BERN, Switzerland – The United States believes it has found at least $300 million Saddam Hussein (search) hid in banks, yet doesn't have enough evidence to get countries such as Syria (search) and Switzerland (search) to hand over the money, U.S. and European officials told The Associated Press.
The funds at stake could go to the Iraq insurgency or the country's reconstruction -- depending on who gets to them first. What troubles investigators more is that much of Saddam's cash may already be gone.
The weak U.S. intelligence and the slow-moving investigation, now in its 11th month, have given suspects more than enough time to empty accounts and possibly transfer some funds to Iraq's insurgency, which has cost hundreds of American lives, officials involved in the search said.
Treasury investigators have been quick to identify leads in the hunt but have been scrambling to come up with solid evidence that could hold up in a court or get the approval of a U.N. sanctions committee.
Much to the frustration of the Bush administration, countries that acted quickly on relatively weak evidence involving Al Qaeda (search) funds have been unwilling to do the same on Iraq, partly because of growing doubts about the quality of U.S. intelligence.
For months, Swiss officials have asked Washington to provide more information on an account belonging to a Panamanian-registered front company that U.S. officials believe is tied to the former Iraqi regime. The account contains the equivalent of $80 million and U.S. officials are still trying to gather enough information for the Swiss to act.
Were the account held in a U.S. bank, federal authorities wouldn't need any more evidence than they already have because the Patriot Act, passed after Sept. 11, 2001, gives them expanded powers of search and seizure.
"We know a lot of countries cannot use intelligence information the way we can use it now after Sept. 11," said Juan Zarate, the Treasury Department's deputy assistant secretary for terrorist financing and financial crimes. "It's not a complete hindrance but we have to provide the right information."
Swiss officials put a temporary hold on the Montana Management account but won't hand over the money to an Iraqi reconstruction fund, as the Bush administration wants, unless it gets more details -- and none were forthcoming during a recent meeting between U.S. and Swiss treasury officials in Washington.
Zarate told AP his office would target new individuals "in the next few weeks," and submit the names to the U.N. sanctions committee, where approval is assured, giving European countries a legal basis to act.
"The reality is, we want to be sure about cases when we go to the U.N. since we're basically marking an individual or a company or an entity. We do have to present some sort of basis for it," Zarate said.
But he said, "when you work bilaterally, things don't necessarily have to be that formal or that definitive."
So far, Zarate's office has given the United Nations the names of five Iraqi entities -- the Central Bank of Iraq, Iraq Reinsurance Company, Rafidain Bank, Rasheed Bank and Iraqi Airways Company -- plus the list of the 55 Most-Wanted Iraqis that the military presented as a deck of cards in the early days of last year's war.
European and Middle Eastern officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said they had peeked into accounts held by children of the 55 and found almost no money. Saddam's daughters, who are living comfortably in Jordan, remain under scrutiny, officials said.
The investigation relies solely on interrogations and information U.S. officials are getting in Iraq. Zarate wouldn't say whether Saddam was cooperating.
No other countries -- not even coalition partners -- have offered names to the U.N. list.
"The onus falls mostly on us to produce lists and to produce leads," Zarate said. The interagency investigation has been "overwhelmed" by documents and CD ROMs collected in Iraq, he said.
So far, the amount of money identified by U.S. investigators is nowhere near prewar estimates of $40 billion stashed away by Saddam.
"We don't know where it is," said Pierre de Bousquet de Florian, the head of France's domestic intelligence agency.
The largest sums uncovered so far are in Middle East banks. U.S. officials are hoping Syrian officials will be encouraged to hand over money once the Swiss do. But there are also concerns that pressuring the Syrians, without sufficient evidence, could hamper important cooperation on Iraq and the war on terrorism.
In October, U.S. investigators went to the Syrian capital, Damascus, and Amman, Jordan, looking for hidden Iraqi accounts. Syria has frozen about $250 million but won't give the money to the Iraq fund because it can't be sure it belonged to the regime.
The Swiss face similar issues.
In some cases, Swiss investigators have been unable to find evidence that would corroborate the information the United States has provided on accounts. In others, they are having trouble establishing whether a crime has been committed by bank clients. The largest accounts may already be emptied out, according to European, Middle Eastern and American officials.
One Swiss official noted that in 1992, Libya managed to pull 425 million Swiss Francs -- or about $300 million then -- from Switzerland after it was given two weeks to cooperate with the United Nations or face sanctions for its role in the bombing of a Pan Am flight.
For U.S. investigators tracing Saddam's money, early efforts focused on retrieving close to $1 billion stolen from the Iraqi Central Bank, including money taken by Saddam's sons. More than $100 million is still missing and some is thought to be in the hands of insurgents.
The interagency investigation, which includes Treasury, the FBI, the CIA and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, is still tracing the serial numbers on $750,000 cash found in Saddam's possession when he was captured nearly two months ago.
Hundreds of millions of Iraqi dollars that were in accounts before the 1991 Gulf War are being turned over to the reconstruction fund. The United States also has asked countries owed money by Iraq to forgive the debt. Most have agreed to forgive most, but not all, of the billions Iraq owes.