Iraq’s Most Wanted

Newsweek, March 31, 2003
By Christopher Dickey and Donatella Lorch

Saddam Hussein's inner circle is a special kind of club. Only murderers need apply. "All the members were tested by Saddam in one way or another," explains an Arab intelligence chief who's dealt directly with several of the top thugs. "They would not last if they were not brutal enough to satisfy Saddam, and when you meet with them they brag about this. They don't hide it. The more people they've killed, the more 'credible' they are."

The slaughter they carried out has been vast, like the genocidal killing of Kurds in 1988 that used both conventional means and chemical weapons. And it has been terribly intimate: murdering fellow members of the Baath Party, or even relatives. Yet the list of those formally considered "irredeemable," as one Bush administration official put it, is remarkably short: not even a dirty dozen, but a "Dirty Nine," including Saddam and his sons, Uday and Qusay. Only these few, according to administration officials, are certain to be prosecuted for war crimes and crimes against humanity--if they live that long. "Others that are implicated in past crimes would be subject to immediate detention," says this official, "and then we'd figure out what would happen to them."

There's no shortage of evidence already on the books. As Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said last week, "This is not a benign regime. This is a regime that has killed hundreds of thousands of human beings." The brutal 1990-91 occupation of Kuwait was documented in excruciating detail by the Department of Defense, as was the savage treatment of the handful of American POWs captured during the last gulf war. Almost 18 tons of damning documents and videos were taken to Washington after the Kurds first seized control of northern Iraq in 1991. In the wake of the tanks now rolling toward Baghdad, investigators will be hunting for more documents, and also for mass graves that may hold tens of thousands of victims. Yet one of the greatest challenges may be finding the legal and political framework for trying the band of butchers who've run Iraq for the past 35 years.

As wanton as the regime has been, there are enormous problems in gathering evidence to prosecute individuals in courts of law. After Kuwait's liberation in 1991, the U.S. judge advocate general's office investigated the atrocities Saddam's minions committed there and came up with 1,226 war-crime files implicating more than 500 Iraqis by name. Yet not one of the suspects was found among the 69,822 enemy prisoners of war taken by coalition forces. A recently declassified report from the JAG concludes "the most significant reason" was that "few Iraqi prisoners of war provided their real names, ranks, or other vital information." The war was over so quickly, and the pressure to repatriate the prisoners afterward was so great, that serious investigations were not possible. Now, according to Iraqi opposition sources, Saddam has been issuing new identity documents under different names to thousands of his people since the middle of last year.

The controversial detention at Guantanamo naval base of alleged Taliban and Qaeda fighters from the Afghan war, and the interrogation techniques (including sleep and sensory deprivation) that have been used on the top terrorist detainees, will be difficult or impossible to justify in Iraq. Uniformed soldiers taken as POWs will have to be treated as such, in full compliance with the Geneva Conventions. "It's a completely different situation," says Michael Scharf, director of the War Crimes Research Office at Case Western Reserve University. "If we're going to treat them as POWs, we have to give them a whole panoply of rights." Among them: "No physical or mental torture, nor any other form of coercion, may be inflicted on prisoners of war to secure from them information of any kind whatever." That means it will be difficult for the United States to extract information about, say, Iraq's WMD stockpiles.

If and when individuals accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity are caught and identified, where would the trial be held, and under what laws? For the past nine months the State Department has been looking at ways to create a "transitional justice" system in Iraq, focusing on how justice could be meted out to the government and its supporters. But the administration is in a bit of a bind here. It opposes the new International Criminal Court and doesn't like the ad hoc international tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. Besides, the ICC does not have jurisdiction on crimes committed before it was created last year. A military tribunal, allowed by the Fourth Geneva Convention, could be established only for crimes of war committed during this particular conflict against U.S. troops.

For other crimes, the most obvious option would be the kind of hybrid tribunal set up in Sierra Leone and Cambodia, essentially a special court established within the country's existing legal system. It could include both national and international jurists, giving it credibility both inside and outside Iraq. The more members who come from Muslim nations, "the less the Islamic world would blame America," says Scharf. "There are lots of good reasons to internationalize it." But Bush has already shown a preference for going it alone. In any case, warns Richard Dicker of Human Rights Watch, the legal process should not be perceived as "victor's justice."

Administration officials insist that almost everything depends on the course of the war. Will there be a coup? Will some of the leading suspects be killed during the combat? How much of the existing administration, Army and bureaucracy can be kept in place, and how much will have to be purged? "There is going to be an enormous amount of case-by-case, especially early on," says one senior administration official. During a "transition period" that is "hopefully shorter rather than longer," the aim is "to keep the water flowing and electricity running, and make sure that people are fed, and leave these difficult judgments about prosecutions and forgiveness, and who's entitled to work, to some competent Iraqi authorities."

Human-rights groups talk about a process known as "lustration," drawing up lists that could contain tens of thousands of names intended to make sure criminals from the ancient regime don't wind up as police, or judges, or in other positions of authority in the new one. "When it comes to things like the intelligence services," says the same senior administration official, "they're just going to be razed to the ground as fast as we can. [But] the military is a tricky one. We want to disarm the weapons of mass destruction. We don't want to disarm [the Iraqis], leave them naked to their enemies, and there are an awful lot of people who just are innocent prisoners of the system." The U.S. official adds, "Our bias will be toward forgiving as much of the past as possible."

Does that mean only a tiny handful of the worst of the worst will actually be prosecuted? Dicker and other human-rights activists suggest that would be "obscene." But as the United States tries to foster a coup or a quick surrender by the people around Saddam, it's practical. Hence the mixed signals coming out of the Pentagon and the White House as the military campaign rolled into high gear. The shooting started with American forces bombing a building in Baghdad where they thought Saddam and his cronies were holed up, in obvious hope of killing them. Then presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer said, "We continue to hope that Saddam Hussein will leave Iraq," and secret negotiations were reported that might send him to Mauritania or another safe haven--along with his money. "The list is short to convince people they don't have to die for Saddam," says a Jordanian official who knows many members of the Iraqi hierarchy.

Who are these lifetime members of Saddam's hellfire club? The most detailed picture of the criminals at the heart of the regime, how they think, and the way they commit their crimes came after the defections to Jordan in 1995 of Hussein Kamel and Saddam Kamel, two brothers who turned against Saddam after being such trusted members of the inner circle that they were married to the dictator's daughters.

According to a Jordanian official who met with the Kamel brothers often, the standards for cruelty were set at the top, with Saddam himself. When one of his Republican Guard in charge of supplies at the presidential palaces was caught stealing soaps in the early 1990s, a court sentenced the guard to a few months in prison. That wasn't enough for the dictator. "Who steals from Saddam will betray Saddam," he declared, and had the man killed. He forced the guard's brother, another close aide, to attend the execution and to smile as it happened. An Iraqi doctor who attended an informal dinner party with Jordanian intelligence officials, among others, was summoned back to Baghdad under suspicion of treason. Jordanian officials later confirmed that Saddam fed the man to starving dogs on one of Saddam's farms.

Uday Hussein, the elder of Saddam's sons, "should have been committed to an asylum long ago," says another senior Jordanian official who knew him in the 1990s. A sadistic playboy, Uday was notorious for raping any woman he coveted, and in one horrific incident bludgeoned one of his father's trusted aides to death. Crippled in a 1996 assassination attempt, Uday has since lost his status as heir apparent to younger brother Qusay, who is now effectively his father's second in command, charged with overseeing the entire security apparatus and, now, the defense of Baghdad.

When the Kamel brothers were "in a good mood," remembers a Jordanian official who met with them often, they traded atrocity stories. Hussein Kamel had overseen the program to build weapons of mass destruction and liked to style himself "the father of the Iraqi atomic bomb," which, fortunately, was never finally built. When Jordan's King Hussein asked Hussein Kamel what had happened to the missing chemical and biological weapons, Kamel said they'd been destroyed but wouldn't want to say just where, because the site also held mass graves. "They were completely nuts," says the Jordanian official.

Hussein Kamel boasted about the punishment he meted out to an aide who failed to carry out a task he'd been given in the assigned time. "Hussein Kamel forced him to drink a bottle of gasoline and then got an incendiary bullet and shot him in the stomach." Perhaps embroidering the tale, and amid gales of laughter, the brothers claimed the man exploded. Saddam Kamel was proud of the time he beat a member of the Republican Guard "until his brain came out of his ear." But both agreed that another relative, Saddam's paternal cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid, "was the hero," the Jordanian says. "He was the one who killed the most." Known as "Ali Chemical" for his role in gassing Kurds in northern Iraq, al-Majid was also the savage governor of Kuwait after the invasion, and played a leading role in slaughtering rebellious Iraqi Shiites in 1991. In 1996 the Kamel brothers, who'd failed to win support for overthrowing Saddam, made the mistake of going back to Iraq. And Ali Chemical killed them, too. He's now one of the Dirty Nine.

Another is Abid Hammoud al-Tikriti, a distant cousin and longtime bodyguard who is sometimes described as Saddam's personal secretary. "He is probably the only one who knows where Saddam is at any time," says a Jordanian source who's dealt with him. "He is the closest to Saddam's inner, inner circle." So close, in fact, that on occasion he's even stood up to Uday, contradicting the son's ravings. The head of the special security organization charged with hiding weapons of mass destruction, Hani al-Latif Tulfah, obviously will be a major prize for the coalition if he's captured.

Along with al-Majid, Aziz Salih Numan, the second governor of occupied Kuwait, tops the list for crimes committed there. Under his rule, torture was at its height, hundreds of Kuwaitis were "disappeared" and the oilfields were burned for pure vengeance.

Mohammed hamza al-Zubaidi is notorious for his role in crushing the Shiite uprisings. So is the vice chairman of the Baath Party's Revolution Command Council, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, who savagely suppressed the rebellion in An Nasiriya. But Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan, who led the columns blasting their way into the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, damaging some of the most sacred shrines of Islam, is for some reason not included on the hit list. Nor is Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, the Iraqi Christian whose erudite English has made him one of the most familiar spokesmen for the regime on the international scene. Obviously it does them no good in Saddam's eyes to be exempted, and that may have been done intentionally as a U.S. ploy to divide the regime.

Because, at the end of the day, Saddam's inner circle is not just united by criminal complicity and family ties, it's held together with fear. Unlike Osama bin Laden, whose support is built around his example and his teachings, however misguided, Saddam terrorizes everyone around him into obedience. When Saddam took absolute control of the country in 1979, one of his first acts was to execute rivals in his party. At a videotaped meeting, the names of dozens were read aloud. They were led away to be killed immediately as Saddam shouted, "Get out! Get out!" Sitting in the front row of that meeting were Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, Taha Yassin Ramadan and Tariq Aziz. When Saddam said the list was finished, they broke into tears.

At some moment soon, when Saddam's ability to terrorize comes to an end, it's doubtful anyone will defend him. Unlike bin Laden, even in his own country he will discover he can run but he can't hide, and his subjects, even some of his cronies, will want him dead, not alive.


Uday Hussein (Elder Son of Saddam)

In charge of Iraqi media and the national Olympic Committee.

What he's accused of: Insiders consider him to be genuinely psychotic. Has long history of brutality, including rape and torture of Iraqi women for recreation and corporal punishment of players from Iraq's national soccer team for losing games. Led the looting of sports cars and other luxury goods from Kuwait. Executed thousands of Shiites in the Basra region in 1991 to quell political uprising.

Saddam Hussein (a.k.a. Butcher of Baghdad)

President of Iraq.

What he's accused of: Since 1979, his regime has used torture, violence and the threat of force to maintain order. Used chemical weapons against Iranian troops in the Iran-Iraq War, and used them also to kill thousands of Kurds in 1988. Authorized military strikes against Shiites in the south, and organized mass deportation of Faili Kurds in 1980. Violated Geneva Convention regarding treatment of prisoners in the Iran-Iraq War and in occupied Kuwait.

Qusay Hussein (Saddam's Second Son)

Head of elite Republican Guard.

What he's accused of: As head of Iraq's security organizations and Saddam's most trusted lieutenant, he curbed Basra dissident activity in 1991 with mass executions and torture. Devised prison cleansing program, resulting in arbitrary executions intended to clear space for new prisoners.

Mohammed Hamza al-Zubaidi

Former deputy prime minister.

What he's accused of: Nicknamed the "Shia Thug" for his use of brutal force to crush Shiite dissenters in 1991 in the cities of Basra, Al Amarah, As Samawah and Al Kut. Oversaw destruction of marshlands populated by Shiites in southern Iraq. Helped supervise extermination of Iraqi Kurds, including the brutal Anfal campaigns, while serving as secretary of Baath Party's northern bureau in 1986. Participated in the systematic torture and execution of Saddam's political opponents.

Ali Hassan al-Majid (Ali Chemical)

Presidential adviser and member of the Revolutionary Command Council.

What he's accused of: Saddam's cousin is nicknamed for ordering the use of lethal gas to suppress revolts by Iraqi Kurds (above). Oversaw the murder, torture, rape and deportation of civilians while governor of Kuwait during the occupation in 1990. Slaughtered dissenting Shiites in southern Iraq in 1991.

Abid Hammoud al-Tikriti (Cousin)

Saddam's personal bodyguard.

What he's accused of: Not much is known about Hammoud, and pictures of him are scarce. For many years, he has been one of the key figures in Saddam's inner circle, and he controls all access to the chief. Sometimes described as Saddam's personal secretary. Participated in executions and torture of Saddam's political opponents.

Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri

Vice chairman of the Baath Party's Revolutionary Command Council.

What he's accused of: Held key positions when Iraq committed its most abhorrent acts, including the Anfal campaign that killed thousands of Kurds with poison gas. Participated in the bloody invasion of Kuwait and violated Geneva Conventions regarding treatment of civilians and prisoners.

Hani al-Latif Tulfah

Director of Special Security Organization.

What he's accused of: Responsible for stockpiling Iraq's military arsenal. Mastermind behind Iraq's concealment of chemical and biological weapons--including anthrax, botulinim toxin and aflatoxin for possible use with Scud warheads--a flagrant violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions.

Aziz Salih Numan

Second governor of Iraqi-occupied Kuwait, Baath Party regional commander.

What he's accused of: Career Baath Party official who rose from low-ranking, local positions to Saddam's inner circle through his mastery of torture and intimidation techniques (above) and his fierce loyalty to Saddam. Instigated mass rape, torture, looting and executions (left) during his four months in Kuwait from November 1990 through February 1991.