It was exactly three months ago when Iraq’s deposed dictator Saddam Hussein was last seen in public. And it has been about 100 days since the U.S.-led Coalition launched a formal hunt for him. And, yet, as U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell admitted in Washington last week, the Americans are nowhere near capturing the fugitive. One may wonder why? The short answer is that no one has been really looking for him. Yes, the U.S. is offering $25 million for Saddam’s capture. And, yes, American troops have carried out 22 raids in nine localities, including Baghdad, in the past 100 days in response to reports that Saddam may be hiding there. None of this, however, amounts to a systematic search for Saddam. In every case U.S. troops were sent into action on the basis of tips received from Iraqi informers, presumably looking for the reward.
Maj. Gen. John Odierno, one of the American commanders in Iraq, says that the ex-dictator is changing houses three to four times a day. That makes a minimum total of 300 houses for the past 100 days. If that theory is correct, Saddam must be hiding in a relatively big town where such a large number of hideouts could be used without arousing suspicion. Also, so many movements each day would require a measure of cover and diversion, again available only in a large city.
Furthermore Saddam would not be able to make so many moves so frequently in a hostile environment. He should, therefore, be hiding among a reasonably friendly, or at least indifferent, population.
If these assumptions are correct, Saddam could be hiding in only one of two places: The northwestern districts of Baghdad, and the northern city of Mosul. And yet Saddam-seeking raids in Baghdad and Mosul number only six so far, a sign that the U.S. commanders do not really believe he maybe hiding in either place. In other words, the U.S. itself does not have a clear theoretical concept regarding Saddam’s “disappearance.”
To be sure the U.S. forces have captured many Baathist fugitives, and recently killed Saddam Hussein’s two sons as well. But in every case the operations resulted from information supplied by Iraqi informants working for money, and not as a result of probes by American investigators. Thus the initiative on search-raids lies with Iraqi informants, not with U.S. commanders. And that, simply, is not the best way to look for Saddam Hussein.
Now, let us consider an alternative theory. Saddam may be hiding in one single place where he is sure of the loyalty of the population, or at least their fear of denouncing him. The single-place hideout has the advantage of avoiding highly dangerous movements from hideout to hideout — movements that could be monitored through electronic and aerial surveillance. It also offers the advantage of familiarity, which makes the application of security measures easier, while facilitating contact with networks of support elsewhere. The ideal hiding place would have to pass five tests.
The first is that the local population should be sympathetic, or at least not hostile, to Saddam Hussein. That is not as easy as it sounds. Saddam has killed so many people that he is sure to have personal enemies in most parts of Iraq. He cannot hide among the Shiites, for example, thus excluding much of central and southern Iraq. Nor can he hide among the Kurds who have little reason to love him. That would shut him out of much of northeastern Iraq. More than four-fifth of Baghdad, populated mostly by Shiites and Kurds, would also be regarded as territory hostile to Saddam.
The second condition needed for an ideal hideout is that it should be relatively free of a strong and permanent American military presence. That condition is easier to fulfill because the U.S., with just over 150,000 troops, including those of the U.K., has an extremely thin presence in a country the size of France. In fact, the Coalition has an effective presence in fewer than 20 of the 67 major towns and cities in Iraq. Many of Iraq’s estimated 18,000 villages have not seen an American soldier yet.
The third condition is that the ideal hideout should be close to an eventual escape-route, preferably to a potentially sympathetic neighbor which, in this case, could only mean either Syria or Jordan. (It would be unthinkable for Saddam to escape to Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, or Kuwait.)
The fourth condition for the ideal hideout is that it must be able to sustain the dictator and his entourage for months at least. It would also need communications equipment to keep the dictator in contact with his support network and informed of moves by his enemies. This means that the hideout could not have been concocted in a hurry. Most people know of the 22 palaces that Saddam built for himself after 1991. Less is known, however, about the hundreds of safe houses that he had built all over Iraq at the same time because he feared that the Americans might try to kill him with a missile attack.
The fifth condition for the ideal hideout is that the area where it is located should have an easily defensible natural position so that, in case of an American attack, the dictator could have some time to escape.
Saddam has a long experience of hiding. In 1959 he was part of a hit squad that tried to assassinate the then dictator Abdul-Karim Kassem. Having narrowly escaped capture, Saddam went into hiding and managed to avoid arrest for almost a year despite a nationwide manhunt launched against him. Eventually, he succeeded to escape first to Syria and then to Egypt where he continued a semi-clandestine life.
Even when ruling Iraq, Saddam had a habit of living in a semi-clandestine style, disappearing for days on end. In 1983, for example, he went into “occultation” for 17 days, prompting rumors that he had committed suicide because of reverse suffered by his army in the war against Iran.
Is there anywhere in Iraq that would meet the five tests we have fixed for the ideal hideout?
If such a place exists it is most likely to be in the area known as Al-Jazeera, northwest of Mosul. This is an area dotted with hundreds of villages where the inhabitants, mostly Sunni Arabs and Assyrians, are not necessarily hostile to the fallen dictator. Over the past 30 years Saddam has been a frequent visitor to the area, granting it favorable treatment in terms of development grants and presidential “gifts.” A good portion of the population in the area consists of clans from the Al-Shammar tribal confederation, one of whose chiefs is now a member of the Governing Council in Baghdad.
There are dozens of villages where Saddam could be hiding, among them Senarik, Buwayr, Qadiyah, Huwaysh, Ghuzzayyil, Tavuq, and Tulul Al-Baqq. There are tribal traditions, as strong as those of the Corsican separatists or the mafia, that will protect Saddam against denunciation, at least in theory.
So, what is to be done? The first thing to do is to put some professionals in charge of the hunt for Saddam. This is a task for police detectives, not the regular armed forces or MP. The second is to mobilize the Iraqis to conduct the hunt on the ground. There are areas where no outsider could really penetrate or, if he did, be able to pierce the thick wall of silence. Wondering why the U.S. is not seriously looking for Saddam, many Iraqis are listening to conspiracy theories. One such theory is that Washington wishes to keep the threat of Saddam alive to silence the Iraqis into accepting a long American presence. Another “theory” is that Saddam had been working for the Americans all along and has just been whisked away to Washington or Tel Aviv to spend the rest of his life with a new identity.
Can Saddam escape arrest for years? This may be theoretically possible. After all, some Nazi leaders managed to hide for decades. (Klaus Barbie was captured 40 years after the war had ended.) The comparison, however, is not exact. Unlike the Nazis who could hide in South America, Saddam, and the remaining Baathist fugitives, do not have a safe haven outside Iraq. This is why they can be captured. Provided someone begins to look for them seriously.
— Amir Taheri is an Iranian journalist, author of ten books on the Middle East and Islam. His latest book, L’Irak: le dessous des cartes was published by Editions Complexe, Paris. He is reachable through www.benadorassociates.com. A version of this piece was first published in New York Post and is reprinted with permission.