Saddam’s Thai gem spree hints at getaway plan
LONDON: Saddam Hussein has sent his personal jeweller to Thailand on a secret mission to buy millions of dollars worth of diamonds, prompting speculation that he is preparing to flee or send his family into hiding, writes Jon Swain.
Sources with knowledge of the trip revealed that the jeweller travelled from Baghdad to Bangkok via Jordan. They said he bought the gems in the Thai capital in a prearranged deal. “He purchased millions of dollars worth,” said one.
This was the jeweller’s second recent visit to Bangkok. Three months ago the sources said that Saddam’s son Uday had sent him to buy a diamond ring from an American dealer for $750,000.
Saddam is one of the world’s richest men. Before the 1991 Gulf war his personal wealth was estimated at $10 billion. After a decade of United Nations sanctions, however, Forbes magazine’s rich list has lowered his worth to $2 billion.
In a defiant address last week Saddam said he would never desert Iraq or its people in the event of war. He has not left the country since the invasion of Kuwait more than 12 years ago. In an interview with American television last month, he said: “We will die here. We will die in this country and we will maintain our honour — the honour that is required — in front of our people.”
The purchase of diamonds suggests he may now be having second thoughts, at least for his family. Saddam may have opted to convert part of his wealth into diamonds because they are easier to hide and transport than banknotes.
During his iron rule Saddam has proved a master of concealment. He uses doubles and is said never to sleep in the same place on successive nights. His ministers are kept in the dark about where he will meet them.
Although it is the size of France, Iraq does not offer Saddam any easy hiding places. The mountainous areas are mostly in the hands of hostile Kurds and much of the rest is desert. But one Iraqi with knowledge of his regime speculated last week that it may be to the desert that Saddam will instinctively flee. “I am sure he is thinking that way,” the Iraqi said. “He knows that as long as he is not shown on television, captured or dead, the Iraqi people will stay afraid of him and perhaps the army will continue to resist.”
Capturing Saddam may prove easier than tracking his vast illicit fortune. He has gone to great lengths to hide his money. One of the guardians of his fortune has been Barzan Tikriti, his half-brother. Barzan served as an Iraqi ambassador to Switzerland throughout the 1990s. His clandestine parallel role was to manage the financial network used by Saddam to break UN sanctions.
But through an intricate system of kickbacks, Saddam, his family and close entourage have continued to enrich themselves. Saddam has spent part of the illegal fortune he has amassed on a multi-million-pound programme of palace construction. —TST