WASHINGTON—With 20 of the most-wanted Iraqi leaders now under lock and key, the United States is in a strong position to begin peeling away mysteries of Saddam Hussein's dictatorship, including what happened to weapons of mass destruction.
The 20, who are being held in isolation at an undisclosed Baghdad prison, represent a cross-section of Iraq's political, military and scientific elite. Still missing, of course, are Saddam and his sons, Odai and Qusai.
The International Committee of the Red Cross, which under the Geneva Conventions is entitled to visit prisoners of war, said it had yet to gain access to the former Iraqi leaders but understood there could be legitimate delay for security reasons.
"We understand that, but, for us, this delay has to be reasonable," said Tamara Al-Rifai, a spokeswoman for the relief agency in Geneva, Switzerland.
The captives are reported to be talking to interrogators from the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the Pentagon's Defense Threat Reduction Agency. So far, at least, they are not giving up much.
"We are getting a certain amount of information," said Navy Cmdr. Chris Isleib, spokesman for the Pentagon's Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Aid in Iraq. "There has been some level of cooperation from certain individuals. That is all I can say."
As time goes on, he said, more will come out. Interrogators are gaining enough from reliable sources to start crosschecking the truthfulness of top figures willing to talk.
President Bush on May 2 chastised the best-known of the prisoners, former Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, by saying: "He didn't know how to tell the truth when he was in office. He doesn't know how to tell the truth as a captive."
But analysts say it's hardly surprising that Saddam's followers may be holding out. They have lost power, prestige and possessions. What they know is all they have left to bargain with.
"It's a matter of cutting the right deal for the right information, and that is exactly what's going on," said Ken Allard, a national security expert and former dean of the U.S. Army War College.
Fear of the Saddam loyalists still on the loose—even fear of the former dictator—may also motivate the senior captives to give up information only sparingly.
Until Saddam is proven dead, or in detention, some former leaders may never fully trust that he won't come back, Allard said.
"That's the problem with these tapes (purportedly made by Saddam) that come out," he said. "It sends a shudder through the community."
So far, the most useful information has come not from the most-wanted but from other POWs, about 2,000 of whom remain in custody in the southern city of Umm Qasr. Of those, 500 could be categorized as "high-ranking officials," an Army official has said.
About 7,000 POWs, most of them common soldiers, have been released.
American officials have called it unlikely that troops would simply stumble onto weapons. They may have to be directed to them by Iraqis who know where they are.
Before the war, the United States compiled a list of 580 suspected weapons sites. A Pentagon official said Wednesday that 70 had had been inspected. Meanwhile, thanks to information provided by Iraqis, an additional 40 sites have been added to the list.
Besides banned weapons and remaining regime honchos, the United States most wants to find Navy pilot Michael Scott Speicher, who was shot down in the 1991 Persian Gulf War and is listed as missing in action.
The U.S. Central Command, which last month posted a list of the 55 most-wanted figures, has identified each of the 20 who have surrendered or been taken prisoner.
The top figure in custody, at No. 10 on the list, is Muzahim Sa'b Hassan al Tikriti, leader of the Iraqi air force. He also had the job of keeping a lid on the rebellious Shiite Muslim population in the Shiite holy cities of Najaf and Karbala.
Next, at No. 16, is Abdel Tawab Mullah Huweish, director of the Office of Military Industrialization and deputy prime minister in charge of arms development.
Also in jail is Muhammad Hamza al Zubaydi, a onetime member of the Iraqi Revolutionary Command Council. At No. 18, he is known as Saddam's "Shiite thug." He played a key role in crushing a Shiite uprising after the 1991 Gulf War. Ibrahim al Marashi, an Iraq scholar at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, Calif., labels him as "one of the more ruthless members of Saddam's regime."
Next on the list, at No. 21, is Gen. Zuhayr Talib Abd al Sattar al Naqib, who headed the Directorate of Military Intelligence. Marashi said he definitely would know where weapons of mass destruction might be concealed.
The United States, at this point, is not sure to what extent Iraq had chemical or biological weapons in stockpiles. A month of searching has turned up nothing.
But defense officials say Iraq clearly had programs to build chemical and biological weapons.
Lt. Gen. Amer al Saadi, seen as a top official in Saddam's chemical and bioweapons program, told a German television network as he surrendered on April 12 in Baghdad that Iraq never had such weapons.
A scientist with the coalition nickname of "Mrs. Anthrax" was taken into custody last weekend. That was Huda Salih Mahdi Ammash, the only woman on the most-wanted list, at No. 53. Awarded a doctorate in microbiology by the University of Missouri, she was described as having intimate knowledge of Iraq's bioweapons programs.
Marashi, the Iraq scholar, said that captured scientists could provide valuable information on Iraq's capabilities to produce banned weapons but might not know what happened to stockpiles.
To really learn that, he said, the coalition may have to capture either of two figures who he said were in charge of the "concealment apparatus": Odai Hussein and Saddam's personal secretary, Barzan Ibrahim Hasan al Tikriti.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.