Baghdad.
Jamal Mustafa Abdallah Sultan al-Tikriti is married to Saddam's youngest daughter, Hala, and was deputy head of the tribal affairs office in Saddam's ousted government. Central Command had no information on the claimed surrender.
He was being questioned by the congress's political wing and will be turned over to U.S. officials, Ahmed said.
The military presence in Baghdad lightened Sunday when Marines left the Army in control of the stabilizing capital, and the search for postwar order was reinforced by signs that Syria might help ease regional tensions.
The search for chemical, biological or nuclear-weapons programs, however, has frustrated U.S. officials who justified the invasion of Iraq by saying Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction.
The New York Times reported on its Web site Sunday night that a scientist who claims to have worked in Iraq's chemical weapons program for more than a decade told a U.S. military team that Iraq destroyed chemical weapons and biological warfare equipment only days before the war began.
Members of MET Alpha, known in full as Mobile Exploitation Team Alpha, said the scientist led Americans to material that proved to be the building blocks of illegal weapons, which he claimed to have buried as evidence of Iraq's illicit weapons programs, the Times said.
The scientist also said Iraq had secretly sent unconventional weapons and technology to Syria, starting in the mid-1990s, according to the report. MET Alpha did not identify the scientist but said he was credible.
Maj. Gen. David Petraeus, commander of the 101st Airborne Division, said the team's findings could have "incalculable value. Though much work must still be done to validate the information MET Alpha has uncovered, if it proves out it will clearly be one of the major discoveries of this operation, and it may be the major discovery."
The Times said the information was relayed to the White House on Friday, but there was no immediate response from the White House when queried about the report Sunday night.
In Texas, flanked by two stoic helicopter crewmen home safe from Iraqi captivity, President Bush said Syria appears to be heeding warnings to avoid becoming a safe haven for Saddam loyalists.
"They're getting the message," Bush said.
In Israel, authorities declared the Iraqi missile threat against their citizens ended and prepared for the departure of U.S. soldiers manning defensive Patriot missile batteries south of Tel Aviv.
Bush attended Easter services at the Ford Hood Army base, where nearly half the fort's 42,000 soldiers are deployed to the Iraq region. Afterward, he said he expected Syria to turn over any Iraqis sought by the United States.
Joining him were Chief Warrant Officer David S. Williams, 30, of Orlando, Fla., and Chief Warrant Officer Ronald D. Young Jr., 26, of Lithia Springs, Ga., two of the seven former POWs brought home a week after their Iraqi captors let them go.
Two U.S. congressmen who met Syrian President Bashar Assad said he assured them he will not give asylum to any Iraqis wanted for war crimes. Reps. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., and Darrell Issa, R-Calif., were the first U.S. officials to meet Assad since tensions rose over Syria's alleged cooperation with the Saddam government during the war.
Baghdad, increasingly secure but still lacking a government, prepared for a visit Monday by Jay Garner, the retired lieutenant general chosen to step into the power vacuum and temporarily lead the administration of Iraq.
Across Iraq, Shiite pilgrims journeyed by the thousands to holy cities and Christians packed churches for Easter, giving full voice to religious convictions suppressed in the time of Saddam Hussein.
But there were fears, too, that religious rivalries that had been uneasily -- and sometimes brutally -- kept in check would flare anew and consume the new order.
Rev. Emmanuel Delly, retired after 40 years as Baghdad's Chaldean Catholic bishop, appealed for constitutional protections for Iraq's small Christian minority and said confiscated Christian property -- including 30 Baghdad schools -- must be returned.
"We can't meet Mr. Bush," he said in an interview. "But please tell Mr. Bush, 'I am asking you in the name of all bishops to give us a good constitution."'
Saddam's government was officially secular but dominated by Sunni Muslims, who often put down Iraq's Shiite majority. Prospects of Shiites rising to power in a democratic Iraq have Christians and other minorities worried about a new era of persecution.
An estimated 700,000 Chaldean Catholics live in Iraq, about 5 percent of the population.
The United States has not put a timetable on its occupation but suggested it will take at least six months to reach the next of several steps -- establishment of an interim government run by Iraqis.
Ahmad Chalabi, a pro-U.S. Iraqi opposition leader, said a U.S. military presence is necessary at least until the first democratic election is held. He estimated that is two years away.
Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., chairman of Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said it could take at least five years to create a functioning democracy.
"The institution-building process in Iraq is a huge endeavor," he said. "There's not much to work with at this point."
Chalabi also said Iraq's new constitution -- undoubtedly to be drawn up with U.S. influence -- must not let religious parties establish a permanent Islamic state.
"There is a role for Islamic religious parties, for they have some constituencies," he said. "But they are not going to be forcing any agenda or forcing a theocracy on the Iraqi people."
Marines who were based in east Baghdad moved to southern positions Sunday, leaving Army units to patrol the entire capital and the northern half of the country.
The shuffle notably reduces troop strength in the capital, but officials did not say by how much.
Shiites marched toward the holy Iraqi cities of Karbala and Najaf on an annual religious pilgrimage that was repressed for decades by Saddam.
As many as 2 million Shiites from Iraq, Iran and elsewhere are expected to converge on the two holy cities later in the week.