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CIA Chief Says Experience in Panama Made U.S. Wary of Pursuing Saddam

January 8, 1993

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ The Bush administration decided against trying to capture Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War for fear he’d slip through U.S. hands the way Manuel Noriega did in Panama, CIA Director Robert Gates says.

″We were a little shaped by that experience, and Iraq is a hell of a lot bigger country than Panama, and we knew a lot less about it than we did Panama,″ Gates said in an interview in today’s Los Angeles Times.

Noriega vanished during the U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989. Four days later, he sought asylum at the Vatican embassy in Panama City. After 10 more days, he surrendered to U.S. authorities.

″I don’t know how long it would have been before we found Noriega, if he hadn’t turned himself in to the papal legate,″ the outgoing CIA chief said.

U.S. officials have said that they did not pursue Saddam because, among other reasons, they believed he would be overthrown after the war.

But Gates, who was deputy national security adviser before and during the war, said the administration had some doubts about that possibility.

Instead, he said a critical reason U.S. forces did not go after the Iraqi leader was the possibility that they wouldn’t be able to catch him.

″I think there was a general feeling that it would not be difficult for Saddam to flee Baghdad and it would be very difficult for us to try and find him,″ Gates said. ″So you’d end up potentially occupying much of Iraq and then having to deal with the consequences of that.″

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