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Iraqi diplomats still can't take anyone to their leader

Saturday, April 26, 2003

PARIS -- Their bosses in Baghdad are dead, captured or on the run, and police with machine guns guard their offices. But many Iraqi diplomats around the world are still on the job, renewing passports, registering births -- and waiting for new marching orders.

Saddam Hussein, his statues toppled across Iraq, rarely gets mentioned. Some stranded diplomats have taken down photos of the dictator; at least one has left them up. A few speak publicly; others don't answer the phone.

Their status with host countries is also unclear. Nations for the most part are letting the Iraqis quietly continue their work, but it is clear the diplomats are no longer being taken seriously as representatives of any government in Iraq.

Some -- particularly higher level diplomats -- are nowhere to be seen. The Iraqi ambassador to the United Nations, Mohammed Al-Douri, left New York for Syria weeks ago. An aide to the Iraqi ambassador to Brazil, Jarallah Alobaidy, said he was sick; the embassy in Belgrade said Ambassador Sami Sadoun was "away."

Diplomats are widely believed to have destroyed records that could shed light on Saddam's government. The embassy in Brazil had a small bonfire as the regime fell, though the diplomats said they were burning trash; the Iraqi opposition in Bulgaria has also suggested diplomats destroyed documents in Sofia.

Symbols of allegiance to Saddam are a touchy subject. The Iraqi Embassy in Damascus, Syria, pulled down photos of the former president, while the embassy in Hanoi displays a large picture of Saddam in a glass case outside the building.

Nabil al-Janabi, Iraq's charge d'affaires in Beirut, Lebanon, refused to say whether Saddam's image was still on view. "This has nothing to do with the embassy's consular work," he said.

Qasim A. Shakir, charge d'affaires at the Iraqi Embassy in Tokyo, distanced himself from the regime by arguing that diplomats represent the Iraqi people, not a particular government.

"The change in government doesn't mean everything has to collapse," he said.

Like the rest of the world, Iraqi diplomats say they lost contact with the regime in its final days. They were left mostly isolated, with little or no indication about what to do.

Shakir said the final contacts with Baghdad were about damage from bombings. And there was plenty of confusion on the other end of the line.

"It was not really clear where they were contacting us from," he said.

A few, like Sami Sadoun in Belgrade, spoke briefly to the media. In an interview last week he surmised that Saddam must have been killed in the U.S. bombing since Baghdad fell so easily.

Many diplomats are now refusing to answer detailed questions about their operations or Saddam's fallen government.

For some outspoken supporters of Saddam, recent events have prompted a change in attitude. A couple of weeks ago, Ambassador Salah Al-Mukhtar in Vietnam derided the impending fall of Baghdad as "Hollywood lies"; this week, he told a reporter asking about the situation in Iraq to watch CNN.

At many embassies, life goes on, whether helping Iraqis who want to return home or registering the births of their children.

"Work is continuing," said Moafaq al-Obeidi, a staffer at the embassy in Berlin, helping a man renew his Iraqi passport. "You can see we have things to do."

Not all are in the mood for work. When asked what diplomats were doing at the Iraqi Embassy in Prague, capital of the Czech Republic, a person answering the phone had a short answer.

"We play soccer here," he said.


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