U.S. military officials in Baghdad say Saddam Hussein's two fugitive sons, Uday and Qusay, have been killed in a gun battle with U.S. soldiers. They were at the top of the U.S. government's most-wanted list, just behind their father.
Even after Baghdad fell to coalition forces in early April, Iraqis never appeared to believe they had been liberated from the iron grip of Saddam Hussein and his two sons, Uday and Qusay. The question of their whereabouts was never far from most conversations.
U.S. officials in charge of helping reconstruct Iraq acknowledged their task would be easier if the ousted Iraqi leader and his sons were dead or in custody. Multi-million dollar rewards were offered for their capture.
Middle East expert James Phillips of the Heritage Foundation says the deaths of Uday and Qusay will bolster the credibility of U.S. efforts in Iraq.
"This is probably the best news the Bush administration had since the fall of Baghdad on April 9 and I think it does change the tone of what's going on in Iraq. It's important to note that this will not be the end of all the problems because there are other sources or potential sources of resistance in Iraq," he said. "But, at least now most Iraqis can rest assured that they won't be troubled by Uday and Qusay any more."
Iraqis anxious to help transform their country from a dictatorship to a democracy have been reluctant to work too openly with the Americans out of fear Saddam Hussein and his son could someday return to power.
Middle East expert Rachel Bronson says the deaths of Uday and Qusay should help open the way for better cooperation.
"With these guys gone, it's going to be easier for them to say that's the losing side, that Saddam Hussein's regime is not coming back," said Ms. Bronson who directs Middle East studies at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations. "There are fewer and fewer of those around who can come back. So I do think it will have that kind of positive effect. You need Saddam and you need the key core elements of the regime gone before normal Iraqis can get back to their lives."
Ms. Bronson says the hunt for Saddam Hussein and his family relies on cooperation from Iraqis willing to provide American forces with intelligence data. She expects that will increase now.
"I think what this means is it will give some Iraqis who have some information about Saddam more courage and confidence that the Americans will take their intelligence seriously and seriously try to get rid of him," she said.
Former U.S. ambassador Edward Walker, who runs the Middle East Institute in Washington, cautions that the deaths of Saddam Hussein's sons will not end the problems for U.S. reconstruction efforts in Iraq.
"I think it will give people a renewed confidence that the future is not passed and there is a hope for an Iraq that is a better and safer place but this is not the answer to all our prayers," he said. "This is not going to make the reconstruction go particularly faster. It's not going to stop the attacks on the Americans. We've got a huge problem out there. It's just one step and a good step."
Still, Middle East analyst James Phillips suggests that eliminating Saddam Hussein's sons is more important than targeting the ousted Iraqi leader, who is believed to be still alive and hiding somewhere in Iraq.
"In some ways it's even more important that Saddam's sons were captured because Saddam himself is spent force," he said. "He was feared but not greatly admired inside Iraq except among some of his Sunni Arab supporters. But his sons, if they had escaped and gone into exile, perhaps would have had a political future if they had returned 10 or 15 years down the road and try to exploit a political nostalgia for Saddam's old regime."
Uday and Qusay were at the top of the U.S. government's list of the 55 most-wanted members of Saddam Hussein's regime. U.S. forces have already taken into custody more than 30 Saddam associates but he and his sons have been the focus of a massive manhunt.