' simple, honorable' way out for fugitive defense minister
Wednesday, September 17, 2003
By Scheherezade Faramarzi
The Associated Press MOSUL, Iraq — In a letter shown Tuesday to The Associated Press, a U.S. general promised to treat Saddam Hussein's fugitive defense minister with the "utmost dignity and respect" if he surrendered.
A mediator said American forces also were willing to take Sultan Hashim Ahmed's name off the 55 most-wanted list and not prosecute him if he turned himself in.
Special treatment for Ahmed could be an effort to defuse the guerrilla-style attacks that are taking a toll on American soldiers.
Many of the attackers are thought to be former soldiers in Saddam Hussein's army. Seeing their former military leader well-treated by the Americans might encourage them to lay down their arms.
Ahmed is not believed to have participated in guerrilla attacks against U.S. forces.
The offer — made in a letter by Maj. Gen. David Petraeus, dated Aug. 28 — was in response to a request by Ahmed's family and tribal chiefs that the Army remove Ahmed's name from the most-wanted list in return for his surrender. Petraeus commands the 101st Airborne Division, which controls northern Iraq.
His men stormed the Mosul villa where Saddam's sons were killed in a fierce firefight July 22. Mosul is the biggest city in northern Iraq and the place where many among Saddam's former leadership are believed hiding.
There were indications in Mosul that a deal was near.
Maj. Mike Shervington, spokesman for Col. Joe Anderson, commander of 101st Airborne's 2nd Brigade, said his boss was involved in negotiations on the issue Tuesday night.
Dawood Bagistani, a human rights activist in Mosul, is mediating between the Americans and Ahmed's family.
He said his inquiry had found no complaints issued against Ahmed by Iraqis.
"If we were not certain of his innocence, we wouldn't have intervened," Bagistani said. He said Ahmed was liked by all the people here — Kurds, Arabs, Sunni and Shiite Muslims and Christians.
Other members of the former regime have been implicated in human rights abuses.
Bagistani had planned an appearance on local television Tuesday night to tell Ahmed that the Americans had agreed to take his name off the most-wanted list if he first surrendered. That announcement was later postponed until Wednesday, he told AP.
The offer, Bagistani said, would call for Ahmed to be kept in American custody only long enough for him to be thoroughly questioned. He could then return to normal life and would not be prosecuted by the Americans.
Petraeus' letter sought to assure Ahmed he would not lose face.
"I offer you a simple, yet honorable alternative to a life on the run from coalition forces in order to avoid capture, imprisonment and loss of honor and dignity befitting a general officer," Petraeus said in the letter shown to AP by Bagistani.
"I officially request your surrender to me. In return, I will accept this from you in person. You have my word that you will be treated with the utmost dignity and respect, and that you will not be physically or mentally mistreated while under my custody. As a sign of good faith, I will personally ensure that my staff will attend to any medical conditions you have," the letter over Petraeus's name and a signature said.
There were reports before and during the American-led invasion that Ahmed was actually cooperating with the Americans. That was never confirmed.
During the 1991 Gulf War, Ahmed, then a lieutenant general, was deputy chief of staff of the Defense Ministry, and was picked by Saddam to head the Iraqi delegation at cease-fire talks at Safwan, an airstrip just north of the Kuwait-Iraq border.
Ahmed was responsible for persuading Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf to allow Iraq to use military helicopters on official business. The allies came to regret that decision a month or so later when the Iraqis used helicopter gunships to help quell rebellious Shiites in Basra and Kurds in the north.
Bagistani said the Americans have an idea where Ahmed is hiding. He said he was worried that if Ahmed took too long to respond, U.S. troops would take him by force, possibly resulting in his death or injury.
A leader of the al-Tai tribe to which Ahmed belongs said if the Americans removed Ahmed's name from the most-wanted list, the tribe would invite them to a party and slaughter 150 sheep in their honor.
The Americans should take Ahmed's name off the list to achieve peace in Iraq and win the trust of Iraqis, the chief said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
In the letter, Petraeus acknowledged Ahmed's good reputation.
"I understand that you are the most respected senior military leader currently residing in Mosul. Your reputation as a man of honor and integrity is known throughout the country," he said.
He even made a note of camaraderie with his fellow officer.
"Although we find ourselves on different sides of this war, we do share common traits. As military men, we follow the orders of our superiors. We may not necessarily agree with the politics and bureaucracy, but we understand unity of command and supporting our leaders in a common and just cause," said Petraeus.
"However, the collapse of your regime necessitates your thoughtful reconsideration of support. I am concerned that your perceived resistance to the coalition's efforts to bring back this country's honor is detrimental and will result in further and needless loss of lives," he added.
He warned that the U.S. Army would "do all that is necessary to ensure that we achieve our objectives."
"For the future of this great nation," Petraeus said in conclusion, "I pray that you make the morally right choice."
© 2003 Associated Press — All rights reserved.
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