Thursday, June 19, 2003

Rumsfeld says deals possible for key Iraqis

Officials seek leads to finding key information

The United States, frustrated by a lack of progress in tracking down Saddam Hussein and Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, might offer to shield some captured senior Ba'ath Party leaders from prosecution or even execution in return for key information, government officials said yesterday.

''We've thought about it a good deal. And it is a perfectly reasonable proposal,'' Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said yesterday at a Pentagon briefing.

Iraq specialists said striking a bargain with some of the 55 most-wanted Iraqis -- more than half of whom are now in custody -- could bring a variety of benefits to the American occupation authorities. Among the potential benefits: information on the fate of Hussein and his two sons; the whereabouts of the alleged arsenal of weapons of mass destruction; and a reduction in resistance by Sunni Muslims who made up the deposed Ba'athist regime.

Even as Washington considered amnesty or plea bargains for some members of Hussein's repressive regime, US forces said yesterday they had captured Abid Hamid Mahmud al-Tikriti, Hussein's personal bodyguard and national security adviser. Listed as the ace of diamonds, Mahmud was the fourth most-wanted, behind Hussein and his sons Uday and Qusay.

Rumsfeld did not indicate which former Iraqi leaders might be eligible for any deals, but one former Iraq intelligence analyst predicted that they would unlikely affect individuals such as Mahmud or others in the top tier of Iraqi leaders. ''Certainly there will be trials for the dirty dozen,'' said Judith Yaphe, now a professor of strategic studies at the National Defense University in Washington. ''But after that there is the next 40. If they want to deal for information and it would to lead us to Saddam and his sons, I'd say go for it. Nothing is more important at this point.''

''I can imagine the lower half of the deck getting 20 years in Diego Garcia in return for a 500 page tell-all,'' said John Pike, a defense analyst at in Alexandria, Va.

Until now, US officials have said little about the possible disposition of senior Iraqis. ''The US policy is this regard has been remarkably opaque,'' Pike said.

But Rumsfeld said a deal in return for assistance is under serious consideration. ''The question is, what do you get for what you give?'' He said the Justice Department and CIA are trying to figure out what ''we . . . can get by way of information or validation or assistance in exchange for what we'd have to give up.''

The proposal, also floated by some members of the British House of Commons, appeared to be new. Retired General Jay Garner, formerly in charge of reconstruction efforts in Iraq, said he hadn't heard of it before. Standing next to Rumsfeld at the Pentagon yesterday, he said : ''I hadn't thought about that. I don't know anything about that. I'm not sure I would want to plea bargain with that type of person.''

But giving amnesty or lighter sentences to some top Iraqi leaders could help answer determine the fate of Hussein and the suspected weapons of mass destruction that have yet to be found. A senior defense official who asked not to be named said that many of the top captives have been less than cooperative. Citing intelligence reports summarizing some of the interrogations, he said that many of them are unwilling to offer information because they do not foresee any real benefit for themselves in cooperating.

Senior Ba'ath cooperation could also help the US stem the ongoing violence against US troops, particularly in Sunni areas of the country north and west of Baghdad where the Ba'ath Party has its deepest support.

''Doing that might end some of the Sunni Arab opposition to us,'' Yaphe said.

Rumsfeld has called the resistance fighters ''dead-enders'' who are waging a guerrilla campaign because they do not see for themselves a future in Iraq.

A highly symbolic gesture such as giving amnesty or lighter punishments to senior Ba'ath leaders ''could help to resolve several problems,'' Yaphe said, ''And it wouldn't be that unusual. We did it with the Nazis. At some point you have to cut your losses and ask what is helping you and what is hurting you.''

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