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AFTER THE WAR / WHERE IS HUSSEIN?

Did Regime Choreograph Exit?

Facilities devoid of evidence and leaders' swift departures may point to a plan. The U.S. tries to determine how it all could have happened.

April 19, 2003|Greg Miller | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Analysts at the CIA and elsewhere are increasingly examining the possibility that ousted Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's inner circle carried out elaborate plans to escape and leave little or no incriminating evidence behind, U.S. intelligence officials say.

The officials said the latest thinking is part of an effort to make sense of a series of developments that defied U.S. expectations.

Among the surprises were the regime's disappearance April 9, its failure to use any chemical or biological weapons against U.S. troops, and the fact that key ministries and facilities being searched by U.S. forces appear to have been "professionally" scrubbed by the departing regime.

"There is fresh and new pondering of what in the world was [the regime's] strategy," one U.S. intelligence official said. "Government employees not showing up the same day. Buildings being clean as a whistle. People in the intelligence community are starting to ask, 'Was this planned?' "

Officials stressed that analysts are examining a range of theories to account for the regime's abrupt disappearance and the so-far unsuccessful search for banned weapons.

Many remain convinced that members of the regime simply scattered as U.S. forces punched into Baghdad and that evidence of banned weapons will eventually turn up.

But the fact that analysts are testing the theory that there was a carefully choreographed evacuation underscores the extent to which many aspects of the war remain a mystery to U.S. intelligence.

Officials said the CIA and the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency have launched extensive post-mortems even as they continue to scramble for new clues to the fate of Hussein and the vast majority of the regime's leaders.

So far, only four of those listed among the 52 most wanted by U.S. forces are known to be in custody, including Samir Abdulaziz Najim, a senior Baath Party official turned over to the U.S. by Kurdish forces Friday.

None of those detained carries a "face card" rank on the deck of mug shots distributed by the Pentagon, although one top Iraqi leader designated as the king of spades -- Ali Hasan Majid, or "Chemical Ali" -- is believed to have been killed by a bomb.

The mystery surrounding Hussein's status deepened Friday with Abu Dhabi television's release of what it said was a videotape of the Iraqi dictator shot April 9.

The tape purportedly shows Hussein and his younger son, Qusai, wading through crowds in Baghdad the very day it fell to U.S. control, and two days after American warplanes bombed a building believed to contain Hussein and maybe one or both of his sons.

Abu Dhabi, part of the United Arab Emirates, also released what it said was an April 9 audiotape of Hussein exhorting Iraqis to fight and promising that they would be "rewarded by paradise" in the end.

A U.S. intelligence official said the CIA was examining the tapes but saw no indication that either contained images or time-specific references that could prove they were made April 9 or showed that Hussein is still alive.

In fact, the official said, a previous tape that supposedly showed Hussein walking through a Baghdad neighborhood in the middle of the war is now believed to have been made in early March, weeks before the U.S. invasion began.

The official said buildings and other features seen in the background on the tape -- cited at the time as evidence that the Iraqi leader had survived the opening strike of the war -- don't match the neighborhood's appearance in early April.

Officials at the CIA remain confident that Hussein was in buildings targeted in two "decapitation" airstrikes during the war.

But even though U.S. forces have had days to comb through the rubble of both sites, intelligence officials said they have seen no proof that Hussein or his sons were injured or killed.

Reports and rumors continue to flow in from Baghdad. "There are always Elvis sightings," the official said. But the question of Hussein's status, he said, remains "wide open."

Several U.S. intelligence sources said the sudden disappearance of the Iraqi regime April 9 suggests a well-orchestrated exit strategy.

"There was either a coordinated, preplanned thing where if the coalition reaches this point, everybody leave town," said a military intelligence official who asked not to be identified, "or possibly there was a big powwow that night and everybody said it was time to go."

How they left -- and where they went -- is an even bigger mystery. "It could be [that] many are still in Baghdad laying low," the official said.

Referring to Hussein's hometown, the official added: "Some could have taken off for Tikrit. Or it could be they made it across into Syria."

An Iraqi envoy loyal to Hussein said Friday that he was confident the Iraqi president had been killed by the allied bombing of Baghdad.

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