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Search for Hussein Grows More Intense

A daughter and an aide say he's alive, and U.S. forces in Iraq are going on that assumption.

June 22, 2003|Bob Drogin | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — American military and intelligence forces in Iraq have stepped up their search for Saddam Hussein following claims by his eldest daughter and by a former top aide that the ousted ruler is alive, U.S. officials said Saturday.

Neither report has been verified, but U.S. forces in the region are operating under the assumption that the deposed Iraqi leader and his two powerful sons, Uday and Qusai, survived two airstrikes in March and April that were aimed at them. Searches of the sites found no DNA or other evidence to indicate that they were killed.

The belief in Iraq that Hussein is in hiding has emboldened his followers and helped fuel the mounting number of armed attacks on American soldiers, especially in former Baath Party strongholds north and west of Baghdad, U.S. officials said.

The uncertainty has hampered reconstruction efforts as well as the search for evidence of illicit weapons. Many Iraqis say they are terrified that Hussein's supporters will retaliate against anyone who cooperates with the U.S.-led military occupation or with the weapons hunters.

The latest report of Hussein's apparent survival came from Abid Hamid Mahmud Tikriti, Hussein's former chief of staff, after he was captured during a U.S. raid near the Iraqi city of Tikrit on Tuesday.

Mahmud, the most senior regime official in custody, has told U.S. interrogators that Hussein and his sons split up to avoid capture as U.S. forces raced to Baghdad in early April, U.S. officials said, confirming media reports first aired by NBC News. Mahmud reportedly said that he and Hussein's sons fled to neighboring Syria after the war but that they later were forced to return to Iraq.

Mahmud has not provided his questioners with specific leads as to where Hussein and his sons might be, and U.S. officials said they aren't sure whether he is telling the truth.

Mahmud told interrogators that "there is every likelihood that Saddam is alive," Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told reporters Saturday in Topeka. Associated Press quoted Roberts as saying the U.S. has launched "a very aggressive effort" to evaluate Mahmud's story and capture Hussein.

"If he is alive -- and there's still a lot of speculation -- I think he will be found," Roberts said.

Earlier in the week, Hussein's daughter Raghad, 36, told a British newspaper that her father had survived the war.

"The last time I spoke to my father was five days before the war," she told the Sunday Times in an interview from a safe house outside Baghdad. "He was in good spirits. I know he survived the war. But once Baghdad fell, it was all so quick, all the family went our own ways. I am not in touch with any of them. But I believe they are still alive."

President Bush did not mention the search for Hussein in his weekly radio address Saturday. But he defended the search for evidence to support administration claims that Hussein secretly built an arsenal of chemical and biological weapons before the war. No proof has been found so far and Bush, in his address, did not assert that the U.S. would ultimately find significant quantities of chemical and biological weapons.

"For more than a decade, Saddam Hussein went to great lengths to hide his weapons from the world," Bush said. "And in the regime's final days, documents and suspected weapons sites were looted and burned. Yet all who know the dictator's history agree that he possessed chemical and biological weapons and that he used chemical weapons in the past."

"The intelligence services of many nations concluded that he had illegal weapons and the regime refused to provide evidence that they had been destroyed," he said. "We are determined to discover the true extent of Saddam Hussein's weapons programs, no matter how long it takes."

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