WASHINGTON—While U.S. forces reached a military milestone in Iraq on Wednesday, critical elements of their mission still lie ahead—the search for prisoners of war, for Saddam Hussein and his top circle, and for weapons of mass destruction and banned missiles.
The hunt could take months and will require interviewing scores of Iraqis and scouring the regime's notoriously meticulous records and Iraq's vast countryside, Defense Department officials said Wednesday.
It is still not known whether Saddam or his sons survived the U.S. air strike that crushed a building in Baghdad where they were believed to be meeting earlier this week or whether they have fled to Tikrit, the Saddam clan stronghold. The United States has not yet decided to send ground troops into Tikrit, but warplanes repeatedly have struck government and Baath Party targets in the area.
"It is hard to find them when they're alive and mobile. It's hard to find them when they're not well. And it's hard to find them if they're buried under rubble," said Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.
U.S.-led forces will rely on Iraqis for information on the whereabouts of Saddam and his top people. The Pentagon plans to offer rewards for tips that lead to their capture.
Rumsfeld would not say how much money is involved. A Pentagon spokesman said bounties would be in the same range as in Afghanistan, from thousands to millions of dollars. He said he did not know how much the United States would pay for Saddam. Osama bin Laden has a $25 million price on his head.
Tips have "been very useful to us already at low levels, people in towns leading us to Baath party leaders and to schools where weapons are hidden," said Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. David Lapan.
Another key task will be preventing Iraqi leaders and scientists from fleeing to Syria or other neighboring countries. This step is vital for finding and eliminating Saddam's purported arsenal of biological, chemical and nuclear weapons, said a U.S. government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Rumsfeld said Iraqis are unlikely to come forward until they no longer fear speaking out. He offered "carrots and sticks" to those involved in those weapons programs: rewards for those who help; punishment for those who refuse.
"We still must find out everything we can about how the Iraqi regime acquired its capabilities and the proliferation that took place by countries in the industrialized world," Rumsfeld said. "We need to locate Iraqi scientists with knowledge of these programs."
The hunt for weapons of mass destruction is being led by U.S. Special Forces and by the U.S. 75th Exploitation Task Force, a unit of intelligence officials from the Central Intelligence Agency and the Defense Intelligence Agency that reports directly to the U.S. Central Command.
A defense official estimated that only 1 percent of the suspected sites had been searched so far. "There's going to be a thousand sites we look at," the official said on condition of anonymity.
So far no chemical, biological or nuclear weapons have been found.
"The regime is so good at hiding weapons of mass destruction," Lapan said. "We suspect we will only find them after we can talk to people who know where there are hidden tunnels and caves."
Several times in the past week, American troops moving north along the spine of Iraq have come across stored quantities of what appeared to be blister or nerve agents, but tests have been inconclusive.
In one case, more than a dozen soldiers were sickened or developed rashes after they spent time in or around a military installation near Albu Muhawish, a town east of Karbala.
Maj. David Wolken, a physician at a MASH unit, said there was no question in his mind that the rashes were connected to the men's exposure to chemicals, but probably not "finished" nerve agents.
"It could take time," the defense official said. "When we are able to glean information from the local population—when the humanitarian aid really starts flowing—that's when we may learn more."
Defense officials also expect tips from Iraqis will help them track down Scuds and other banned missiles.
"The challenge is going to be to prevent the Iraqis from covertly rearming Iraq when the U.S. interim administration leaves," said John Pike, a defense analyst with Alexandria, Va.-based research group GlobalSecurity.org. "The problem is Iraq lives in a dangerous neighborhood. All of its neighbors have these weapons. To persuade Iraq to be the only disarmed country in the region may prove difficult."
Another mystery that U.S. forces hope to quickly unravel is the fate of seven American prisoners of war who were captured by Iraq troops. Uniforms with bloodstains and bullet holes believed to belong to the POWs were discovered at the Rasheed military prison, which Marines seized on Tuesday. "We want to rescue them if possible or, if they were killed, we want to return their remains to their families," Lapan said.
A team from the 75th Exploitation Task Force is searching for Navy Lt. Cmdr. Scott Speicher, shot down over Iraq on the first night of the 1991 Gulf War.
Also unaccounted for are at least 700 Kuwaiti prisoners of war missing since the last Gulf war.
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Tom Lasseter contributed to this report from Iraq.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.