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One of 2 Iraqis to defect says others want to

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UNITED NATIONS — Two top Iraqi diplomats requested asylum for themselves and their families in the United States — a choice many Iraqis would make if they got the chance, a former Iraqi official said.

Mohammed al-Humaimidi, Iraq's deputy U.N. ambassador, walked into a police station alone on Friday, identified himself and requested political asylum, police sources said.

Senior diplomatic sources said Fela Hesan al-Rubaie, a senior counselor and the No. 4 at the mission, had also made an asylum request. The diplomatic and police sources all spoke on condition of anonymity.

Both Iraqis had been due to return home, having completed their terms at the United Nations.

"Many Iraqi officials, if they were given the chance, would take refuge in another country," former Iraqi ambassador to the Netherlands, Safa al-Falaki, said Tuesday from his home there.

Al-Falaki, 61, resigned as ambassador to the Netherlands in 1992 and later received asylum.

Iraqi officials "are all against the regime in their hearts. Whoever stays is either doing so for personal benefit, out of fear of (the regime's) terror or has limited options of where to go," al-Falaki said.

Another former Iraqi ambassador, Saleh al-Ali, who now lives in London, said the number of defecting Iraqi diplomats is increasing and would continue to rise.

"For those who are due to retire on their return to Iraq, life is very difficult under sanctions," he said, referring to the embargo maintained against Iraq since its 1990 invasion of Kuwait. The sanctions have devastated the economy, causing shortages and high inflation. Choosing exile "gives (the diplomats) a chance of better living conditions."

Al-Ali, 63, resigned as Iraqi ambassador to the United Nations in 1982 — at the height of the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88.

"I saw that this war was becoming absurd, serving only the ruler. I refused to be the lawyer for this devil, that is Saddam Hussein," he said, referring to the Iraqi president.

One of the defecting Iraqis, al-Rubaie, disappeared two weeks ago, after he and his family failed to show up for a flight out of the United States, diplomats said.

Calls to his New York City home went unanswered Tuesday. The doorman at the luxury Manhattan apartment building where al-Rubaie lived said the family moved out two weeks ago.

As senior diplomats, both men seeking asylum would have detailed knowledge of Saddam Hussein's foreign policy objectives.

Another diplomat said that as many as three Iraqis apparently made asylum requests. But a police source could only confirm one asylum request and said that case was turned over Friday to state department officials.

"If someone wants to stay, what can we do?" said Mohammed al-Douri, Iraq's U.N. ambassador. He would not directly confirm or deny whether anyone in the mission had defected.

There was no official confirmation from U.S. authorities.

New York City police officials referred all calls to the U.S. State Department, where spokesman Richard Boucher said "we don't discuss alleged asylum requests."

Officials at the New York district office of the Immigration and Naturalization Service and at the Federal Bureau of Investigation would not confirm or deny the report.

After 11 years of U.N. sanctions imposed following Saddam's invasion of Kuwait, life for millions in Iraq has become exceedingly difficult.

Saddam has blamed the poor quality of life in Iraq on the sanctions; the United States says he has ignored citizens while spending money on the military and on palaces for himself.