Captured: the trusted keeper of Saddam's secrets

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The Independent Online

American forces have captured Saddam Hussein's presidential secretary, the fourth highest figure on the Pentagon's most wanted list, who might help resolve the mysteries of the fate of the Iraqi leader and his alleged arsenal of illegal arms.

According to US Central Command, Abid Hamid Mahmud al-Tikriti was taken into custody on Monday, at an undisclosed location in Iraq. A distant cousin of Saddam, he is said by US officials to have been one of the very few people absolutely trusted by the former president. Not only did he control access to Saddam, he is also believed to have broad and recent knowledge of Iraqi chemical and biological weapons programmes.

As the ace of diamonds in the Pentagon's deck of cards, Abid Hamid ranks behind only Saddam himself and his two sons, Uday and Qusay. He is said to have handled key security assignments for the regime, while US officials say he is among the most senior group of Iraqi figures they want to put on trial for war crimes.

Trained as a lawyer and known for his interest in fencing, he was one of the few members of the Iraqi leadership who could give an order, as being from Saddam Hussein, without showing a written instruction. If he is willing to speak he should also be a mine of information since he attended all meetings with the Iraqi leader. If Iraq had any weapons of mass destruction during the war he is likely to know about them.

Much remains mysterious about what on the face of it is a major success for the US occupation force. His capture may have been related to the raids yesterday near Saddam's old stronghold of Tikrit, part of the ongoing Operation Desert Scorpion. It is not known whether he was seized on a tip-off, or whether he turned himself in - perhaps after a deal with American forces.

In the latest raids, soldiers of the 4th Infantry Division went through two farmhouses near Tikrit, in which they found US$8.5m, up to 400m Iraqi dinars, an undisclosed amount of British pounds and euros, as well as $1m of jewellery.

They also captured one of Saddam's bodyguards and up to 50 other people believed to be tied to the security or intelligence forces or paramilitary groups operating under the former regime, according to Major-General Ray Odierno, commander of the 4th Infantry Division. He added: "I believe over the next three to four days, you will hear much more about the number of senior Iraqi individuals we have detained here over the last couple of days." This was a hint that US forces believe they are making significant inroads into what they claim is organised resistance by diehards from the former Baathist regime.

Russian-made night-vision goggles and other equipment were also found. The money, it was being speculated, might have been earmarked for bounties to any Iraqis who attacked or killed US soldiers, as alleged by Ahmed Chalabi, the Pentagon-backed leader of the Iraqi National Congress.

The capture of Abid Hamid came as Congress began inquiring into whether intelligence about weapons of mass destruction had been deliberately slanted or oversold by the Bush administration in the run-up to the war. The House Intelligence Committee held its first closed-door hearings yesterday, while its Senate counterpart met to settle a timetable for its own hearings which could start early next month.