U.S. soldiers are sitting in some of Saddam Hussein's Baghdad palaces and the Iraqi leader is nowhere to be seen. But senior defense officials aren't ready to declare victory yet. Still they are turning some of their attention to the next phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom and that is, what comes after Saddam.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says, as the U.S. led coalition makes military progress in Iraq, the Iraqi people, in his words, are losing their fear of Saddam Hussein's regime. He says many are daring for the first time to imagine life without the Iraqi leader.
Mr. Rumsfeld says that time is coming, and soon. "Let me assure all Iraqis listening today that life without Saddam Hussein is not a distant dream," he says. "Coalition forces will not stop until they have accomplished their mission, and they will remove Saddam Hussein from power and give Iraq back to the Iraqi people."
Mr. Rumsfeld says the United States and its coalition partners want to help prepare for an early and smooth transition to a new Iraqi government chosen by the Iraqi people.
But moving to cut off criticism about just how much involvement the Bush administration will have in choosing Iraq's new government, he specifically denied the United States, or the Pentagon, is already casting its vote for opposition Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmad Chalabi. "The Iraqi people are going to make these decisions," says Mr. Rumsfeld. "Clearly, the United States is not going to impose a government on Iraq."
Nevertheless, a senior Pentagon official acknowledges the U.S. military recently "assisted" in moving Mr. Chalabi and several hundred Iraqi opposition fighters into southern Iraq. The official tells VOA those fighters are also being given weapons and other equipment.
But defense officials stress they are also cooperating with several other opposition groups.
Still, the questioning led Mr. Rumsfeld to launch what was effectively a pre-emptive strike against critics, recalling earlier skepticism about the war plan for Iraq were proven wrong. "You know, what's happened here is we've seen people go from debating the war plan they haven't read, and the number of troops and all of that, now they're debating the form of the government, which no one has decided, and what the post-Saddam Hussein regime exercise, activity, organization ought to look like," he says.
In the meantime, though, Mr. Rumsfeld says he isn't yet ready to declare victory, something which he says he expects later rather than sooner. But he says Saddam Hussein's regime is collapsing around him and the Iraqi leader is either dead, injured or simply unwilling to show himself.
And while his whereabouts are unclear, Mr. Rumsfeld says Saddam no longer runs much of Iraq and his regime, in the Defense Secretary's words, "is running out of soldiers."
A senior Pentagon official indicates there is hope some of those remaining Iraqi soldiers will take matters into their own hands, and topple Saddam themselves, a coup that wouldl save coalition troops the effort of hunting down the elusive Iraqi leader themselves.