Farouk Hijazi, who once helped run Saddam Hussein's intelligence service and was linked to al-Qaida, has been captured by U.S. forces, American officials said Friday. The announcement came a day after the surrender of Saddam loyalist Tariq Aziz, for years the regime's most public face.
Hijazi, who most recently served as Iraq's ambassador to Tunisia, was once a senior official in the Mukhabarat, Saddam's intelligence service.
He is "the biggest catch so far I would say," former CIA Director James Woolsey told CNN. "We know this man was involved with al-Qaida."
In December 1998, while ambassador to Turkey, Hijazi traveled to Afghanistan and reportedly met with Osama bin Laden, according to U.S officials who cite the meeting as evidence of an Iraqi link to al-Qaida.
Iraqi officials denied Hijazi met with bin Laden, while the main exile group that opposed Saddam - the Iraqi National Congress - contended that Hijazi was the key link between Saddam's regime and bin Laden's terrorist organization.
Aziz - who had been Saddam's deputy prime minister - was undergoing questioning Friday, a day after surrendering to U.S. forces. American officials hope both Aziz and Hijazi may have information about the fate of Saddam and the status of any illegal weapons programs.
Looking ahead, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Washington won't allow an Iranian-style Islamic government in Iraq. Iran in turn rejected Bush administration accusations that it is interfering in Iraq. It said the United Nations - not the United States - should run an interim postwar government.
The commander of U.S.-led forces in Iraq, Gen. Tommy Franks, said those troops could remain for "months, or a year or two" to ensure stability as Iraqis develop their new government.
"The fact is we don't know how long it'll take ... because we do not yet know exactly how devoted the Iraqis themselves will be in getting over their own tribal and ethnic and religious difficulties," Franks said in an interview in Friday's St. Petersburg Times.
Those difficulties could include a drive for an Islamic government by Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority, which was repressed under Saddam.
Rumsfeld said the United States - which has promised to let Iraqis choose their own leaders - will not permit the establishment of a religious government comparable to the one in neighboring Iran.
"If you're suggesting, how would we feel about an Iranian-type government with a few clerics running everything in the country, the answer is: That isn't going to happen," Rumsfeld told The Associated Press.
Aziz was the only Christian in Saddam's inner circle, most of whom were Sunni Muslims. Fluent in English, Aziz served as foreign minister during the 1991 Persian Gulf War and was a frequent spokesman for Iraq at that time.
Bishop Emmanuel Delly - whose Chaldean Christian congregation in Baghdad includes Aziz's wife - expressed some sympathy with Aziz.
"He was a good man; like all of us, he was only doing his duty," Delly said Friday.
Residents of a well-off Baghdad neighborhood where some of Aziz's relatives live said the family had not been seen for about three weeks, but that some of the clan returned on Thursday from wherever they had been.
At one of the family's houses, a woman in her 50s, clearly exhausted, identified herself as a "very close relative," but would not give her name. Of Aziz, she said "He's good, he's fine" and that the family had been worried about his heart condition, but she declined to comment further.
On the U.S. list of the 55 most-wanted members of the former government, Aziz was ranked No. 43. Hijazi - perhaps because of his diplomatic status - was not on the list.
Aziz was detained by U.S. Special Operations personnel after surrendering Thursday, and "is currently being questioned by coalition forces," said Maj. Randi Steffy, a Central Command spokeswoman.
Although U.S. officials hope some Iraqi government ministries will reopen next week, there is no firm timetable for installing a provisional government or scheduling democratic elections.
An initial "all-factions" meeting to discuss the political future was held April 15 in southern Iraq, attended by 80 representatives but boycotted by some groups opposed to the U.S. military presence. A second meeting is expected to be held soon in or near Baghdad.
One of the leading Shiite clerics in Baghdad, Sayyed Ali al-Kathimi al-Waethi, said he and his followers would not agree to meetings with Jay Garner, the retired U.S. general overseeing postwar reconstruction.
"People should rule themselves by themselves. The Americans should leave our country peacefully," al-Waethi said.
Garner and the White House have accused Shiite-led Iran of encouraging anti-American sentiment among Iraq's Shiites. Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi denied this.
"We welcome true democracy and a government run by the people in our neighbor country, but we won't support one specific party," Kharrazi told reporters.
The United Nations refugee agency said Friday that up to half a million Iraqis could go back to their country - many after decades in exile - following the fall of Saddam's government.
Until now, the focus of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees was on preparing for a possible flood of up to 900,000 refugees out of Iraq during the war. However only a handful of people fled into surrounding countries.
UNHCR estimates that 405,000 Iraqis in Iran, Syria and other neighboring countries could eventually return home, along with about 95,000 more, including asylum seekers, from more distant nations.