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U.S. continues search for Iraqi leaders

WASHINGTON—With American troops pushing toward Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, the number of places where the ousted dictator could be hiding in Iraq gets smaller and smaller.

Little more than three weeks into the war, the United States and Britain have gained control over most of Iraq's cities, including an ever-increasing proportion of Baghdad.

But not only is Saddam unaccounted for, so is most of his inner circle.

The U.S. military is offering rewards for the capture of regime leaders or weapons of mass destruction. The Pentagon says the sizes of the awards vary, but it hasn't specified the amounts.

"Regime members have tried to escape," Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, said Saturday. "Where are they going? We don't know. We know they're on the run."

The U.S.-led coalition made a score later Saturday when Lt. Gen. Amer al Saadi, Iraq's top scientist, arranged his surrender to an American soldier through a German TV crew in Baghdad. He said, as before the war, that Iraq had no prohibited weapons.

The search for Saddam and his leadership cronies, like the hunt for banned weapons, is a big part of what U.S. special forces are doing in Iraq, along with British special services.

An American intelligence official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said high-tech instruments such as satellites and spy planes were of limited use in finding Iraqi leaders.

"That's like finding a needle in a haystack," he said. "It might work if we saw a caravan surrounded by a number of troops."

Success in hunting down individuals is more likely to come from "human intel," the official said. By that he meant getting information from Iraqis who know where leaders may be and are willing to tell.

"We're getting more every day," the official said.

In addition, the U.S. Navy is patrolling the waters around Iraq, and the U.S. Coast Guard is watching the eastern Mediterranean. One likely scenario is that fugitive Iraqi leaders would come overland through Syria and then try to escape across the Mediterranean, perhaps to north Africa, Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem said on the USS Truman.

Special forces have closed border roads, but the defense official noted: "You can't really seal a border anyplace."

Besides al Saadi, the only top Iraqi publicly reported to have been killed or captured is the man known as Chemical Ali, Ali Hassan al Majid, believed to be responsible for the gassing of thousands of ethnic Kurds in Iraq in 1988.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has said al Majid was killed in a bomb attack on his home in Basra. But Some Iraqis have continued to insist he is alive.

The hunt for Saddam will continue until he is captured, his remains are identified or he shows up in another country.

The Pentagon thought it got him last week when it used four precision-guided bombs to smash a site in the al Mansour district of Baghdad in which he was believed to be meeting with his sons, Qusai and Odai.

Intelligence officials are said to be on the scene looking for traces of bodies, but it would be next to impossible—with Baghdad still in a state of disorder—to dig up tons of rubble.

When Iraqis fiercely defended one particular mosque in downtown Baghdad last week, suspicion arose that Saddam or other regime members might have been there. Nothing turned up.

Similar suspicion arose when Iraqi troops put up an especially hard fight in the town of Qaim, along the Euphrates River near the Syrian border. As of Saturday, there was no word on regime leaders being there, either.

Late in the week, U.S. intelligence monitored a phone conversation between two Iraqi officials talking as if Saddam were dead. But other overheard calls after the al Mansour bombing indicated that maybe he was yet alive.

Rumsfeld said Friday that he couldn't say with "conviction" whether Saddam was alive or dead.

U.S. intelligence suspects that family members of some Iraqi leaders may have escaped over desert roads to Syria. The Pentagon has accused Syria of helping Iraq in the war.

Mohammed al Douri, the Iraqi ambassador to the United Nations, left New York on Friday night bound for Syria.

Tim Ripley, a military analyst at England's Centre for Defence and International Security Studies, at Lancaster University, said it might be difficult for the coalition to find Saddam or his former top officials.

"Iraq is a country the size of Germany," he said, "and Baghdad is a city of 5 million people. . . . How many men are there with mustaches in Baghdad? . . . This idea that Americans are actually in control of vast parts of the country is wrong. They are barely in control of wherever they have a soldier at any point in time."

But Ripley said finding Saddam and his crew might not be as important to the United States as finding, say, Osama bin Laden.

"Osama bin Laden is a terrorist leader," Ripley said. "He's never had a country. He's always been a fugitive. . . . (With Saddam and his close followers,) if they don't have a country, they're nothing. The object is regime change, and once the regime is changed, it's a done deal. They're not coming back."


(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Sandy Bauers, on board the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Dallas, contributed to this report.)


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.