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Published: Thursday, 4/10/2003

Silent Saddam raises questions


DOHA, QATAR - On a day filled with images of a failing Iraqi regime, the main question that furrows the brows of American military commanders, and likely those of remaining Iraqi generals, is: Where is Saddam?

Is he in particles at the bottom of the pit where the al Saa restaurant used to be?

The CIA thinks so, according to a background briefer at Central Command. But Britain's MI-6 thinks he got away. With hostilities largely concluded in Baghdad, it will not be difficult to gather DNA samples. But it could be days before they are analyzed.

Is Saddam hiding out in the Russian embassy in Baghdad, trying to make a deal to surrender? That's the theory of Nabih Berri, speaker of the Lebanese parliament.

Has he escaped to Syria, as asserted by the occasionally prescient but often unreliable Debkafile, a private intelligence service based in Israel?

Or is Saddam holed up in his equivalent of the Fuhrerbunker in his hometown of Tikrit, a little more than 100 miles northwest of Baghdad?

The question weighs heavily on all those involved in the battles for Tikrit, Mosul, and the oil-rich Kirkuk in northern Iraq. Officials at the Pentagon and here at Central Command say they no longer detect any Iraqi military communications, which means the Iraqi soldiers defending Kirkuk and Mosul have received no orders. If they have access to TV, they can see U.S. troops roaming at will through central Baghdad and their former military headquarters. What are they to do?

Individual initiative has not been encouraged in the Iraqi army, so the garrisons in the north are unlikely for the moment to attack or surrender. But if their radio calls to headquarters continue to produce only static, the war in the north might be over before it is ever really fought. On the other hand, if Saddam is alive and able to contact them or make his presence known, Iraqi troops in the north could put up considerable resistance.

U.S. commanders envision a fight for Tikrit even if Saddam isn't there. The town is filled with his cronies, many deeply implicated in the crimes of his regime.

If there is a battle for Tikrit, the 4th Infantry Division is likely to finish it. The Army's most high-tech division is newly arrived in Kuwait and certain units already may be heading north.

American troops in Baghdad have shed their chemical protective suits, and some no longer carry weapons when controlling crowds. Nevertheless, if Saddam is alive and outside of Baghdad, the possibility of a last-ditch chemical attack cannot be ruled out.

Coalition forces are not yet in control of Tikrit or of the sparsely populated territory in northwestern Iraq near the Syrian border, where Saddam could have concealed long-range missiles.

This is highly unlikely even if Saddam is alive, and a negligible one if he is not. But it remains a possibility.

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Jack Kelly, a former Marine, was deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force during the Reagan administration.

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