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Hussein's fate unclear after attack

Compiled from Times wires

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 21, 2003

WASHINGTON -- A war-opening strike against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and his inner circle appears to have significantly shaken the Baghdad regime, although the fate of Hussein and his two sons remained unknown, Bush administration officials said on Thursday.

A tape of Hussein broadcast on Iraqi television after the strike appeared to be the Iraqi leader himself, rather than a double, the officials said. They cautioned that computer analysis of the person's voice, mannerisms and appearance was continuing and that no definitive conclusions had been reached.

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.

Another 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.

The attack, which involved ship-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles and bombs dropped from stealth fighters, was aimed at a residential complex where U.S. intelligence thought Hussein, and possibly his sons, were sleeping.

Naval missile strikes in Baghdad also were aimed at the headquarters of the Special Republican Guard, a paramilitary force that was expected to defend Baghdad from any U.S. assault, and other security organizations.

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.

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 under a home in southern Baghdad.

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

"An opportunity presented itself that one took," Secretary of State Colin Powell said in an interview Thursday. "It was a credit to our military and intelligence officials that they were able to deal with this. It really was impressive, and I know about such things."

Powell, who was in the White House meetings Wednesday until he left to call Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and other leaders, said there was no debate about the legality of targeting a foreign leader.

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.

Most analysts think that without Hussein, who has ruled Iraq with bloody ruthlessness since 1979, the regime would soon collapse. Qusay and Uday, who was wounded in a 1996 assassination attempt, "don't have the presence or gravitas" to take their father's place, said former CIA profiling expert Jerrold Post, director of George Washington University's political psychology program.

In reference to the tape, Post, who has prepared psychological profiles of the Iraqi leader, said, "My gut reaction (was) that doesn't look like Saddam to me."

In analyzing the seven-minute tape of Hussein, Post said, CIA experts are comparing the voiceprint with known recordings of the Iraqi leader and matching the image with previous appearances.

Another senior U.S. official and others said there were several clues suggesting that the broadcast might have been prerecorded.

The person on the tape mentions the date of the U.S. attack, but that could have been guessed beforehand because of President Bush's ultimatum for Hussein to leave Iraq, which expired Wednesday evening. Nor was there any mention of the strike on the leadership bunker.

If Hussein survived, U.S. officials hoped the surprise attack at least would leave him distrustful of his inner circle and suspecting betrayal by one of his advisers, leaving him less able to command.

-- Information from Knight Ridder Newspapers, the Associated Press and Hearst Newspapers was used in this report.

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