The United States has begun a covert mission to acquire Iraq's intelligence archives and has contacted members of Baghdad's notorious Iraqi Intelligence Service, called the Mukhabarat, U.S. officials say.
The sources said the task is being carried out by military special-operations units whose goal is to find and safeguard reams of intelligence documents that would tell a fuller story of Saddam Hussein's brutal 24-year regime.
"One of the targets of special [operations] in this war is to get the raw Iraqi intelligence files — the archives," one official told The Washington Times.
It is public knowledge that the U.S. government had contacted Iraqi military commanders, including some in the Republican Guard, about their surrender or orchestrating a coup against Saddam. But what had not been disclosed are the ongoing contacts with selected intelligence officials.
"We've been in contact with those people," the official added. "We know the value of the Iraqi files."
The belief is that the papers would document the full spectrum of Iraqi war crimes, as well as Baghdad's ties to international terrorist groups, such as al-Qaida, and where it may be hiding weapons of mass destruction.
Officials also hope the files disclose Iraq's arms-buying network around the world.
The United States suspects French and Russian firms of violating U.N. sanctions by shipping arms to Iraq through third parties. France built Iraq's layered air-defense system and assisted with Saddam's nuclear-bomb program.
Russia sold Saddam most of his ground and air arsenal, including T-72 tanks, armored personnel carriers, shoulder-fired anti-aircraft weapons and jet fighters.
The allies have dropped bombs and missiles on various Mukhabarat directorates in the capital, Baghdad. But U.S. officials said the strikes do not mean that the service's archives have been destroyed.
The officials say they expect that the documents would detail any direct ties Saddam's regime has to members of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda group and various other terror networks that operate out of Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.
If the papers told of such linkages, they would bolster President Bush's argument that ordering a military strike to oust Saddam is part of a global war on terrorism, begun after the Sept. 11 attacks.
The Bush administration also hopes to find evidence that Iraq has been violating U.N. sanctions for 12 years by bribing foreign officials to ship prohibited weapons.
"Iraq operates a buying network, and people are paying off foreign businesses for the stuff it needs," another official said.
The United Nations imposed a series of sanctions after the 1991 Persian Gulf war and ordered Iraq to rid itself of weapons of mass destruction.
The Iraqis are considered meticulous record keepers. For example, U.N. weapons inspectors found a plethora of documents throughout the 1990s on the conduct of the Iran-Iraq war. The U.S. administration has an indication that there are similar narratives inside the Mukhabarat on a wide array of Saddam's policies and contacts with foreign governments.
Asked yesterday on NBC's "Meet the Press" whether the United States would find the Iraqi documents once the war is over, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said, "You never know if you will find the files. We have information that they have been dispersing their documentation files, putting them in private homes, burying things, and trying to avoid being caught in that. But I suspect we will."
Military analysts say the Mukhabarat is the most important arm of Saddam's state security system. It is a spy agency as well as an internal security police force.
It is overseen by Saddam's heir apparent, his son Qusai, who also supervises the defense of Baghdad, and Iraq's paramilitary forces, that may put up a last stand against approaching allied troops.