Hussein leaves questions about Iraq's missing billions in his wake

Experts say from $2 billion to $40 billion in assets is hidden across the globe.

With Saddam Hussein toppled, the race is on to track down the multibillion- dollar slush fund he hid abroad during his more than two decades in power.

As important as recovering the money to help rebuild Iraq is the task of preventing it from falling into the wrong hands.

Some observers fear the money could be used to destabilize the war-torn country or even to fund revenge attacks against the United States and Britain.

"The money could fall into the hands of terrorists, with Saddam or others in the regime using them as tools for revenge," says Charles Forrest of Indict, a US-funded, London-based international campaign to indict Iraqi war criminals.

Mr. Hussein is believed to have salted away between $2 billion and $40 billion, hiding it behind an intricate web of frontmen and shell corporations spanning the globe.

He drew on it to build marbled palaces, to buy weapons, and to pamper his elite forces to ensure their loyalty.

The exact amount squirreled away by the dictator and his extended family may never be known, analysts say.

The destruction of Iraqi records by looters and fleeing members of the regime will only complicate a task that experts describe as labyrinthine in complexity.

So iron-fisted was Hussein's grip on Iraq that even senior officials in the country's oil sector and central bank had no idea exactly how much revenue was coming into Iraq, or how it was being spent.

"There are vast amounts of money, absolutely pots and pots of it," says Toby Dodge, an Iraq expert at Warwick University.

Money was first siphoned off from Iraq's oil revenues during the 1973 oil crisis, when the ruling Baath Party established a special "fighting fund." That was six years before Hussein became president, but he was a rising power in the government. The fund was to finance the party's return to power in case it was ever ousted, experts say.

Even after sanctions were imposed in 1990, Hussein managed to rake in money by oil smuggling, which is estimated to have brought in $2 billion a year since 1997.

"If it stays as a fighting fund and the Baath a fighting group, then it could be massively destabilizing," says Dr. Dodge. "But my own hunch is it will turn into a very rich retirement fund for any of the family who manage to get out."

Overseeing the clandestine operation was one of Hussein's three half-brothers, Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti. From 1989 to 1998, he exploited his position as Iraq's ambassador to the European headquarters of the UN in Geneva to set up the secret financial network, investigators say.

He is believed to have been killed early last Friday morning when one of his homes was smashed by six satellite-guided bombs fired by coalition aircraft.

Washington has declared that there will be a hunt for what it called the regime's "blood money" so it can be returned to the Iraqi people.

"The world must find, freeze, and return Iraqi money for the Iraqi people and their future," John Snow, the US Treasury secretary, said last month.

Official Iraqi government accounts have been easier to find.

Britain holds $605 million in Iraqi assets, most of it linked to Hussein, which it froze after his forces invaded Kuwait in 1990.

After the Anglo-American campaign to unseat Hussein was launched last month, the Bush administration seized $1.6 billion in Iraqi assets already frozen in the US.

France has frozen some $90 million in Iraqi investments since before the 1991 Gulf War.

Switzerland said this week it was freezing Iraqi government and corporate assets until the UN Security Council determines who is entitled to it.

The first attempt to track down the regime's hidden assets came in the wake of the 1991 Gulf War.

The government of Kuwait hired the New York-based private investigation firm Kroll Inc. to discover if the money could be traced to pay reparations to the emirate following Iraq's seven-month occupation.

A two-year, worldwide investigation revealed that the skeleton of Hussein's secret financial network was made up mostly of shell companies registered in tax havens by lawyers representing someone else. Most of the assets were untraceable.

Kroll was recently commissioned by Indict to update its investigations into Hussein's half-brother, Barzan, and his financial networks in Switzerland.

"Our report, which was delivered to Indict in December 200, essentially found that the networks that had been in place in early 1990s remained intact, albeit in many cases dormant," Kroll, Inc. said in a statement Friday.

Recovering Hussein's hidden assets will be "very, very difficult, if not impossible ... unless Barzan goes turncoat," Dodge said. "There's a huge amount of money sitting somewhere and it's up for grabs."

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