- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 4, 2003

NEW YORK — Iraqi embassies around the world remain open and in the hands of diplomats appointed by Saddam Hussein’s regime, raising fears that they could facilitate the escape of wanted Iraqi officials, U.S. and foreign diplomats say.The United States asked 62 countries to close the Iraqi missions on their territory soon after the war started last month, but the responses were much less positive than hoped for by Washington.”Some Iraqi missions have closed while some remain open,” State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters yesterday. “We have reminded all countries of their Vienna Convention responsibilities to protect Iraqi diplomatic property and respect its inviolability.”Mr. Boucher said he was not able to provide a number for those embassies that have been closed, because “it’s difficult to do a full counting in this situation.”“In some places, the ambassadors or diplomats themselves may have decided it was time to skip town,” he said. “In other places, the governments may have taken some action.”A U.S. official said that 21 out of more than 60 countries had responded positively to an earlier request from Washington to expel Iraqi diplomats who it said were intelligence officers.Diplomats noted that the embassies still can issue Iraqi passports and may have access to some of the more than $2 billion believed to have been smuggled out of Iraq before the U.S.-led invasion. Such assets could be used to assist the escape of Saddam and other top members of his government, most of whom remain at large, the officials noted.The State Department reportedly has advised U.S. Customs and Border Police to scrutinize anyone with an Iraqi passport and to demand a second form of identification before allowing Iraqis in the United States.An unofficial review shows that Iraqi diplomats appointed by the old regime are still at work in many countries, including Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Iran, Russia, Belarus, China, Libya and Tunisia.At least 15 full-time employees remain accredited to Iraq’s U.N. mission in New York, even though Ambassador Mohammed Aldouri left the United States earlier this month. Two dozen more diplomats remain active at agencies of the United Nations in Geneva and in Vienna, Austria, enjoying full diplomatic immunity.Fred Eckhard, spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, said the organization will “continue to recognize the credentials of the current Iraqi diplomats until someone challenges them.”While some diplomats said it could be months before there is an interim government in Baghdad that could claim the nation’s U.N. seat, others doubt it will take that long.U.N. officials said that as long as the world body continues to recognize the credentials of the Iraqi diplomats, their assets are legally immune from seizure by the host countries.Shortly after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, Saddam’s agents tried to lay claim to more than $2 billion in Kuwaiti assets in New York. They were blocked by then-President Bush, who froze the properties to keep them out of Saddam’s hands.The Iraqi “gold rush” was led by then-Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz, who later was promoted to deputy prime minister. Mr. Aziz dropped from sight three weeks ago and is among those believed to be attempting to flee Iraq.

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