Even though Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden are the two most hunted men in the world, the United States has tried to play down the importance of targeting them personally in its worldwide dragnet.
That's in part to avoid demonizing the duo even more than they are and to protect against raising too many expectations if the US never does catch them.
Yet now, as fresh evidence emerges that the two men may be posing serious threats from their shadowy lairs, the US is placing renewed emphasis on capturing or killing the elusive leaders.
This is particularly true in the case of Mr. Hussein. American troops in Iraq are confronting more and more organized resistance from a variety of sources - Baath Party remnants, Hussein loyalists, and perhaps even from disaffected Muslims recruited from outside the country. They are laying almost daily ambushes, adding to the death toll of US soldiers and undermining rebuilding efforts in the country.
While Hussein may not be running these efforts, experts suggest that his mere presence - if in fact he is still alive - inspires some Iraqis to continue fighting and others to cower in fear.
As for Mr. bin Laden, his ability to elude capture also serves to bolster the morale of his far-flung network of acolytes, which he may or may not have a direct hand in running at present. Either way, the terror group continues to show signs of being active. Just this past weekend, the US temporarily closed its embassy in Kenya because of evidence that Al Qaeda was planning another attack on Western interests.
"It is important [for the US] to get them for two very different reasons," says John Reppert, a military strategist at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Mass. "In the case of Saddam Hussein, it is to conclude the operation in Iraq that removed him from power, because there are still many people who fear him while he is alive and others who think they are still serving him while he is alive. In the case of Osama bin Laden, it is because he is still capable of running a global terrorist network wherever he may be."
Intelligence officials now seem fairly certain that Hussein and both his sons are alive and in Iraq. They've begun to intercept conversations of people close to the family in which they are discussing "protecting" Saddam, Uday, and Qusay.
Moreover, the sites of the two US bombings in which Hussein was targeted - March 20 at Doura Farms and April 7 at a restaurant in the Mansur district of Baghdad - have been excavated. No physical evidence has been picked up to indicate they are dead. Besides, says a US official, "There are more than a couple of credible witnesses who say Hussein was not at either of those sites [when the bombs struck]."
The deposed leader clearly continues to weigh on the minds of ordinary Iraqis. Nearly two months after he was last heard or seen, one young woman in Baghdad offers a common view.
"Are you sure he is gone?" asks Minnatollah Amar al-Sgab, a high school student, speaking outside her home on the west side of the city. She quickly glances over both shoulders. "He is like a cat with seven lives," she says. "They say he will appear and open his bag and push all the buttons, and we will all be mud."
Though it may sound paranoid, many Iraqis know well what Hussein has done in the past and could do again. During the 1980-88 Iraq-Iran War, Kurds in the northern town of Halabja welcomed the Iranians as liberators. After the war ended and the Iranians had gone, Hussein launched a gas attack against the village, killing thousands.
American officials acknowledge that Hussein still looms large. "I would obviously much prefer that we had clear evidence that Saddam is dead, or that we had him alive in our custody," L. Paul Bremer, who is running the rebuilding effort in Iraq, said last week. "[Not having him] allows the Baathists to go around ... saying, 'Saddam is alive, and he's going to come back. And we're going to come back.' "
The US has ratcheted up its search for Hussein. His personal secretary, the fourth highest in the military's deck of cards, was taken into custody last week. Task Force 20 - a secretive military unit believed to be made up of the Army's Delta Force, elite Navy Special Operations squads, and the CIA - is scouring the country for him. "We're doing everything we can - looking, listening, ferreting - trying to find these guys," says a US official.
Catching Hussein will pivot in part on monitoring communications. Eavesdropping has helped US authorities capture many of his inner circle so far. About half the members in the deck of 55 cards are in custody. "All of them rely on electronic communications now, so that makes them vulnerable," says Mr. Reppert.
Eventually, Hussein will need cash and may tap one of his overseas accounts. Consequently, following the money trail will be important as well. Yet, however it's done, experts say, it is becoming urgent to get him. "Until Hussein is captured or known to be dead, there is a certain reticence on the part of those who are aware of what he did and could do again," says Robert Pfaltzgraf, an expert at Tufts University's Fletcher School in Medford, Mass. "In World War II, we know that Hitler was in that bunker and was destroyed." That was necessary, he says, for the Nazi movement to end and rebuilding to begin.
• Warren Richey contributed to this report from Baghdad.