Rumsfeld- Iraqi prisoners providing useful information

Saturday, April 26, 2003

WASHINGTON -- U.S. officials announced the capture of an Iraqi operative with possible al-Qaida links Friday, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said other high-level prisoners were starting to provide useful information.

Farouk Hijazi, Iraq's ambassador to Tunisia and a former high-ranking intelligence official, joins Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz and others under interrogation. The key questions put to them: What happened to Saddam Hussein and the rest of the Iraqi leadership? Where are chemical and biological weapons hidden? What links did Saddam have to terrorist groups?

"You can be certain that the people who we have reason to believe have information are being interrogated by interagency teams, and they are in fact providing information that's useful," said Rumsfeld, briefing reporters Friday at the Pentagon.

Hijazi was captured Thursday night at Iraq's border with Syria, U.S. officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity. He had been in Tunisia when the war started and sought refuge in Syria as Saddam's government fell, officials said.

It was unclear whether the Syrians expelled him. The Bush administration has been pressuring Syria to expel any Iraqi leaders who turn up there, and officials said last week the Syrians appeared to be responding positively.

"He is significant. We think he could be interesting," Rumsfeld said.

Hijazi, born in Saudi Arabia, served as Iraq's ambassador to Turkey in the late 1990s. In December 1998, U.S. officials believe he traveled to Afghanistan and say he may have met with Osama bin Laden in Kandahar.

What occurred at the alleged meeting -- which Saddam's government denied took place -- is unknown, but it is one of the events that U.S. officials refer to in suggesting contacts between Iraq and al-Qaida.

Hijazi also served as the director of external operations for the Iraqi Mukhabarat, or intelligence service, in the early 1990s -- the service's No. 3 position. During this time, in 1993, Mukhabarat operatives are alleged to have plotted to assassinate former President George Bush with a car bomb, but Kuwaiti security forces foiled the plan.

These are all subjects interrogators intend to inquire about, officials said.

If Hijazi was indeed a liaison to terrorist organizations, he would know to what extent Iraq assisted such groups, one official said.

'A stronger future'

As a foreign ambassador, he may also have information on any efforts to acquire illicit materials abroad for Iraq's alleged weapons programs, the official said. Hijazi wasn't on the military's list of the top 55 Iraqi leaders.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Friday that Aziz's capture "portends for a stronger future for the people of Iraq, a future of freedom as vestiges of the Baath regime are captured or turn themselves in and we welcome this capture."

Rumsfeld said that between 7,000 and 7,500 Iraqis have been taken prisoner but lower-level ones like foot soldiers are being released.

Among those held, Rumsfeld said, were "12 of the 55 most-wanted officials ... as well as a number of others who were not on that list."

Overall, "We're keeping the hard cases separate for the most part. We're systematically going through less-hard cases and releasing people." He said about 1,000 had been released so far.

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