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Reuters June 26, 2003

US frustrated with Saddam, bin Laden, Omar at large

By Will Dunham

WASHINGTON, June 26 (Reuters) - The United States is struggling to haul in its three most-wanted men -- Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden and Mullah Mohammed Omar -- but it is the kind of mission analysts say can leave even a superpower feeling weak.

"Even when you are the world's superpower with all this technology available to you, trying to track down and find one guy and kill him is really hard," Defense analyst Charles Pena of the Cato Institute said on Thursday.

Saddam, Iraq's toppled president, was driven from power by a U.S.-led invasion launched in March, but his whereabouts remain unknown 2-1/2 months after the fall of Baghdad.

Al Qaeda leader bin Laden, who President George W. Bush in 2001 declared was "wanted dead or alive" and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld predicted "we're going to get him," also has eluded capture, and al Qaeda remains an acute threat.

Mullah Omar, who headed Afghanistan's Taliban government that harbored the al Qaeda network blamed for the Sept. 11 attacks, slipped away during a U.S.-led war launched in October 2001 that ousted the Taliban.

"When people don't want to be found, there's a lot of things that they can do to keep from being found," said a defense official at the Pentagon, on condition of anonymity.

"It's frustrating, but it's not surprising that things like this happen," the official added.

With no absolute proof any of these three fugitives are dead, the United States is pressing the search "on a daily basis," the official said. "Just because it's not in the press every day does not mean it's not happening."

Analysts said such a manhunt is a chore for which the U.S. military and intelligence agencies are poorly equipped.

'NEEDLE IN A HAYSTACK'

"When you're trying to find individuals in a sea of humanity, if they have any kind of support at all, it really is a 'needle in a haystack' problem," said Mike Vickers, a former U.S. special forces and CIA officer currently an analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

"A lot of our intelligence assets are not focused on that kind of a problem," Vickers added, so the search depends on individual agents and the ability to intercept communications.

Vickers said the apprehension of former Panamanian leader Manuel Noriega on Jan. 3, 1990, following a U.S. invasion may have made the task seem deceptively easy. Noriega surrendered after taking refuge in the Vatican embassy in Panama City.

Pena said the failure to capture the fugitives is magnified because Bush and others in his administration personalized conflicts with al Qaeda and Iraq into confrontations with bin Laden and Saddam.

"The United States has hyped up and made Saddam into this mythic character now. Saddam was a two-bit thug dictator and that was it. But now he's become this larger-than-life villain. Once you've made him larger than life, you've got to go get him," Pena said.

John Pike, director of the GlobalSecurity.org think tank, said if Saddam and bin Laden remain unaccounted for into the 2004 U.S. election year, "It could become a presidential debating point that this administration lacks the capacity or the will to finish the job, even if it may not be a fair point."

Vickers said bin Laden likely is holed up either in eastern Afghanistan or just across the border in Pakistan, and Mullah Omar probably is hiding in the Afghan provinces of Kandahar or Oruzgan.

U.S. special operations troops have taken a leading role in the search for Saddam in Iraq, and the Pentagon directed air strikes on March 20 and April 7 against Baghdad sites where intelligence indicated Saddam might be present.

"Saddam has so many underground facilities that we have yet to look at, some we may not even know about. And he's got a whole network of people, his close relatives, who are certainly willing to shelter him. And it's just going to take time to find him," the defense official said.


Copyright 2003, Reuters