WASHINGTON—Before anything else, Saddam Hussein's U.S. captors will want to find out how much the former dictator knows about the anti-American insurgency and any plans it has for more attacks on the U.S.-led coalition that's striving to stabilize Iraq.
"Always first is force protection," said a senior American official, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. "We want to know what he knows about anyone wanting to do anything bad to us."
Only after that, U.S. officials and intelligence experts said Sunday, will American officials begin questioning Saddam about what happened to his nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs and about his alleged cooperation with the al-Qaida terrorist network.
In interrogations likely to last months, Saddam probably also will be asked about chemical warfare against his own people and who supplied components for his illicit arms programs, they said.
Just how much he knows or remembers about these subjects, however, remained far from clear on his first full day in custody after his arrest Saturday night in an underground bunker at a farm outside his hometown of Tikrit.
Many U.S. officials doubt that he'd been directing the guerrilla attacks and bombings that have killed nearly 200 U.S. soldiers and dozens of other coalition members and Iraqis since President Bush declared an end to major combat operations May 1.
Moreover, while Saddam was Iraq's top decision-maker for 24 years, he left it to batteries of top aides and legions of underlings to work out the fine details and operational responsibilities.
"He might not know operational details," said Michael Vickers, a former American special forces soldier and CIA field officer, of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a nonpartisan defense policy institute.
And because of the terror he inspired, many acolytes may well have lied to him about carrying out his directives, to save themselves from arrest or worse.
"He is an intelligence silver mine," said the senior U.S. official, his comments reflecting a belief that the former top lieutenants and midlevel officials who carried out Saddam's orders are considered the "gold mines" of more valuable information.
U.S. officials said Saddam was cooperative, and several experts said they didn't think it would be difficult to keep him talking.
Saddam is 66, he appeared to be tired of running, he doesn't believe in a higher cause for which to sacrifice himself and, in the words of Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the top American commander in Iraq, he's "a man resigned to his fate."
"He is a self-obsessed megalomaniac," said Patrick Lang, a former Pentagon intelligence officer and a critic of the administration's use of intelligence on Iraq. "He will be as agreeable as he can be in the hope of saving his own skin. He is not like Osama bin Laden in that he believes in something bigger than himself."
U.S. interrogators abandoned harsh methods, such as torture, years ago after determining that suspects subjected to violence will say anything to end their mistreatment.
Saddam's interrogators are likely to exploit his weakened state of mind by keeping him in threadbare surroundings and occasionally depriving him of sleep. He would be rewarded for cooperating by gradual improvements in treatment and comfort, experts said.
American officials have employed a similar system for suspected terrorists imprisoned at the Guantanamo Bay U.S. naval base in Cuba.
Saddam's interrogators, experts said, also will try to convince him they're learning everything they need from documents and other prisoners, so he might as well cooperate.
Giving top priority to determining what Saddam may know about the anti-American resistance reflects the urgency that the U.S. military and the White House are giving to halting the attacks. Most of them are believed to be the work of former Iraqi regime officials and Saddam loyalists.
"The thing they want most is to break the back of the resistance. That is really the big fight," Vickers said.
The violence is threatening the administration's plan to hand over power to an interim Iraqi government by July 1, and its efforts to create new Iraqi security forces and begin drawing down the 130,000 American troops in the country.
Saddam's interrogators will be particularly interested in learning if preparations for the insurgency were made before the U.S.-led invasion last spring. If they were, experts said, Saddam would have been in on the effort and would be familiar with insurgent leaders, their strategy, sources of financing and goals.
Many American officials and other experts, however, said they doubted that Saddam was directing the guerrilla war as he hid alone in an underground bunker with no communications gear or maps. His disheveled and disorientated state indicated that he'd spent the last nine months evading capture, not orchestrating the guerrilla campaign, they said.
Among those believed to be most anxious to question him are members of the Iraq Survey Group, a CIA-led contingent that's been scouring the country for evidence of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons programs.
Bush justified his decision to topple Saddam by accusing the dictator of continuing the programs in defiance of U.N. orders, and of cooperating with al-Qaida, bin Laden's terrorist network.
No evidence has been found substantiating those allegations, fueling charges that Bush and his top aides exaggerated the threat from Saddam to bolster public support for the war.
Some experts warned that rather than providing his interrogators with information bolstering the administration's case, Saddam will reassert that he'd eliminated his banned weaponry.
"The Bush administration . . . may not like what they find out," Lang said. "What he says could actually be embarrassing."
Interrogators also might try to obtain information that could be used to frame war crimes charges against Saddam, such as his use of chemical weapons in the 1980s against Iraq's Kurds.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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