After close to a quarter-century of rule, Saddam Hussein's regime is collapsing, much like the Iraqi leader's statues are in Baghdad and elsewhere. But there is important unfinished business for U.S. led coalition forces involved in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is understandably pleased with the progress made by U.S.-led coalition troops in just three weeks of operations inside Iraq. He says the fear is lifting for most Iraqis and their long-time leader is being consigned to the dustbin of history.
"Saddam Hussein is now taking his rightful place alongside Hitler, Stalin, Lenin, Ceausescu in the pantheon of failed, brutal dictators, and the Iraqi people are well on their way to freedom," he said.
But even Mr. Rumsfeld concedes there is unfinished business in Iraq, some of it involving Saddam. "We still must capture, account for, or otherwise deal with Saddam Hussein and his sons and the senior Iraqi leadership," he said.
Coalition air forces tried to kill Saddam at least twice, the latest attempt this week in a Baghdad residential area.
But it remains unclear whether the Iraqi leader was actually there and survived, or whether he was killed or perhaps incapacitated.
Rumors abound, including suggestions he may have already fled the country or is in hiding, possibly in a foreign embassy in Baghdad.
Mr. Rumsfeld says he does not know, but he does not minimize the difficulty of the task of determining Saddam's fate.
"It is hard to find a single person. 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," he said. "We don't know. And he's not been around. He's not active. Therefore, he's either dead or he's incapacitated, or he's healthy and cowering in some tunnel some place, trying to avoid being caught. What else can one say?"
Mr. Rumsfeld declines to predict whether coalition forces will capture him. Only time will tell, he says.
But the U.S. government is now offering rewards for information about Iraq's fugitive leaders. "We're asking people to come forward and help in this effort. Rewards are available to those who help us prevent the disappearance of personnel, documentation and materials. Good lives and a better future are possible for those who turn themselves in and choose to cooperate with coalition forces," he said.
Mr. Rumsfeld also says he wants to secure Iraq's borders to prevent the flight of any high-ranking regime officials.
Special attention will be paid to the border with Syria. Mr. Rumsfeld is already accusing authorities in Damascus of helping Iraqi officials escape, though he makes clear the suspected escapees so far do not include Saddam, his sons or Iraq's other senior personalities.
Determining Saddam's fate is clearly important. He has cast a long and fearsome shadow over Iraq. His supporters could fight on in the absence of indisputable proof that he is dead or a coalition prisoner. Some Iraqis may be reluctant to cooperate with the coalition or any new interim Iraqi authority, fearing Saddam may somehow survive and seek retribution, just as he has in the past.
As one senior military official puts it, "the hunt isn't over until the head is on the wall."