The Search for Saddam's Fortune: Financial Sleuths Currently Are Trying to Navigate Saddam Hussein's Byzantine Money Trail. but Finding His Fortune and Seizing It Are Two Separate Challenges. (the World: Finding Money)

Article excerpt

The great Saddam cash hunt is afoot. The U.S. Treasury believes it has identified more than $1 billion in previously unknown accounts and the Bank of England already has frozen $648 million in British banks. But some experts say that could amount to less than 5 to 10 percent of what the U.S. and British governments could grab from what Saddam Hussein and his family have stashed if Iraq's former finance minister, Hikmat Ibrahim al-Azzawi, and Saddam's half-brother, Barzan al-Tikriti, both currently in U.S. custody, tell what they know about the whereabouts of the deposed dictator's personal fortune.

Estimates of the Iraqi leader's wealth range widely--from $2 billion to $40 billion. "There is a network of money that has been sent out of the country, and it has been given to people to invest or to keep," said Charles Forrest of the U.S.-funded International Campaign to Indict Iraqi War Criminals.

Others doubt the Saddam fortune will end up amounting to much. Forbes magazine recently estimated the ousted Iraqi leader's worth at $2 billion--down from $7 billion in 2000. The magazine says Saddam squandered much of his wealth on building 50 presidential palaces across Iraq. Others speculate that he was forced to dip into his personal fortune to obtain spare parts and weapons for the army that kept him in power. Meanwhile, the Bush administration's financial warriors and the sleuths working for creditors eager to collect on decades-old debts are convinced there will be sizable amounts of cash around to seize.

Finance minister al-Azzawi could be the key. He was a crucial figure in helping Saddam circumvent economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990. On April 19, a group of Iraqis acting as a local police force handed al-Azzawi over to U.S. Marines--the fifth top member of the ousted regime to fall into coalition hands.

The big question now is how much al-Azzawi knows--so too with the former dictator's half-brother, who in the 1980s and for much of the 1990s oversaw Saddam's financial empire. The suspicious Saddam always was careful to rule by division and never trusted fully any of his inner circle, say Iraq specialists, so no one individual is likely to know all the secrets.

As the financial sleuths in Washington and London dig into Saddam's finances and try to track his cash, other figures are likely to pop up who may be able to cast some light on the missing boodle. These may include non-Iraqi bankers and moneymen such as the Swiss-based Elio Borradori, who has started to talk to the Western press about how he advised the Iraqi leader for more than a decade on how to channel hundreds of millions of dollars into offshore companies scattered across the globe.

Borradori served as a company trustee for Saddam in the tax havens of Liechtenstein and Switzerland, and oversaw some of the financial aspects of the Iraqi dictator's arms deals and development contracts. He says a lot of money was funneled in the 1980s into companies controlled by Saddam appointees operating in Panama, the Bahamas and Switzerland. The appointees included diplomats, businessmen and expatriates loyal to Saddam.

Borradori recently told the London Sunday Times that millions apparently were moved through an account code-named "Satan" at the Banca del Gottardo in Nassau in the Bahamas. Just before Gulf War I in 1991, $1 billion was wired quickly via the Satan account alone to be hidden around the world. Bank of England sources say that account still was being used until fairly recently.

The Bush administration has said that any funds looted from Iraq by Saddam, his family and his cronies should be devoted to the rebuilding of Iraq. "The world must find, freeze and return Iraqi money for the Iraqi people and their future," U.S. Treasury Secretary John Snow declared March 21. But some creditors are expected to object and try to persuade foreign courts that they, too, have a claim on the assets. …