WASHINGTON—A war-opening strike against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and his inner circle appears to have significantly shaken the Baghdad regime, although the fate of Saddam and his two sons remained unknown, Bush administration officials said Thursday.
A tape of Saddam broadcast on Iraqi television after the strike appeared to be the Iraqi leader himself, rather than a double, the officials said. They cautioned that computer analysis of the person's voice, mannerisms and appearance was continuing and that no definitive conclusions had been reached.
CIA analysts have not determined whether the tape was live or prerecorded before the attack, said U.S. intelligence officials, speaking on condition of anonymity.
But one official said that the U.S. intelligence community had picked up indications recently that the Iraqi regime was preparing several tapes of Saddam to have "in the can" in the event of a U.S. strike, to portray the Iraqi leader as still in control.
Another official said that the "limited and piecemeal" Iraqi response so far to the first day of U.S. attacks could be a sign of confusion in the Iraqi leadership, or that Saddam's control of Iraqi security forces had been severed.
"There's been no unified counterattack," said the official. "A few commanders are doing little things. A lot more aren't doing anything."
The cruise missile and air strike was launched Wednesday after the CIA learned that senior members of Saddam's inner circle—possibly including the Iraqi leader and his sons Uday and Qusay—had gathered in a bunker under a home in southern Baghdad.
That prompted a sudden change in U.S. war planning, pre-empting plans to open the war with a massive series of airstrikes on Thursday.
"An opportunity presented itself that one took," Secretary of State Colin Powell said in an interview Thursday. "It was a credit to our military and intelligence officials that they were able to deal with this It really was impressive, and I know about such things. It was good."
Powell, who was in the White House meetings Wednesday until he left to call Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and other leaders, said there was no debate about the legality of targeting a foreign leader. The United States was at war and "we were going after the leadership of the enemy forces, the opposing forces," he said.
CIA Director George Tenet, who made the case for the early strike, remained confident that the attack by Tomahawk cruise missiles and F-117 "stealth" attack planes carrying 2,000-pound, satellite-guided bombs killed or incapacitated at least one and probably more top Iraqi leaders, a senior U.S. official said.
There was an unconfirmed report, apparently from Russian intelligence agencies, that Qusay, the more powerful of Saddam's sons and head of Iraq's pervasive security forces, had died in the attack.
Most analysts believe that without Saddam, who has ruled Iraq with bloody ruthlessness since 1979, the regime would soon collapse.
Qusay and the unstable Uday, who was wounded in a 1996 assassination attempt, "don't have the presence or gravitas" to take their father's place, said former CIA profiling expert Jerrold Post, director of George Washington University's political psychology program.
In reference to the tape, Post, who has prepared psychological profiles of the Iraqi leader, said, "My gut reaction (was) that doesn't look like Saddam to me."
In analyzing the seven-minute tape of Saddam, Post said, CIA experts are comparing the voiceprint with known recordings of the Iraqi leader and matching the image with previous appearances, a process not unlike interpreting satellite photos.
Another senior U.S. official said there could be "a good deal of uncertainty for a long while" about the tape and the fate of Saddam.
"If it is him, he clearly had a bad night, because he doesn't look too good," the official said, referring to Saddam's puffy and bleary-eyed appearance.
But this official and others said there were several clues suggesting that the broadcast may have been pre-recorded.
The person on the tape mentions the date of the U.S. attack, but that could have easily been guessed beforehand because of President Bush's ultimatum for Saddam to leave Iraq, which expired Wednesday evening.
Nor was there any mention of the strike on the leadership bunker, which Saddam might be expected to use to taunt Bush.
"The rest of it is all very generic and could have been done at any time," the senior official said.
Experts said that if he lived through the dawn barrage, Saddam would attempt to hunker down with his most loyal forces, the Republican Guard, Special Republican Guard and Special Security Organization, to lure U.S. soldiers toward Baghdad. The three have a total of about 75,000 men.
Some analysts foresee a "Samson strategy" in which Saddam attempts to bring down the pillars of Baghdad in a catastrophic event with enormous fatalities, reducing stomach for further war in the United States.
Others see him just targeting U.S. troops, a tactic of attrition aimed at making the fight for Baghdad too brutal for the American public to endure for long, swaying international public opinion, and allowing U.S. forces only partial control of Iraq.
"His hope is that he can create what he'd call a Mesopotamian Stalingrad—the vision of horrible street-to-street fighting in Baghdad with chemical weapons going off, with his best troops around him willing to fight to the death," said Kenneth M. Pollack, a former CIA analyst on Iraq.
"Really, what they are going for is a psychological victory," said Pollack, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Saddam, Pollack said, has deeply miscalculated how prepared U.S. troops are for battling amid chemical and biological contaminants.
Judith Yaphe, another former senior CIA analyst who is now at the National Defense University, said Saddam wants the fighting to drag on and wants Americans to see televised images of U.S. fatalities.
"His strategy is to inflict maximum casualties, thinking that we won't go through with it," Yaphe said.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.