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Speculating on Saddam's fate a hobby in Cairo

CAIRO, Egypt—Where is Saddam Hussein? It's the question everyone in Cairo is asking, and in the absence of convincing evidence of the Iraqi leader's demise, they are answering it in increasingly imaginative ways.

"He is still in Baghdad," asserted Saeed Makhmol, 28, between puffs on a water pipe in a threadbare tea shop in the Cairo neighborhood known as the "City of the Dead," for its vast expanse of cemeteries populated by the impoverished, who make their homes among ancient crypts. "Saddam is not a chicken. They can't just kill him."

"We heard that he is with his troops underground in the sewage system," agreed his friend Walid Sarbar, 22.

In a corner, Mustafa el-Meleyya, a 58-year-old taxi driver, snorted. "Saddam is in Russia," he said. "There was a deal between Russia and America."

Newspapers and television stations, in particular the Qatar-based al Jazeera, have been feeding that speculation with unsubstantiated stories that detail the mother of all betrayals: a Russian-brokered agreement between Saddam, or perhaps a member of his inner circle, and U.S. generals, or possibly the CIA.

"CIA agents were always close to Saddam Hussein," Adel Hamouda, the respected editor of an Egyptian weekly called Voice of the Nation, wrote in a lengthy article last week laying out scenarios that sought to explain why U.S.-led troops met only minimal resistance in Baghdad.

"Deals are part of the American military culture," Hamouda continued. "There are always deals under the table to avoid conflict."

On Wednesday, Al Ahram, the buttoned-down, quasi-official daily newspaper, published an opinion piece along similar lines. In support of the secret-deal theory, the author cited a visit to Moscow by U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice the day after a diplomatic convoy carrying the Russian ambassador to Baghdad came under fire in Iraq. The convoy was en route to Damascus, Syria.

El-Meleyya thinks Saddam was among the convoy's passengers and that the attack was like a "salute to say to him, `We see you as you are going, and goodbye.' "

Shaaban Kotb, a 29-year-old baker, took a different view. Saddam went to Syria, he maintained. "Where else would he be except Syria?" he asked. "It is the only country that stood by Iraq."

Still another possibility, propounded by Al Gomhuriya, a large-circulation daily newspaper, was that Saddam "and his men escaped in well-made underground tunnels, that lead to places no one knows."

The notion of tunnels has captured the imagination of a number of Egyptians. Mohammed Reda, a 16-year-old student, said he thought the tunnels might stretch as far as Iran or Syria.

What seemed most unlikely to Egyptians was the possibility that Saddam is dead. This is partly because Western and Arab media have related claims by supposed eyewitnesses, who said they saw Saddam after U.S. bombs destroyed a building in the Mansour district where he was believed to be visiting.

Saddam and his supporters are just biding their time, said Samekh Said, 15.

"They are going to do like the Egyptians did during the French occupation" of the 19th century, he said. "They will let the American troops come in and be comfortable. Some troops will leave and then they will attack."


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