| Saddam Hussein’s veteran oil minister Amir Muhammed Rasheed. (AFP)
Baghdad, April 29 (Reuters): US forces said today they were holding Saddam Hussein’s veteran oil minister, Amir Muhammed Rasheed, whose wife is bioweapons scientist Rihab Taha, widely known as “Dr Germ”.
The Iraqi National Congress (INC) political party said another wanted official — Walid Hamid Tawfiq al-Tikriti, governor of Basra under Saddam — had also given himself up and was being questioned by US officials in Baghdad. Their surrender means the US now holds 15 of the Iraqis on a list of the 55 most-wanted members of Saddam’s administration.
US Central Command in Qatar said in a statement that Rasheed had surrendered yesterday, but gave no details. He was number 47 on the most-wanted list, and the six of spades in a deck of cards issued to US troops hunting Iraqi leaders.
Rasheed ran Iraq’s military industries until becoming oil minister in 1995. He was one of the most senior Iraqis dealing with UN inspectors appointed to rid the country of weapons of mass destruction.
The US attacked Iraq on March 20, saying Saddam’s government had run rings around the inspectors and military force was the only way to disarm the country of banned weapons.
Saddam’s government denied having such arms and US forces who toppled the president have yet to discover any.
In Baghdad, a spokesman for the INC said Tawfiq, Saddam’s Basra governor, had surrendered after negotiations through an intermediary. It said intermediaries were also trying to secure the surrender of other fugitives on the most-wanted list.
“Accompanied by his father, they just drove themselves in their vehicle from the place where they were hiding in Baghdad to the INC office,” INC spokesman Zaab Sethna said.
“He was met by officials from the INC and American officials from the department of defence,” he added, saying that US officials were now interrogating Tawfiq. “We had been in contact with him and we convinced him to turn himself in. We got in contact with him through people who knew him and who knew where he was hiding...and people we are using to find other people on this list.”
Tawfiq was No. 44 on the most-wanted list, and eight of clubs in the deck of cards depicting Iraqi fugitives.
Sethna said Tawfiq was a member of Saddam’s inner circle who served as a deputy to Saddam’s son Qusay in the security forces and elite Republican Guards. Earlier this year he was made governor of Basra, he said.
“He is somebody we believe should be investigated for possible invovlement in crimes against humanity,” Sethna said.
“He did give some important information, but I can’t say specifically. He is now in the custody of the US Army and has been transferred to a POW centre.”
Officials questioning Rasheed will be keen to try to discover the whereabouts of his wife, who trained in Britain as a microbiologist. She is not on the list of 55, but US forces want to interview her about her role in Saddam’s alleged attempts to develop biological warfare systems.
The Washington Times newspaper reported earlier this month that she had fled to neighbouring Syria. Officials could not confirm that, or reports that it was her Baghdad home US Marines raided two weeks ago in a hunt for evidence.
Rasheed was last seen by reporters at Doura oil refinery on March 25, wearing green military fatigues and surrounded by burning pits of oil as bombs fell on nearby Baghdad.
Saddam retired Rasheed as oil minister on January 7, when he was 64, only to reappoint him two months later — just 10 days before the US launched military strikes on Baghdad that marked the start of war.
A key Iraqi Shia party said today that Washington ought to back Opposition leaders it helped bring together months ago to form an interim Iraqi government instead of starting the process again from scratch.
Some 250 leading Iraqis met US post-war administrator Jay Garner yesterday and agreed to hold a national conference in the next four weeks to choose an interim administration.
But a senior official of the Iran-based Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) said Iraqi Opposition leaders had already agreed on a blueprint for a new government as part of a process started by Washington last year. He said a six-member leadership council formed by Iraqi Opposition parties in February would meet in Baghdad either today or tomorrow to discuss the issue.
“The council has prepared a draft for an interim government in Baghdad,” said the official, who declined to be named. “Now we are working on the details.”