Hunt for the elusive Hussein
The most likely theory is that the Iraqi leader, if alive, is in Tikrit, where US troops are going.
WASHINGTON — Where is he? That is the greatest unresolved question of the war so far. And one that US officials can't wait to put to rest.
The possibilities are as pervasive as Elvis sightings. Saddam Hussein may be hiding in the dark, dank tunnels beneath Baghdad's streets. Or, to throw his adversaries off, he may be in Baqubah, a town just northeast of Baghdad. He may have changed his appearance and fled to Syria - or Libya, Iran, or Russia.
Or, as many intelligence officials and experts believe, he is holed up in Tikrit, his ancestral home and strongest support base. But he also could be dead - killed in one of the two strikes launched because of tips from within his inner circle.
"Well, he's either dead or he's running a lot," Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of US forces in Iraq, said on ABC Sunday. "But he is not commanding anything right now."
Wherever he is, the US is systematically eliminating the possibilities. Special Forces and CIA paramilitary teams are running down every lead. The US-led coalition has many of Iraq's cities under control, and are now closing in on Tikrit.
Moreover, they've created a deck of cards - with Hussein's face on the ace of spades - to help locate the 55 most wanted regime members. "All the rumors about Saddam and his family will get" checked out, says a US official with access to intelligence. "Clearly the last battle will be Tikrit, and we'll have to see - it's quite possible some of the [family] have gone there."
It's not just that they don't want Hussein to escape à la Osama bin Laden, and continue to wreak havoc from afar. Officials and experts alike believe it is crucial that the Iraqi people know that the irrepressible tyrant, as well as his sons and other close members of the regime, no longer pose a threat. And before the country can begin to heal and rebuild, the thinking goes, its past needs to be set right.
"The Iraqi people expect a real regime change," says Judith Yaphe, an expert on Iraq at the National Defense Institute in Washington. "We're talking about a wholesale change of people and the complete dismantling of [Hussein's] terrible security apparatus."
US forces pushed some 100 miles north of Baghdad into Tikrit Sunday. At time of writing, they reported little resistance. But there was no word yet on either Hussein's whereabouts, or those of his family.
"I wouldn't say it's over, but I will say we have American forces in Tikrit right now," General Franks told CNN Sunday.
If Hussein is in Iraq, it will only be a matter of time, officials say, before they take him. Outside experts and officials point out that the situation in Iraq is much different from that in Afghanistan. US forces were roundly criticized for not having enough troops on the ground to prevent Mr. bin Laden from slipping away. In Iraq, there are thousands of ground forces in place.
A small number (20 or fewer) of CIA paramilitaries are teaming up with Special Forces units to try to locate Hussein and other members of his cadre. They are searching the ubiquitous presidential palaces for hidden escape hatches.
They are plumbing the depths of the tunnels that connect the fortified bunkers beneath the palaces and other buildings. Unmanned predator drones are tracking the movements of the Iraqi leadership.
"You're going to have to find people who were there, who tell you what happened, or else you're going to have to start digging in the rubble...," Donald Rumsfeld, secretary of defense, said on Friday. "That's next."
So far, only one of the higher members has been reported killed. The coalition bombed the house where Ali Hassan al-Majid, known as "Chemical Ali" because of his involvement with the gassing of thousands of ethnic Kurds, lived. Pentagon officials have declared that he is dead.
And on Saturday, Lt. Gen. Amir Saadi, who worked on Iraq's chemical weapons programs, turned himself in to US officials. He continued to maintain that Iraq has no weapons of mass destruction. And he said he does not have any knowledge about Hussein's whereabouts, nor the others contained in the "top 55" deck of cards.
Sunday, Mr. Rumsfeld told reporters that he believed that several members of the Iraqi leadership had escaped to Syria. It has been reported that Hussein's first wife, Sajida, and his two daughters, Raghad and Ranna, whose husbands were executed by Hussein after they returned from a mid-1990s trip to the other side in Jordan, are also in Syria.