The mystery of Saddam Hussein's whereabouts remains a focus of attention at the Pentagon, where top officials continue to note the Iraqi leader's absence from public view. VOA Correspondent Alex Belida brings us up to date from the Pentagon on the taunting of a man viewed by the Bush administration as one of the most brutal dictators of modern times.
At the height of the U.S. military operation in Afghanistan, defense officials bristled when reporters would ask about the whereabouts of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden or Taleban head Mullah Mohamed Omar. They would quickly say the anti-terrorist operation in Afghanistan was never about any particular individual.
But in the case of Iraq and Operation Iraqi Freedom, it has been Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld who has been leading the questioning about whether Saddam Hussein is alive and still in power.
Aides to Mr. Rumsfeld admit it is a form of taunting. And the taunting took a sharp turn Tuesday after the Iraqi leader failed to show up in person to deliver a highly anticipated broadcast statement, instead leaving the job of reading it to Iraq's information minister.
"And where are Iraq's leaders?" asked Mr. Rumsfeld. "The night before the ground war began, coalition forces launched a strike on a meeting of Iraq's senior command and control. And they have not been heard from since. The fact that Saddam Hussein did not show up for his televised speech today is interesting."
One senior Pentagon official theorizes Saddam may have been so badly hurt in the initial coalition airstrike that he could not be put on television convincingly. But Pentagon officials say for the record that they do not know whether Saddam or his sons are dead, alive or incapacitated. What they do know is that none of them has been seen outside of ambiguous videotapes broadcast on Iraqi television.
Additional pieces of the puzzle are surfacing, though. Defense officials note a longtime bodyguard never before seen away from Saddam's side, showed up last week on Iraqi TV with the country's defense minister. And they say some members of Saddam's family are known to have fled the country or to have tried to.
Now, Mr. Rumsfeld says rumors have surfaced in Baghdad, spread by unidentified Iraqi officials, that the allied coalition is interested in cease-fire negotiations and a possible peace deal. Pentagon sources believe it could be a last gasp effort by an inner circle close to Saddam to salvage their futures.
But the U.S. defense secretary stresses there can be no deal short of unconditional surrender. "The circumstance of the regime is such that Iraqi officials are spreading rumors that the coalition has entered into a cease-fire negotiation with the regime, and that there is a third party peace plan under consideration," he said. "Their goal is to try to convince the people of Iraq that the coalition does not intend to finish the job. Since this broadcast is sent into Iraq, let me say this to all Iraqis who are listening: the regime is not telling the truth, there are no negotiations taking place with anyone in Saddam Hussein's regime. There will be no outcome to this war that leaves Saddam Hussein and his regime in power." Despite the doubts being cast about the Iraqi government's grip on power, Mr. Rumsfeld is remaining cautious about encouraging any popular revolts to finish the job started by coalition forces. He pointed out that is a decision Iraqis will have to make for themselves when the time is right.
"And I think that that's a call that the people in Iraq have to make. They're on the ground. It's their lives," he said. "They'll have to decide when they believe that their best circumstance is to join the fight as opposed to preserving their lives as long as they do not see that immediately they can be free and liberated."
Meanwhile, intelligence officials suggest that if Saddam is not alive or is incapacitated, then the inner circle running what is left of his government has little future. They believe this group will succumb to infighting, perhaps even before allied soldiers can move on Baghdad. They also could be ousted in a coup by disgruntled troops who see no point in dying for a regime that Mr. Rumsfeld says has no future.