A disappearing act for regime; Tracking Hussein’s vanishing vanguard is next task for Americans

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Only days ago, Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf was Iraq’s public face on the war, giving his unique spin on worldwide television.

No American soldiers in Baghdad, he insisted almost comically, with U.S. tanks only blocks away. “We besieged them, and we killed most of them.”

And where is he now?

Vanished, along with virtually all of Iraq’s leadership structure and most other remnants of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Only a few leaders have been confirmed killed. The others might be dead, too, or in hiding or seeking refuge in foreign lands.

The task for American forces now is tracking down the ones still alive — and figuring out what to do with them once they find them.

The power void was clear Thursday in Iraqi embassies across the world, as diplomats tried to determine to which government, if any, they reported.

“I haven’t had contact with Baghdad for two or three weeks,” Muaead Hussain, the Iraqi charge d’affaires in Berlin, said through the locked gate of his embassy. “I have no idea what’s going on there.”

In Brazil, embassy employees were seen setting boxes of papers on fire. In Tokyo, Iraqi diplomats threw out bags of shredded documents.

At Baghdad’s diplomatic outpost in Paris, two huge portraits of Saddam Hussein still hung from the walls. “What am I going to do now?” said a nervous young man named Omar Ahmed, who called himself only an official. “Well, I am working here, for our embassy. No more questions, please.”

There were no reports yet of Iraqi diplomats seeking asylum. Mohammed Al-Douri, Iraq’s ambassador to the United Nations, was the first Iraqi official to acknowledge defeat. He met Thursday with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan in New York, even as reports swirled that he was preparing to flee, variously, to France or the Netherlands.

Back in Baghdad, Iraqi officials stopped showing up for work Wednesday, including Mr. al-Sahhaf. American forces reached the villa of Tariq Aziz, the deputy prime minister, but found only looters, not their target.

For those looking to flee, Syria appeared to be the most likely destination. U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Syria was being “notably unhelpful” to the American cause by giving refuge to Iraqi leaders.

“We are getting scraps of intelligence saying that Syria has been cooperative in facilitating the movement of people out of Iraq into Syria,” he said. “And then in some cases they stay there … in other cases they’re moving from Syria to still other places.”

On Thursday, U.S. forces attacked Iraqi positions in Al-Qaim, in far western Iraq near the Syrian border, near the end of the most direct route from Baghdad and out of Iraq.

Long stretches of the 310-mile border between Syria and Iraq are loosely guarded, although American special forces are patrolling to try to prevent further departures.

American officials said they did not know where top Iraqi leaders were Thursday. Mr. Hussein and his sons Uday and Qusay may have been killed Monday in airstrikes at a Baghdad restaurant. But even if they were killed, there are dozens of other members of Mr. Hussein’s inner circle at large.

Military and CIA teams pushed through Baghdad on Thursday, hunting for top leaders. If Mr. Hussein survived the bombing, officials speculated, he might try to escape to Syria or even his ancestral home in Tikrit, northwest of the capital, for a final battle.

Top Iraqi leaders almost certainly will face prosecution for war crimes if caught alive, which could push them to seek exile or at least a safe hiding place. The same probably is true of many of Mr. Hussein’s military and intelligence officials.

“Those people have fled, if they can,” said Michael Provence, a professor of modern Middle East studies at Southern Methodist University. “They’ve probably panicked and gone as far away as they can ? abroad if they’re able. Some have probably fled to their villages, places where they feel they can be protected by kinsmen.”

Dr. Provence said people lower in the Iraqi hierarchy, including some police, are probably just sitting at home, waiting to see who the new bosses will be.

“The minister of information we saw giving the bombastic remarks, he doesn’t have anything to fear from anybody. He’s a bureaucrat,” Dr. Provence said. “Most people in Iraq think he’s a little heroic, if quixotic.”

What to do with the suddenly former government officials is always a question at times of regime change, particularly when a new government contemplates the manpower needed for rebuilding.

“Many of these people are probably honest and decent government workers,” Dr. Provence said. “In coups and other changes of regime, these people usually keep their jobs. The government can’t function without them.”

At the Cold War’s end, when the communist rulers of Eastern Europe fell, even top leaders were not punished for actions committed while in power.

“With a few exceptions, they were allowed to retire peacefully and just went away,” said Stephen Wegren, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University who specializes in post-Soviet states.

In many other cases ? South Africa after apartheid, Chile after Pinochet ? officials of the old government have found homes in the new. U.S. and British officials will have to determine what roles Mr. Hussein’s ruling caste will have in the new state.

If they can find them.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.