Hunting Hussein grows more urgent for US

As speculation swirls about his role in attacks, capturing him grows more crucial.

In Iraq the statues of Saddam Hussein may have been toppled, but his influence has not.

Seven months after US troops stormed into Baghdad, setting off wild anti-Hussein celebrations in some parts of the city, a new and apparently genuine audiotape indicates that the leader of the old regime is still alive, and at large. That's chilling to many Iraqis - and perhaps a growing problem for the US.

The longer Mr. Hussein remains free, the more doubt pricks at Iraqis' minds that he might, after all, come back. Such doubts could be particularly corrosive at a time when the US is accelerating plans to hand power over to some sort of new Iraqi government. "He's important, but not for reasons that are tactical, for reasons that are strategic, of what he represents symbolically," says Judith Yaphe, a senior fellow and Middle East expert at the National Defense University in Washington.

Only a few months ago it seemed as if Saddam Hussein's run might be at an end. On July 22 a tip from an informer led US forces to corner and kill his sons Uday and Qusay in the northern city of Mosul. Many in the US military predicted that US pressure, plus a $25 million reward, would work, and that Hussein himself would soon be located.

Obviously, that hasn't happened. The most prevalent theory in the US government is that he remains in the "Sunni triangle" north of Baghdad, and that his protectors are motivated by a combination of tribal and economic loyalty, and fear.

Last week the US military commander in charge of operations throughout much of the Sunni triangle went so far as to say that he thought Hussein was behind the recent upsurge in insurgent activity, and that it represented the counterattack that he had planned all along.

Maj. Gen. Charles H. Swannack Jr., commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, told Washington Post reporters that Hussein and his supporters had been surprised by the speed of the US invasion but that they had regrouped and were now on the offensive.

"They were planning to go ahead and fight an insurgency, should Iraq fall," Gen. Swannack told the Post.

Other top US officials have rejected this characterization of the current resistance. They doubt that the insurgency was pre-planned, and insist that Hussein is spending too much time and effort simply trying to stay one step ahead of the US Special Forces to be able to organize anything other than his next meal.

"I think Saddam Hussein is one of the most incompetent military leaders in the history of the world," said Gen. John Abizaid, commander of US Central Command, at a press availability last week.

That doesn't mean he's been removed from the US target list. Behind the scenes the US military has devoted much effort to locating him in recent months. His capture would surely be a significant accomplishment at a time when headlines are full of bad news about US casualties.

Earlier this month Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld hedged on whether Hussein was a "catalyst" for the current insurgency, but he added that the regime's former leader remained a symbol, if nothing else. "I don't doubt for a minute that his being alive gives encouragement to the Baathists and the regime murderers..." said Secretary Rumsfeld in an appearance on NBC's "Meet The Press."

In that context the release of a new audiotape said to be made by Hussein came as no real surprise in Washington.

The tape, first broadcast by an Arab television station on Sunday, urged Iraqis to step up resistance to the US and predicted that Hussein would eventually emerge from hiding in triumph and retake his position as head of the Iraqi nation.

US forces would never be able to truly control Iraq because of the country's intrinsic nation, warned the tape.

"The thwarted ones know that great Iraq, which God blessed with Jihad [holy war] and resistance after faith, that its fires will swallow hundreds of troops and they will not find what they planned or hoped for," said Hussein, according to a translation by Reuters.

US officials said that they had no reason to doubt that the voice on the tape really was that of Hussein. Internal evidence, including some references to recent events, indicated that the tape had in fact been made only a few days or weeks ago.

The fact that it is surfacing now is not necessarily proof that there is an organized insurgency that has reached a turning point, and will now redouble efforts to attack Americans, say experts.

Even loyalists of Hussein who believe him to be still alive may in their hearts know that the US would never allow him to live above ground again, so to speak.

"I don't think there's a thought in [insurgents'] minds so much of the future, as of destroying the present and letting chaos reign," says Ms. Yaphe of the National Defense University.

But it is something of a setback that after seven months of occupation the US should have to worry about continuing to convince ordinary Iraqis that the old regime is gone for good, say some White House critics.

That makes it all the more important to capture him, Democratic presidential candidate retired Gen. Wesley Clark said on Sunday.

Any new Iraqi government would find it hard to establish authority while Hussein remains at large, ghostlike, General Clark said in an interview with USA Today.

"Getting him remains a high priority," said Clark.

Perhaps with this in mind US forces made a strong show of force against suspected insurgent positions in Hussein's hometown of Tikrit on Sunday and Monday. US forces carried out 38 attacks in that period, according to a US military spokesman, destroying 15 suspected safehouses, three training camps, and 14 mortar sites. "Clearly, we're sending the message that we do have the ability to run operations across a wide area," said Lt. Col. William MacDonald, spokesman for the 4th Division.

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