GENEVA – Now that Saddam Hussein is no longer in power, the race is on to find the billions he is believed to have secretly stashed outside Iraq.
Estimates of the Iraqi leader's wealth range from $2 billion to $40 billion. But experts say it has been so effectively hidden -- from Latin America to Asia -- that the real amount may never be known.
"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, or Indict.
Forrest said official Iraqi government accounts may be easier to spot than accounts belonging to about 200 individuals and firms associated with the Iraqi regime.
"The world must find, freeze and return Iraqi money for the Iraqi people and their future," U.S. Treasury Secretary John Snow said March 21.
The Bush administration seized $1.62 billion in Iraqi assets already frozen in the United States when the invasion got under way last month. Washington urged other countries to follow suit, but many have moved more slowly.
The Swiss government said Wednesday it was freezing Iraqi government and corporate assets until the U.N. Security Council determines who is entitled to it.
Swiss National Bank estimates Iraqi assets in the country at $305 million at the end of 2001. But officials conceded the true figure, which includes payments from Iraq's oil business, may be higher.
France has frozen some $90 million in Iraqi investments from before the 1991 Gulf War. Britain still holds $605 million in Iraqi assets -- most of it linked to Saddam -- that it froze after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990.
"Our overriding aim is for this money to be used as much as possible for the benefit of the Iraqi people," said Simon Moise, the British treasury spokesman.
A U.S. Treasury blacklist, that seeks a worldwide freeze on assets, includes individuals and companies in Britain, Jordan, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.
Rafidain Bank of Iraq, which is on the U.S. blacklist, has branches across the Middle East that continued to operate Thursday.
The Jordanian government hasn't frozen Iraqi public and private assets, but is controlling withdrawals by verifying identities, a Jordanian official said.
Iraqi assets are frozen in Egypt, but not in the United Arab Emirates, officials in those countries said.
Only a handful of Swiss entries appear on the U.S. blacklist, including companies liquidated long ago.
But a confidential report prepared in 2001 by Kroll Associates UK and commissioned by Indict, says that members of Saddam's financial network "are still active in Switzerland."
Saddam's half brother, Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti, was allegedly the chief organizer of a clandestine group of companies and funds handling the Iraqi leader's wealth, according to the Coalition for International Justice, a nonprofit organization based in The Hague, Netherlands and Washington.
Al-Tikriti, chief of Saddam's secret police in the 1980s, used his subsequent nine-year tenure as Iraq's ambassador to U.N. offices in Geneva to set up the network, the coalition says.
Forrest said Kroll found that, despite U.N. restrictions during much of the 1990s, Saddam and his family raked in oil smuggling profits.
"They demanded kickbacks, they bought brokers, they created false front companies and they banked the money abroad in cash, or in accounts for product credit," said David D. Aufhauser, the Treasury Department's general counsel.
Saddam's regime also skimmed off the U.N.-oil-for-food program.
In one scheme, Iraq sold its oil at below-market rates, with the proceeds going into a U.N. account to buy food and medicine for the Iraqi people. Iraq then received a 30-cent per barrel kickback, according to the Coalition for International Justice.
Saddam's assets have long involved guesswork.
The General Accounting Office estimated Iraq earned $6.6 billion in oil smuggling and surcharges from 1997 to 2001. The Coalition for International Justice put the figure at $10 billion.
U.S. officials said Saddam still had $30 billion in secret funds at the end of the 1991 Gulf War.
Estimates of his wealth have since declined. Forbes magazine estimated Saddam's worth at $2 billion a month ago -- down from $7 billion in 2000.
So where did Saddam put the money?
Forbes said he used much of it to build palaces across the desert. Other investigators said he spent heavily on spare parts and weapons.
"Most of that money has been spent on giving support to the Special Republican Guard and his presidential guard and his relatives and friends," said Forrest.
"The amount of money that's outside the country waiting for him and his family -- it could be in the billions but it's probably less."