WASHINGTON—Iraq is Saddam and Saddam is Iraq, the strongman is fond of saying.
The Bush administration agrees. Even though they publicly deny they are on a one-man hunt, top U.S. officials remain transfixed by Saddam Hussein, fueling speculation about his fate over the weekend.
Did he die or was he seriously injured in the massive surprise bombing of his daughter's heavily guarded residential compound in southern Baghdad in the war's opening attack? Is he wielding power while secreted in deep concrete bunkers and underground escape tunnels? Is he negotiating exile in Syria? Have his family and the families of other high-level Iraqi officials already fled there?
No one seems to know for sure, not even Mohammad al Douri, the Iraqi envoy to the United Nations, who for days has attested that Saddam is alive because he has seen him on television.
"My guess is that he's hanging in there, but (he's) not fully running things," said one Pentagon official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
U.S. officials on Sunday openly questioned whether Saddam is alive and in control of the regime.
"They have seen an attack on their leadership, and we have not seen their leadership since," said Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld on Fox News.
Saddam has appeared on Iraqi television, but U.S. officials question whether the appearances were taped in advance.
Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, "it's really hard to tell (if Saddam is alive and in charge of the regime)."
"We have not seen Saddam Hussein or his sons alive yet on TV—live on TV," Myers said on the CBS program "Face the Nation."
Officials also questioned why lower-ranking officials are acting as spokesmen for the regime. "You would think that somebody a little bit higher in the regime would be out there talking about the situation," Myers said.
This week, appearing in the background as the Iraqi defense minister briefed reporters was a man who bears a resemblance to one of Saddam's bodyguards who has never been known to leave his side.
"It may be an indication that Saddam Hussein is not moving around much (because he is either dead or injured)," Rumsfeld said.
He also confirmed "there are rumors" some of Saddam's family has fled to Syria. But, he said, "where is Saddam Hussein? Where is Qusai, where is Odai—his sons? They're not talking."
"The bottom line, in terms of his status, we still don't know," said a U.S. official. None of the videos of Saddam broadcast to date "couldn't have been recorded prior to the attack," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Many private analysts say they believe Saddam and a core of his top lieutenants are still alive if for no other reason than the fact that, without them, the regime would begin to unravel.
Some U.S. analysts believe that one or both of Saddam's two sons were killed in the opening-day attack, said a senior administration official. But the Bush administration apparently still has no solid proof of that.
Qusai is by far more powerful than his erratic, unstable brother, overseeing Iraq's numerous interlocking security services.
As for Saddam, the senior U.S. official said he knew of no proof that the Iraqi leader is alive or dead. "Most people think he was wounded pretty grievously," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Michael Swetnam, a former CIA analyst who is chairman of the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies in Arlington, Va., believes "fragmentary" evidence points to a dead or crippled Saddam.
"This really is a regime that can be toppled by bringing down Saddam Hussein and his lieutenants. If you are able to get rid of the top guys who control it all and you can convince the population that they are gone, the country could turn overnight," Swetnam said. "Don't let what the administration publicly says fool you. The top focus of the intelligence community is finding this guy and his top guys. We are really targeting him like we have never targeted leadership before."
Analysts said the speculation by top U.S. officials about Saddam was probably meant to tell Iraqi forces that resistance is futile.
"I have not seen credible evidence over the last period of days since we started this operation that this regime is being controlled by the top, as we understand the top," said Gen. Tommy R. Franks, commander of the allied forces in Iraq.
Loren Thompson, a defense analyst with the Arlington, Va.-based Lexington Institute, agreed that the behavior of the Iraqi military suggests Saddam was not "giving continuous orders is his typical style."
"Saddam's fate is a critical factor in determining the resilience of the Iraqi resistance," Thompson said. "The whole regime of Iraq is built around a cult of personality centering on Saddam. So we would expect the resistance to wane rapidly if he were dead or disabled."
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.