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The Independent (London) June 23, 2003

Dead Or Alive? Why America Needs To Know Whatever Happened To Saddam Hussein

By Andrew Buncombe in Washington

THE UNITED States hoped it had dealt with Saddam Hussein almost before the war to oust him had properly begun.

In the early hours of 20 March, putting aside its long-considered plans for the invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration launched a hastily prepared operation to end hostilities at their very inception. At about 5.33am local time, a series of closely spaced explosions shook the south of Baghdad as 36 cruise missiles and two J-Dam bombs struck an isolated residential compound known as Doura Farms. The "target of opportunity" on whom President George Bush had been briefed only hours before, was believed to be spending the night at the house with at least one of his two sons, Uday and Qusay.

Last week the Bush administration admitted, semi-officially, that the strikes against Saddam and his sons had almost certainly failed. Not only was the former president alive, officials told reporters, but intercepted phone calls between Saddam's supporters talking of the need to protect him suggested that he was still inside Iraq and acting as a focus for anti-US resistance. King Abdullah of Jordan said yesterday that he believed Saddam was still alive and that many Iraqis believe he "might come back to haunt them". As a result of this new intelligence, the secretive military-CIA unit that is searching for the former Iraqi leader - Task Force 20 - is now launching new operations to locate him. The unit has been helped by information provided to it by Saddam's closest confidant, Abid Hamid Mahmoud al- Tikriti, who was captured last week near the city of Tikrit and who told interrogators that Saddam may have spent some time in Syria. Other reports say Saddam was killed last week during a strike on a convoy near the Syrian border.

But why should the American and British occupying forces be making such efforts to locate Saddam or even to determine whether he is alive or dead?

Earlier this month Paul Bremer, head of the Allies' administration in Iraq, outlined one of the most important reasons for locating the former dictator: to prevent him acting as a focus for resistance groups inside Iraq. He said Saddam's survival and potential return to power - and with it the subsequent punishment of "collaborators" - could be used to threaten Iraqis who were co-operating with the occupying forces.

He said: "I would obviously prefer that we had clear evidence that Saddam is dead or that we had him alive in our custody. It does make a difference because it allows the Baathists to go around in the bazaars and in the villages, as they are doing, saying Saddam is alive and he's going to come back. And we're going to come back'."

There is something in this. There appears little doubt that resistance to the US-led occupation in Iraq is increasing rather than easing off. Last Friday, the Pentagon announced that 55 US soldiers had been killed in assaults and accidents since Mr Bush declared an end to hostilities on 1 May. Yesterday another American soldier was killed and a second injured in a grenade attack just outside Baghdad, while in the city of Hit, a fuel pipeline exploded in a suspected act of sabotage.

There are many that believe Saddam is acting as a focus for these resistance elements and Ahmed Chalabi, leader of the Iraqi National Congress, claimed the former Iraqi president was even offering rewards of $ 200 for each US soldier killed. One Pentagon official said: "These guys are growing in resistance, and they're still being troublesome ... and you have to ask what's motivating them."

But there is more to the capture of Saddam than denying the Baath party loyalists, Fedayeen and other resistance fighters a figurehead. In the run-up to the war, Mr Bush repeatedly highlighted Saddam as the cause of Iraqi suffering and the sole reason why the US and Britain were prepared to "disarm" the regime. At times it became very personal. As far back as November 2001, Mr Bush said: "Saddam is evil." But as the war started and it became increasingly clear that Saddam might not be found, so the administration changed its language. Mr Bush's spokesman said: "So clearly, the future or the fate of Saddam Hussein is a factor but ... whether he is or is not alive or dead, the mission is moving forward, and the regime's days are numbered."

The shift in language represents an understanding at the White House that it cannot allow itself to be judged on whether Saddam is found. After the war in Afghanistan, the administration was criticised for failing to find either al-Qa'ida's leader, Osama bin Laden, or the head of the Taliban, Mullah Omar, having declared, in the case of Bin Laden, that he was wanted "Dead or alive". For Saddam to appear on grainy videotape broadcast by an Arab news channel and vowing resistance to the US during the build-up to the presidential elections would be damaging politically and hugely embarrassing.

"Saddam is the Iraqi regime personified," said Francois Boo, of the Washington-based military research group GlobalSecurity.Org. "It's much easier to declare victory if you have captured the leader of the country and the person said to represent the major obstacle to rebuilding." The flip-side is the huge PR coup capturing Saddam would represent for Mr Bush and Mr Blair. The war on Iraq was always presented as a fight between good and evil with Saddam playing the part of the devil. If they could actually find him, both Mr Bush's chances of securing re-election and Mr Blair's of silencing Labour critics would receive a massive boost.

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