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Hussein mystery: Was he hit?

Compiled from Times wires
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 21, 2003

U.S. intelligence officials believe Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, possibly accompanied by one or both of his powerful sons, was still inside a compound in southern Baghdad early Thursday when it was struck by a barrage of U.S. bombs and cruise missiles.

But intelligence analysts in Washington and operatives working in the region weren't certain whether the Iraqi leader was killed or injured or escaped the attack, said unnamed senior Bush administration officials, who worked Thursday to analyze a videotape of an appearance by Hussein broadcast on Iraqi television within hours of the predawn bombardment.

The Washington Post quoted a senior U.S. official with access to sensitive intelligence as saying the preponderance of the evidence is that Hussein was in the building when it blew up. The newspaper quoted another senior official as saying Hussein didn't get out before the strike.

Another administration official said there is evidence that Hussein was at least injured because of indications that medical attention was urgently summoned on his behalf. The condition of his sons, and any others who may have been at the compound, was also unknown, officials said.

The disclosure offered one clue to why the U.S. military continued to refrain from a full-scale attack, with Pentagon officials saying the Iraqi military appeared adrift and that it remained possible full-scale war could be avoided.

U.S. officials said they weren't sure whether Hussein had survived the barrage of cruise missiles and 2,000-pound "bunker buster" bombs. The tape isn't proof, since Hussein could have recorded it before the assault.

Officials also said they were receiving conflicting analysis of the identity of the man in the broadcast, noting that Hussein has long been reported to use doubles as a precaution against assassination. Technical analysts, who used digital enhancement techniques and triangulation measurements of facial proportions, decided that the broadcast depicted the real Hussein.

But the government also consulted Parisoula Lampsos, who the Defense Department believes has passed a polygraph examination in support of her claim that she was Hussein's mistress in Iraq for many years. Lampsos has previously distinguished Hussein from his doubles in more than a dozen cases, one official said, and this time she said he was not the man in the broadcast.

Experts at the Pentagon, the CIA, the State Department and other U.S. agencies scrambled Thursday to analyze the mustachioed man's earlobes, his thick glasses, his voice and speech patterns, his mouth movements, the folds of his military uniform, the way he sat, even his badly dyed hair.

The man on the seven-minute tape seemed more haggard and subdued than Hussein has in recent appearances. He read awkwardly from a notebook in his hand, repeating himself and flipping through the pages several times as if he lost his place.

He gave Thursday's date, March 20, as apparent evidence that he had survived the attack.

CIA analysts have not determined whether the tape was live or recorded before the attack, said U.S. intelligence officials, speaking on condition of anonymity.

But one official said the U.S. intelligence community had picked up indications recently that the Iraqi regime was preparing several tapes of Hussein to have "in the can" in the event of a U.S. strike, to portray the Iraqi leader as still in control.

CIA experts were surprised to see the man on TV peering through rectangular-rimmed spectacles with Coke-bottle lenses. Although Hussein uses reading glasses, he never wears them in public.

One official said the limited Iraqi response to the first day of U.S. attacks could be a sign of confusion in the Iraqi leadership, or that Hussein's control of Iraqi security forces had been severed.

After the attack, intelligence reports indicated Iraq's leaders were not organizing any coordinated response in Baghdad or in the rest of the country, suggesting the leadership might be in chaos or cut off from communicating with field commanders.

Also, the antiaircraft fire above Baghdad during the strikes was lighter than seen in previous conflicts.

At the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said military planners had good reason to believe top Iraqi leaders were at the site of the first bombing.

"We are in communication with still more people who are officials of the military at various levels -- the regular army, the Republican Guard, the Special Republican Guard -- who are increasingly aware that it's going to happen, he's going to be gone," Rumsfeld said.

At a closed-door briefing in the Capitol, legislators asked top Pentagon officials if Hussein had been wounded.

"They frankly said, at this point in time, we have no definitive facts," said Sen. John Warner, R-Va., chairman of the Armed Services Committee.

CIA director George Tenet, who made the case for the early strike, was confident the attack by Tomahawk cruise missiles and F-117 Stealth attack planes carrying 2,000-pound, satellite-guided bombs killed or incapacitated at least one and probably more top Iraqi leaders, a senior U.S. official said. There was an unconfirmed report, apparently from Russian intelligence agencies, that Qusay, the more powerful of Hussein's sons and head of Iraq's pervasive security forces, had died in the attack.

The cruise missile and airstrike was launched Wednesday after the CIA learned that senior members of Hussein's inner circle -- possibly including the Iraqi leader and his sons Uday and Qusay -- had gathered in a bunker in southern Baghdad.

That prompted a sudden change in U.S. war planning, pre-empting plans to open the war with a crushing series of airstrikes Thursday.

-- Information from the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Knight Ridder Newspapers and Associated Press was used in this report.

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