Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein may have resurfaced Friday but as far as top Defense Department officials are concerned, it hardly matters anymore. The man long demonized as a dictator is now being painted as an almost pathetic figure.
For two weeks, Pentagon officials have said they did not know whether Saddam Hussein was dead, alive or incapacitated after a coalition airstrike aimed at Iraqi leaders at the outset of the war.
Now Iraqi television has broadcast images of Saddam in the streets of Baghdad and delivering a speech alluding to war-related events, his first public appearance since the start of the war and the first indication that he apparently survived the attack.
But Pentagon officials appear distinctly unmoved by his reappearance.
In much the same way that a top official said Thursday that Baghdad was isolated militarily and hence almost irrelevant, they are saying Saddam's possible re-emergence is equally irrelevant because his regime no longer has any significant control over the country.
Chief Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said "what really matters is not whether or not he's dead or alive, but the fact that whoever is left in this regime, whatever is left of the regime leadership, got up today and realized they have less and less control of their country. They have less and less control of just about everything in that country, and that's what's significant. And what we're focused on is ending the regime."
Major General Stanley McChrystal of the Pentagon's Joint Staff told reporters he found it interesting that the Iraqi leader felt it necessary to emerge.
But the General said there is little evidence Saddam has any effective control over what is left of Iraq's military. "And we find it interesting that Saddam Hussein, if he is alive, feels the need to walk in the street to prove that. What we don't see is effective command and control from his level," he said. "We do see some sort of regime command and control, but effective military command and control, which has normally emanated from the core of the regime, has not been apparent on the battlefield."
In addition to severing critical military communications links and taking down most of Iraq's broadcasting capabilities, the U.S. led coalition has devastated Iraq's premier fighting units, the Republican Guards.
According to the Pentagon, of six Republican Guard divisions, two have been essentially destroyed and the other four significantly degraded in terms of their combat effectiveness.
U.S. military officials say more Iraqi troops are surrendering. They hope more will do so but are also hoping some may attempt to rise up against Saddam and his closest supporters, finishing off the work begun by the coalition.
In the meantime, the defense department is refusing to say whether coalition troops have been issued any special instructions on what to do if they encounter Saddam, his sons or other top Iraqi officials.
But despite the effort to publicly paint him as irrelevant, one Pentagon official says that clearly the Bush administration would love to capture Saddam alive and take him into custody for war crimes prosecution.