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The Conflict in Iraq

Iraqis Crow, but Top Suspect Isn't in Coop

September 06, 2004|T. Christian Miller | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Iraqi officials thought they were holding the king of clubs.

On Sunday morning, a Defense Ministry spokesman announced the capture of one of Iraq's most wanted men, Izzat Ibrahim, a confidant of Saddam Hussein and the highest-ranking regime official to remain free.

In rich detail, the spokesman told a U.S.-funded television station here how American and Iraqi forces had stormed a clinic in the northern city of Tikrit where the feeble Ibrahim had been receiving treatment for leukemia.

Other government officials elaborated on the events: Iraqi troops backed by U.S. helicopters and tanks had battled their way through more than 170 loyal bodyguards, killing 70 and capturing 80. A few others escaped.

By midafternoon, officials from no fewer than four Iraqi ministries -- including two ministers and a ranking officer with the Iraqi national guard -- had all but confirmed Ibrahim's capture after hunting him for months. They said they were only awaiting the results of a DNA test that one called 60% done.

But by nightfall, it appeared they had come up empty- handed.

"We don't have any information regarding this issue. What has been said of a statement by the Defense Ministry is baseless," Defense Minister Hazem Shaalan told Lebanon's LBC television channel. Shaalan offered no explanation for the confusion.

The daylong drama was proof that in Iraq, truth remains elusive, even in the highest echelons of the United States-backed government.

Wire services and Arab television stations ran stories describing the capture as a victory for the interim Iraqi government, which has struggled to prove its legitimacy in the face of criticism and insurgent attacks.

Celebratory gunfire rattled through Iraq's cities as news spread. Ibrahim was No. 6 on the U.S. most-wanted list and the king of clubs in the deck of cards depicting the most notorious fugitives.

Besieged by media phone calls, American officials avoided an outright denial of the capture. No, they said, the U.S. military had not conducted operations in Tikrit on Sunday. And no, Ibrahim was not being held in any U.S. facility.

U.S. officials said they were awaiting more information from the Iraqis.

"I can say very firmly that we cannot confirm" news of the capture, a U.S. Embassy official said. "We want to emphasize that we have no confirmation of any of this."

By nightfall, U.S. officials were suggesting that perhaps there had been some other operation somewhere in Iraq in which Iraqi forces had captured somebody that might look a bit like the red-mustached, baldheaded Ibrahim, an uneducated former ice seller.

Military officials managed to turn up an Iraqi national guard operation in Tikrit on Friday that aimed to take out insurgents who had been firing mortars at a coalition base.

The tally wasn't quite 70 dead and 80 captured, however. The operation resulted in three arrests.

"This is likely a case of mistaken identity," one American official said. "No such operation as has been described took place."

Residents of Tikrit and other nearby towns variously mentioned as the site of Ibrahim's capture were even more confused.

In Tikrit, there were no signs of a major operation. Officials at local clinics and store owners said no U.S. helicopters or Iraqi forces were in the vicinity.

"I haven't seen any American presence, nor Iraqi national guard, except for normal patrols," said Nour Alsami, whose Tikrit shop is on a street filled with clinics. "I haven't heard any confrontation."

Tikrit security officials professed even more puzzlement. A national guard commander said his men had conducted no operations in Tikrit or nearby regions.

"If such a thing is happening, everybody knows it," said a police academy official in Tikrit. "I have not heard or seen any kind of confrontation."

By late Sunday, the Iraqi officials who had been so quick to talk to reporters earlier in the day were not answering calls.

Asked to respond to the confusion over his earlier announcement that Ibrahim was in national guard custody, Interior Ministry spokesman Col. Adnan Abdelrahman had no answer.

"Call the Defense Ministry," he told a news agency. "These are the people who told us this story."

Special correspondent Raheem Salman in Tikrit contributed to this report.

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