Dozens, and perhaps hundreds, of Iraqi officials escaped to Syria, according to fresh assessments by intelligence organizations including the U.S., British and Israeli services, which were surprised by the large numbers involved after initial estimates that only a few dozen made their way to Syria during or prior to the war.
But while the escapees include relatively high-ranking officials, and at least one minister, Saddam Hussein and his inner circle are not believed to be in Syria.
The large number of Iraqis who found refuge in Syria is why Washington and London have stepped up pressure on Damascus and the reason for U.S. warnings that it might take action against Damascus. That pressure regarding people wanted by the U.S. has already begun to have an effect on Syria, which told American and British officials it has closed its border and is not accepting more Iraqis seeking refuge. The Syrians say they had turned down a request by the former Iraqi industry minister to be granted political asylum in Syria, and two deputy ministers were also turned down.
But for the Americans, the test of Syrian intentions is not over. They want a precise listing of all Iraqis who fled to Syria - and want them returned to Iraq. The assumption is that among those who found refuge are some considered war criminals.
The intelligence services believe that many if not most of the Iraqis made their arrangements to flee Iraq before the war, preparing cash and documents for a journey through Syria to other countries. Some may have already exited Syria.
It is known that Jafer Jafer, who headed Iraq's atomic energy commission in the early 1990s, turned himself into the Americans. One report said he went through Syria to Jordan, where he gave himself up.
So far, there is no full list of wanted men who have found refuge in Syria but the intelligence services are assuming Saddam Hussein and his closest associates, including his sons, are not among them. There are unconfirmed rumors in Baghdad that Saddam was smuggled out of Iraq in the convoy of the Russian ambassador who left Baghdad for Damascus - the convoy was bombed by American planes, and several people were wounded in that attack. But the report has not been confirmed, and Saddam is believed to be in hiding in Iraq, which means the chances of ultimately finding him are good. However, his fate may not become clear, as is the case of Osama bin Laden, who has not, with certainty, been seen alive or dead since al-Qaida was expelled from Afghanistan and the Taliban regime collapsed.
The Americans, however, say they have DNA samples of Saddam, and that they are systematically examining sites they bombed for evidence that he is dead.
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