NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
It may take weeks or months to find out whether Saddam Hussein is dead. It will take years, even decades, to find his money.
As the situation in Iraq moves into the post-war phase, the search for Saddam's money trail is accelerating. Having already identified and seized more than $1.6 billion in Iraqi assets just before the war began, Washington is preparing to go after more.
Fates of fallen dictators
"The world must find, freeze and return Iraqi money for the Iraqi people and their future," U.S. Treasury Secretary John Snow said in a speech last month.
How much is he talking about? Estimates vary widely -- from $6 billion, as Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage estimates, to $20 billion or more.
Finding it won't be easy. Over the past three decades, experts say, the Iraqi regime established an intricate global apparatus to keep its finances well hidden. Indeed, many people involved in the asset-recovery business doubt that all the money can ever be identified, let alone recovered.
It won't be for lack of trying. Here's how investigators will look for the money.
Looking for legitimate companies
The responsibility for finding the assets will fall to an international task force, still to be assembled. For now, there are active research units within the departments of Treasury and State, as well as the CIA. The British government also is looking.
"One of the first things they want to do is find the corporations that Saddam owns," says Ed Pankau, a Texas-based private investigator. Pankau has worked on scores of asset-recovery projects, including ones involving Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega and deposed Ethiopian ruler Haile Selassie.
"These people live in a world of their own, with an unlimited amount of wealth they have to put somewhere," Pankau says. In the case of Hussein, "he's going to own hotels, shopping centers, and real estate."
Managing all the data is a key element of discovery.
"You start with a look at overall sources of financing," says John Fawcett, of the New York law firm Kreindler & Kreindler.
Fawcett is the co-author of an exhaustive report, "Sources of Revenue for Saddam and Sons," published last fall by the Coalition for International Justice, a human rights organization based in the Hague and Washington.
The study documents a wide-ranging series of transactions, both legal and illegal. The regime imported hundreds of millions of dollars worth of steel from Egypt's Ginza Co., for example, and mechanical equipment from Technopromexport of Russia. It traded for $1.2 billion of wheat from Australia and nearly $500 million worth of rice from Vietnamese partners. It had relationships with some of the biggest banks in Europe.
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Such transactions will be pored over for signs of profit-skimming, embezzlement, and money laundering.
As investigators plow through the information, they start to notice patterns emerging. "Hundreds to thousands of names of individuals turn up," Fawcett says. Investigators then put them all into a database, looking for multiple references.
"The people who keep showing up are invariably connected somehow," says Fawcett. "When you find them, you've narrowed your focus to do more in-depth individual searches."
After the first Gulf War, the security firm Kroll Worldwide conducted a comprehensive survey of Saddam's assets on behalf of the Kuwaiti government.
Kroll found numbered Swiss bank accounts, shell companies, and ownership stakes in a number of legitimate businesses. One of them: Hachette, a publishing arm of the French multinational Lagardere. The Iraqis own an 8 percent stake in the company, which publishes Elle, Car and Driver, and other magazines. (The shares have been frozen since 1991, under a U.N. sanction.)
When Kroll conducts an investigation, according to managing director Peter Turecek, it culls through a vast array of news articles and independent reports. It's not all dry documents in musty government archives.
"Profile articles are great, because they give little hints like 'Mr. So-and-so enjoys sailing on weekends,'" Turecek notes. "With that, we can go and check out boating sales records, and licenses, and docking reports."
Like a jigsaw puzzle, much of the information interconnects, Turecek explains. "What business relationships does he have? Who are his corporate partners? Which financial institutions have been intermediaries in transactions?"
Kroll's earlier study on Iraqi assets, for example, uncovered an international network of individuals and firms involved in laundering activities. They ranged from unwitting giants like Lagardere to active accomplices like a 12-person machine tool company in Ohio.
Looking for bank accounts
On the financial side, the hunt will involve a number of shadowy -- and not so shadowy -- global banking institutions.
Rafidain Bank, a state-owned enterprise based in Baghdad, has for years been widely thought to be a centerpiece of Saddam's financial empire. The bank has branches in Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.
Rafidain is a joint venture partner with some of Europe's leading financial institutions. It has ownership stakes, for example, in banks controlled by Britain's HSBC and France's Credit Lyonnais. (Both European partners have strenuously denied having working relationships with Rafidain, though Rafidain does hold board seats in each venture.)
Just weeks before the war began, Rafidain boasted of its global finance capacity to a Bloomberg News reporter. "The UN is no problem," the bank's Beirut manager said. "You can transfer money from Beirut to Baghdad to any beneficiary if we have a telephone number or account."
According to experts, the ability to move money freely from Baghdad to institutions outside of Iraq is what let the regime build and control its invisible empire of cash.
Investigators say the regime routinely transferred cash through Rafidain and 17 privately owned banks within Iraq to intermediaries in such places as Jordan and Switzerland.
To find evidence of those transactions, the U.S. will be "going through looking for records in the rubble," says Pankau. "Going through CIA files. Searching the trail of contacts and relationships stemming from any transaction that comes out of Iraq."
It's likely they'll find records involving safe-haven banking systems, which operate on the periphery of international finance. Some -- like Labuan in Malaysia, or the island nation of Vanuatu – are not signatories to various treaties that compel open disclosure of criminality.
Although agreements were reached in the 1990s to make asset recovery easier, the system remains difficult to negotiate. Eighteen years after Ferdinand Marcos was overthrown in the Philippines, for example, at least six Swiss banks still are holding deposits he'd made, even though they acknowledge the money is illicit.
For aggressive recovery of assets to take place, "there has to be a regulatory mechanism in place, like a presidential order or a UN resolution," Fawcett says. "For example, a UN Sponsors of Terror list bars travel and financial interaction with countries and agents of countries on the list."
When that happens, the U.S. government and the U.N. can muscle hesitating banks to cooperate by providing names, records, and data.
"There's really quite a bit of pressure put upon banks to report suspicious activity. They face heavier and heavier sanctions," Fawcett said. "Financial police name countries in egregious violation of accepted standards in banking."
Because it threatens the very ability of the safe havens to conduct business, according to Fawcett, the pressure to release records becomes intense.
"Getting on the black list is not a pretty thing."