BAGHDAD, Iraq—U.S. officials announced Friday that American troops had taken custody of the man believed to be responsible for an April 1993 plot to assassinate former President Bush during a triumphant visit to Kuwait after the first Persian Gulf War.
Farouk Hijazi was captured near Iraq's border with Syria, officials said. In Washington, officials said they suspected that Hijazi had taken shelter in Syria and that the Syrians turned him over in response to pressure from the United States.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld called Hijazi's capture "significant," although he wasn't on the U.S. list of the 55 most-wanted Iraqi officials. "We think he could be interesting, but I would rather not give any details," Rumsfeld said at a briefing at the Pentagon.
Hijazi most recently was Iraq's ambassador to Tunisia. In 1993, he was No. 3 at Saddam Hussein's intelligence agency, the Mukhabarat, when that agency plotted to kill former President Bush, the current president's father, with a car bomb. President Clinton ordered the intelligence agency's headquarters in Baghdad bombed in retaliation.
Hijazi is reported to have met with Osama bin Laden in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in December 1998 while Hijazi was Iraq's ambassador to Turkey, although at the time Iraqi officials denied that any meeting had taken place. In the meeting, according to intelligence reports, Hijazi offered bin Laden safe haven in Iraq, but the al-Qaida chief declined the offer.
The Iraqi National Congress, an anti-Saddam group based in London, claims that Hijazi was a link between al-Qaida and Iraq, but U.S. intelligence officials said they had no hard evidence of such links between the militant Islamic group and Saddam's secular regime.
The announcement of Hijazi's detention came as American intelligence officers began questioning former Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz, who surrendered in Baghdad's Assyrian section Thursday night.
A U.S. official who spoke only on the condition of anonymity said one of Aziz's sons helped negotiate his surrender with the assistance of a friend in the United States.
Military officials wouldn't comment on whether Aziz, who is rumored to be in ill health, had been cooperative, and they declined to provide further details of his surrender.
Meanwhile, there were reports of continued tensions Friday throughout Iraq, though U.S. military officials continued to paint an upbeat picture of developments in Baghdad.
American troops near Mosul, in northern Iraq, skirmished with pro-Saddam forces. Two Iraqis were killed in one firefight and seven were captured. No Americans were injured.
Humanitarian missions arrived from a number of countries, the U.S. Army reported, including the United States, Italy and Jordan. There were also reports that Iran's Red Crescent society was providing medical supplies in Sulaimaniyah.
In Baghdad, electricity was operating at least occasionally in 25 percent of the city, Army officials reported. They also said water had been restored to some extent in much of the city.
It was unclear what information officials were gleaning from the dozen top Iraqi officials who have surrendered or been captured since Baghdad fell two weeks ago. Interrogations are being conducted at a high level, intelligence officers say, and details are being closely held out of concern that other fugitive Iraqis will learn how to evade capture.
No one was certain how much Aziz might know. Aziz, 67, was part of Saddam's movement for 25 years, and was widely known in the West. But in Iraq he was considered outside Saddam's inner circle because he was a Christian and wasn't related to Saddam.
Still, many in Baghdad saw his arrest as a welcome sign that Saddam's regime really had collapsed. Some called for him to be charged as a war criminal. Others said he should be executed.
Iraqis said they associated him with Saddam's atrocities, which included gassing ethnic Kurds, torturing ordinary citizens, and capturing and killing citizens on suspicions of disloyalty to Saddam.
"I think he should be executed. He was doing everything Saddam had been telling him, and he was following orders, that's why," said Haider Mohammed, 35, standing outside the Mother of All Battles Mosque, complete with minarets that look like missiles.
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Carol Rosenberg in Baghdad and Jessica Guynn in Washington contributed to this report.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.