June 18, 2003
Blair seeks deal with Saddam's men
By Michael Evans, Defence Editor
# Row with US over bid to find weapons fast
BRITAIN is pressing America to offer top Iraqi prisoners possible freedom in exchange for information to speed up the search for Saddam Hussein and his missing weapons of mass destruction.
British officials are telling Washington that plea bargaining is the only way to track down the dictator and his arsenal, but to the Government’s intense frustration the Bush Administration has so far rejected the appeals of its closest coalition ally.
Thirty-one of the fifty-five individuals on America’s most-wanted “pack of cards” list have been arrested, but British officials told The Times that none of them had divulged any information during intensive interrogation.
The British Government wants to tell them that in exchange for crucial information their help will be taken into account if they appeared at a war crimes court. They might even be offered protection and a new life overseas if their information were decisive.
“We have been trying for ages to persuade the Americans but they have come up with all kinds of legal arguments,” one government official said. US authorities have been happy to offer plea bargains to some of America’s most notorious criminals, but apparently draw the line at members of a regime that they have denounced as evil.
Unlike President Bush, Tony Blair is facing intense pressure to find the weapons that he cited as a justification for the war.
Two of the Prime Minister’s former Cabinet colleagues yesterday gave a withering account of what they claimed was unsubstantiated intelligence material about Saddam’s arsenal.
Appearing before the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee, Robin Cook, who resigned as Leader of the Commons over the war, accused the Government of presenting intelligence selectively to justify the war. He told MPs that his claim in his resignation speech that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction ready for use had come “almost word for word” from a member of MI6. Clare Short, the former International Development Secretary, told the committee that the raw intelligence that she saw was like “droplets” that did not say anything clear about weapons.
Officials said that the prisoners were keeping quiet either from fear of incriminating themselves, or because they were petrified that if they co-operated with the coalition Saddam’s Fedayin militia would take revenge on their families.
The official said that all the detainees held in centres in Baghdad appeared convinced that Saddam was still alive and that it was too dangerous or disloyal to help the coalition.
The intelligence community in Washington and London is also convinced that Saddam is alive and “lying low” in Iraq, and that his continuing existence is casting a shadow over all the efforts to find weapons of mass destruction.
But British officials said that Washington was divided over the suggestion, with the Pentagon opposing any arrangement that might reduce the prisoners’ eventual sentences. Some of the top regime figures, including Saddam, could face the death penalty if found guilty of crimes against humanity.
The prisoners include Tariq Aziz, the former Deputy Prime Minister, Zuhayr Talib abd al-Sattar al-Naqib, director of military intelligence, Amir Hamudi Hasan al-Sadi, a presidential advisor on scientific and technical affairs, and Rihab Taha, also known as Dr Germ.
A few top scientists have been flown out of Iraq, but most of the detainees are still being held at an undisclosed location in Baghdad. They have been questioned frequently by the CIA and other agencies, including MI6, but have revealed nothing.
British officials said that they all had similar stories about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, claiming there was no clandestine programme, and the coalition interrogators were getting nowhere.
Faced with Washington’s opposition to plea bargaining, British investigators are focusing their effort on trying to trace medium-ranking Iraqi scientists not on the list of 55, hoping that they might be able to pinpoint where weapons might be hidden.
Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, admitted yesterday that it was essential that the weapons of mass destruction were found. “We do have to demonstrate to the world that those weapons of mass destruction are there in Iraq.”
Next month the heads of MI6, MI5 and GCHQ, the signals intelligence centre, are expected to appear before the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee, which has started an inquiry into the Iraqi weapons.