The top U.S. civil administrator in Iraq says uncertainty over the fate of Saddam Hussein is making it more difficult to convince Iraqis to cooperate in the rebuilding of the country.
Paul Bremer says he would much prefer that U.S.-led coalition forces had conclusive evidence that Saddam Hussein was dead, or that the ousted Iraqi leader was alive and in custody.
Speaking in a satellite video conference to reporters at the Pentagon, Mr. Bremer says the lack of clear cut answers about Saddam's fate is affecting coalition efforts to win over the Iraqi people.
"It allows the Baathists to go around in the bazaars and the villages, as they are doing, saying, 'Saddam is alive, and he's going to come back, and we're going to come back.' And the effect of that is to make it more difficult for people who are afraid of the Baathists - and that's just about everybody, makes it more difficult for them to come forward to cooperate with us, because they are afraid the Baathists will return," he said.
Mr. Bremer says the coalition must leave no stone unturned in the search for Saddam.
But in the meantime, he insists, the Baathists, Iraq's former ruling party, will not stage a come-back. He says this will be ensured by continuing U.S.-led efforts to 'de-Baathify' political life in the country, coupled with continued military sweeps against pro-Saddam resistance groups.
U.S. forces are currently carrying out their biggest military operation since the end of the war, in an effort to capture Iraqis staging guerrilla-style attacks on American soldiers.
Hundreds of Iraqis have been detained in the operation, which is centered on areas north and west of Baghdad. U.S. aircraft have been involved. Military officials report an Apache helicopter has apparently been shot down by hostile fire, but its two-member crew was uninjured and rescued.
Mr. Bremer acknowledges there is some organized resistance to the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq. But he says there is no evidence of any broad, centralized command and control over opposition forces.
"We are clearly on the lookout to see if this evolves into a more organized, more broadly and centrally directed resistance," said Mr. Bremer. "But, for the moment, it appears that these are small groups, usually Baathists, or Fedayeen Saddam. In some cases, they may be officers of the Republican Guard. We are going to have to continue to deal with them in a military fashion, as we are now doing."
Mr. Bremer says that overall conditions in Iraq are rapidly improving. He says, in the next four to six weeks, he hopes to have a list of candidates for a broad-based political council for Iraq to oversee government ministries, and deal with long-term issues like education reform. He also says he hopes to form a broader group of several hundred Iraqis in four to six weeks to discuss and draft a new constitution for the country.