Senior U.S. defense officials have launched what appears to be a concerted effort to cast doubt on whether Saddam Hussein is alive or in complete control of Iraqi forces. It is both a political and military tactic.
It has been 11 days since U.S.-led coalition forces launched what was effectively a surprise strike on a residential compound in Baghdad, hoping to kill or cripple senior Iraqi leaders in a bid to end the war even before it began in earnest.
Senior U.S. officials have never formally acknowledged that the attack specifically targeted Saddam Hussein. But in a television appearance on Fox News Sunday, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says that since that strike, neither the Iraqi leader nor his influential sons have been seen.
"All we know is that since then, we have not seen Saddam Hussein or his sons, live, anywhere or heard any reports live," he said.
Mr. Rumsfeld says he remains unimpressed by several highly-publicized Iraqi television broadcasts since then in which Saddam is shown. He questions whether they are, in fact, recent appearances by the Iraqi leader.
"They do not look legitimate to me...we know that he prepared lots of videos before the war started, and if you look at those it is not possible to be certain that they are current. In fact, the fact is that it is not possible to be certain they are current, and the references in them are such that you can not tell," he said.
When pressed, Mr. Rumsfeld admits he does not know for sure whether Saddam is dead, incapacitated or alive and well. He says what is known, however, is that there are reports, some unsubstantiated, some confirmed, that members of the Iraqi leader's family have fled to Syria along with relatives of other senior leaders.
"True that there are rumors and that there has been evidence that we've seen families [of Iraqi leaders fleeing country]," he said.
Despite this, Mr. Rumsfeld says regime death squads remain in place, preventing mass surrenders and an early end to the conflict. Still, he is confident the regime's grip on power is fading.
"There is a reasonably large clique of people who have been enforcers of that regime, and they are still there and people are still getting killed by the regime," he said. "They are going around executing people that they believe may not be totally loyal. How well the command structure is working at the present time, I do not know. Will it tip at some point? Certainly."
The defense secretary goes on to say there may be serious fighting for the Iraqi capital, but insists the outcome of the war is certain. "Baghdad is not going to be easy, but the outcome is certain," he said.
Mr. Rumsfeld was not alone in casting doubt on Saddam Hussein's fate. General Richard Myers, Chairman of the military's Joint Chiefs of Staff, also appeared in several American television interviews, making the same points.
And General Tommy Franks, the commander of U.S. forces in the Gulf region, told a news briefing in Qatar that he has not seen evidence that the regime is still under its traditional control from the top, an apparent reference to Saddam.
A senior military official indicates what amounts to the taunting of Saddam Hussein has both political and military goals. On the political side, the official says, even if coalition forces failed to kill him with bombs or bullets, they can at least bury him with words, perhaps scoring a psychological blow.
From the military perspective, the same official continues, if Saddam is alive and decides to rise to the challenge to prove he is well, then maybe coalition commanders will get a firm fix on his location. And that could expose the Iraqi leader to a new and swift series of attacks.