- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 20, 2005

Saddam Hussein’s henchmen are already casting their votes in this month’s Iraqi elections — with bombs, kidnapping and murder as their ballots.

This antidemocratic campaign has deep and dirty pockets: billions skimmed from Saddam’s extortion, theft and smuggling schemes. The illicit money stash pays for terror and civil war — blood money that spills more blood.

Last September, I wrote a column that argued: “The Iraqi civil war started in summer 2003, when a group of hard-core Ba’ath (and Sunni-dominated) holdouts decided their route to personal survival — and possibly back to power in Baghdad — was relentlessly savage violence.”

As the Jan. 30 election approaches, the holdouts’ violence intensifies — a vicious crescendo of attacks designed to break Iraqi will and shatter American nerve. The Ba’ath fascist reactionaries and Abu Musab Zarqawi’s Islamo-fascist religious zealots seek to deny the Iraqi people the chance to build a nation where the consent of the governed creates legitimacy.

But these thugs will fail. The Iraqi people will deal the Middle East’s ancien regime of tyrant and terrorist a devastating political and psychological defeat. Despite the campaign of chaos and intimidation, a recent poll in Baghdad found 60 percent to 70 percent of the capital’s voters intend to vote. Kurdish and Iraqi Shi’ite leaders predict a good turnout in their regions. Americans can barely manage a 50 percent voter turnout, and here, nobody lobs mortar rounds at the electorate.

The new Iraqi government will confront a host of postelection security challenges, chief among them rebuilding the Iraqi military. The Interim Iraqi Government (IIG) says it now has 11 divisions with 60,000 troops and intends to have 100,000 soldiers by the end of 2005. Raw numbers are misleading — at the moment, only a handful of battalions are trained and reliable. Building an effective army takes years. Until Iraq can assure its own internal and external defense, coalition forces will remain close at hand.

Because money is the spine of the holdouts’ civil war, the IIG has made recovering Saddam’s cash a high priority. There are indications the IIG and the coalition have seriously damaged the former regime’s financial network. In December, the IIG arrested Izzi-din Mohammad Hassan al-Majid. Al-Majid is a former Republican Guard officer, a distant cousin of Saddam and nephew of the notorious Ali Hassan al-Majid (Chemical Ali). The IIG reported that al-Majid, through a thicket of front companies in Europe and the Middle East, controlled from $2 billion to $7 billion stolen by elements of the former regime to fund the current terrorist operations in Iraq. The IIG also said al-Majid was in contact with three terror groups: Ansar al-Sunna, Mohammed’s Army and the Islamic Resistance Army.

It’s an open secret that the IIG believes Saddam’s surviving cronies have financial resources stashed throughout the Middle East. Last summer, the Iraqi government suggested Syria was “harboring” former members of Saddam’s regime. The Syrian government’s vehement denials defy common sense. Perhaps the Syrian government isn’t directly involved, but Iraqi and Syrian Ba’athists have long-term personal connections. At a minimum, Saddam’s money would pay for safe houses protected by Syrian criminal syndicates.

If al-Majid confirms the alleged Syrian connections, expect more arrests as Damascus seeks to placate Baghdad and Washington by providing new intelligence about the cross-border movements of “former regime” personnel.

The search for Saddam’s billions merges with an international squeeze on al Qaeda’s financial assets. Banks, particularly in the Persian Gulf region, have come under careful scrutiny. Several questionable “Islamic charities” in the United States and Europe were shut down after investigators linked them to terrorists. The U.S. has also cracked down on “nonstructured modes of terror financing.” Improved intelligence and international police cooperation have made “informal money transfer operations” by individuals and small businesses more difficult.

If the arrest of al-Majid leads to recovery of Saddam’s stolen billions, it will be a major step toward victory by the Iraqi government.

Austin Bay is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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