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Danes Hunting for Former Iraqi Commander Who Vanished

Nizar al-Khazraji disappeared from his exile home in Denmark three days before the war on Iraq begn. And the Scandinavian country's leaders want to know why.

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Missing: Former Iraqi Gen. Nizar al-Khazraji

In the months that led up to the U.S.-led war against the regime of Saddam Hussein, a former Iraqi commander kept track of events from his exile home in Denmark and awaited the outcome of a investigation into his alleged role in the poison gas attacks on Kurds in 1988.

While waiting, Nizar al-Khazraji gave occasional interviews in which he assessed the possibility of the United States would launch a war against Saddam's regime. "I doubt whether the Iraqi army will put up as tough a fight as they could. Particularly because the soldiers know that a war could have been avoided if Saddam had resigned," he told DW-TV earlier this year.

But on March 17, three days before the first U.S. cruise missiles raced toward Baghdad, al-Khazraji was nowhere to be found by anyone -- journalists, friends or family members. His disappearance has prompted the country's government to ask the United States for any information it might have on him and triggered a flurry of critical questions from Denmark's political opposition.

Denmark asks U.S. for answers

The country had two possible reasons for turning to the United States, its ally in the war against Iraq, on Wednesday. First, al-Khazraji reportedly had been considered as someone who could play a large role in a postwar Iraq. Late last month, several U.S. officials even said he was believed to be working with U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf, according to the California newspaper The Mercury News. Second, Danish officials are wondering whether U.S. intelligence agents helped him flee even though he was under a court order to remain in the country.

In a letter to U.S. Ambassador Stuart Bernstein, Danish Justice Minister Lene Espersen cited several Danish newspaper articles suggesting that the Central Intelligence Agency may have been involved.

"Against this background ... I kindly ask you to provide me with any information from relevant American authorities on the circumstances under which Khazraji disappeared and his whereabouts since March 17, 2003," she wrote.

Espersen noted in her letter that the disappearance had been the subject of intense debate in the Danish media and parliament. "Needless to say, such clarifications may also be important in order to avoid unnecessary -- and potentially harmful -- public myths and thus to preserve the excellent relations between Denmark and close friends and allies such as the United States," she said.

Police actions criticized

Anders Fogh Rasmussen in Straßburg

Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen

While trying to clarify the issue internationally, the government of the Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen (photo) is facing domestic criticism about the failings of police officers assigned to watch the former general. This issue led to a debate in the parliament on Wednesday after authorities admitted that they did not launch a search for al-Khazraji until five and one-half hours after they received a missing person's report on him.

"That is bungling and incompetence on the part of the authorities," opposition lawmaker Susanne Brink said. "And the political leadership that we would have expected is missing."

Fogh Rasmussen also expressed his regrets about al-Khazraji's disappearance. "Of course, it is frustrating that the army chief could disappear. And looking back the monitoring of him was not sufficient," he said. "But, now, officials are doing everything possible to clear up the case and find where he is."

Former general fled to Jordan

Al-Khazraji was head of Iraq's armed forces from 1987 to 1990. He fled to Jordan in 1995 after having a dispute with Saddam. Four years later, he applied for political asylum in Denmark. He was denied asylum because immigration authorities thought he may have been involved in the chemical weapon attacks on Kurds in northern Iraq. He was allowed to stay in Denmark under special rules applied to those thought to be at serious risk if they returned home.

Al-Khazraji had been under investigation by Danish authorities for his alleged crimes since 2001. He had surrendered his passport and had to report to police three times a week in his home town of Soro, south of Copenhagen.

Denmark is obligated to investigate claims he was involved in the attacks on Kurds under the Geneva Conventions, which call for countries to prosecute or expel war criminals.

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