Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's fate remains unclear following U.S. airstrikes aimed at removing him from power by force. But Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is indirectly urging those close to Saddam to take action against him if he is indeed still alive.

Mr. Rumsfeld says it is too late for Saddam Hussein and his sons to remain in power. But he leaves open the possibility that they still could flee Iraq and go into exile, saying that is a choice up to them.

But in an exchange with reporters at the Pentagon, the U.S. defense secretary also appeared to drop a broad hint that Saddam's closest aides should feel free to take action against the Iraqi leader if they want to save themselves from an expanding U.S. bombing campaign.

"It is certainly too late for [Saddam and his sons] to stay in power. What they do with themselves is up to them. And what the people around them do with them is up to the people around them," said Mr. Rumsfeld.

There is at least one uncorroborated report indicating the Iraqi leader may have been wounded in the initial U.S. airstrike on a Baghdad residential compound, early Thursday morning local time, where he was believed to be staying.