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Dead or alive? Word may be weeks off

[Times file photo]
Saddam Hussein, center, is flanked by sons Uday, left, and Qusay.
Compiled from Times wires
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 8, 2003

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Acting on an intelligence tip, a U.S. warplane dropped several bunker-busting bombs on a meeting in a residential neighborhood Monday, and a U.S. official said the airstrike might have killed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, his sons and other top Iraqi leaders.

The attack was carried out by a single B-1B bomber which dropped four of the 2,000-pound bombs on the residential building, military officials said.

CNN and NBC reported that the building was destroyed and that it could take days or weeks for U.S. intelligence officials to determine whether Hussein or other top leaders were killed.

The strike came at 3 p.m. Baghdad time in the upscale Mansour neighborhood, said Marine Maj. Brad Bartelt, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command in Qatar.

"We are confirming that a leadership target was indeed hit very hard," Bartelt said.

Three adjoining houses in the Mansour neighborhood were destroyed Monday afternoon in a strike neighbors said they believed came from a coalition missile. All that was left of the houses was a heap of concrete, mangled iron rods, ruined furniture and clothes.

The attack left a crater yards deep and the force of the blast broke windows and doors as far as 300 yards away from the site. Three orange trees that grew on the sidewalk outside the houses were uprooted.

Rescue workers were looking in the rubble for victims. Two bodies were recovered initially, but the toll could go as high as 14, they said.

The strike came on a day when U.S. forces also occupied two of Hussein's palaces southwest of the target zone and knocked down a statue of the Iraqi leader as they tried to wrest control of Baghdad from his regime.

U.S. officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said American intelligence learned Monday morning of a high-level meeting in Baghdad between senior Iraqi intelligence officials and, possibly, Hussein and his two sons, Qusay and Uday.

Coalition strikes have aimed at top Iraqi leaders since the beginning of the war. U.S. and British troops have invaded at least four of Hussein's many palaces in recent days, including two in Baghdad Monday, looking for information and clues to where he and his inner circle might be.

On March 19, President Bush authorized a strike on a suburban Baghdad compound where Hussein and his sons were believed to be staying. That strike, like Monday's attack, was based on time-sensitive intelligence.

For days after the initial strike, U.S. officials sorted through intelligence suggesting Hussein may have been killed or injured, but intelligence officials have become increasingly confident he survived that strike.

Earlier Monday, U.S. and British officials said they believed Hussein's top commander in southern Iraq had been killed in a U.S. airstrike.

In Baghdad, Army soldiers spent the night in one of Hussein's main presidential palaces and 10,000 U.S. Marines surged into the capital's outskirts as U.S. officials suggested that major combat may be lessening in Iraq.

"The hostilities phase is coming to a conclusion," Secretary of State Colin Powell said Monday. Another leading indicator: Gen. Tommy Franks, who commands the allied force from a base in Qatar, spent much of Monday visiting his troops in Iraq.

At the same time, experts tested chemicals that could prove that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction. U.S. officers said they found substances that preliminary tests determined were the nerve agents sarin and tabun and the blister agent lewisite.

If additional testing confirms the presence of such chemical agents, the discovery at a compound near the city of Hindiyah, about 60 miles south of Baghdad, would be the first proof that Iraq has been hiding banned weapons of mass destruction -- a primary justification for the war.

In Washington, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld cautioned that initial reports and tests are often inaccurate. "Almost all first reports we get turn out to be wrong," he said.

Some military officers at the scene said the material could be the residue of pesticides; others said they believed nerve agents are present. About a dozen soldiers and two journalists said the substances made them ill or caused blotches on their skin. More sophisticated tests will be conducted in coming days, Rumsfeld said.

In another major development, U.S. and British officials announced that allied bombs almost certainly had killed Ali Hassan al-Majid, known as "Chemical Ali." A member of Hussein's inner circle, al-Majid ordered a poison gas attack that killed thousands of Kurds in 1988.

"We believe that the reign of terror of Chemical Ali has come to an end," Rumsfeld said. "To Iraqis who have suffered at his hand . . . he will never again terrorize you or your families."

Other officials said they would await further examination of the human remains found in a building in Basra where al-Majid and other Iraqi leaders were said to be meeting.

"Until they do the DNA I am not going to speculate," said Col. Larry Brown, operations chief for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force. "This guy has been like Freddy Krueger. We've killed him four or five times."

In Basra, British troops consolidated their control of the southern city of 1.3-million people, but hundreds of residents indulged in widespread looting -- breaking into the central bank and retail shops and setting fire to a hotel.

Farther north, 10,000 U.S. Marines streamed across makeshift bridges and floated aboard amphibious vehicles, crossing a tributary of the Tigris River and rushing into the outskirts of Baghdad near the Rashid military airfield. Army forces already held important strategic and symbolic positions in the heart of the city.

And so, early today, fending off sporadic enemy fire, large numbers of allied forces occupied key precincts of both Baghdad and Basra, Iraq's two largest cities. Both cities were virtually encircled by U.S. and British troops.

"What we're trying to do is surround the city," Brown said of Baghdad. "Keep the rats in and the reinforcements out."

Asked if elements of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division would remain at the presidential palace and other locations in Baghdad or withdraw, Navy Capt. Frank Thorp said: "Obviously, they don't feel they're vulnerable, as they're still in there."

Those accomplishments, combined with relative tranquility behind the front lines and modest gains in northern Iraq, inspired increasingly confident statements by U.S. officials.

"The circle is closing," Rumsfeld said. "Their options are running out."

President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, meeting Monday in Belfast, Northern Ireland, concentrated on forging a plan for post-war Iraq. As they consulted, U.S. officials in the southern Iraqi port of Umm Qasr prepared for the arrival of retired U.S. Lt. Gen. Buck Walters, assigned to plant the seeds of an interim government. The Bush-Blair summit will continue today.

U.S. Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks warned, however, "there's still a great deal of hazard out there" on the battlefield, and more evidence of that flared Monday.

An Iraqi rocket slammed into an Army base on the southern outskirts of Baghdad, killing four people -- two U.S. soldiers and journalists from Spain and Germany. On the eastern flank, two Marines were killed and three wounded when an artillery shell struck their armored amphibious vehicle as it approached Baghdad.

In Baghdad, the day's action began around sunrise, when troops from the 3rd Infantry Division in more than 100 armored vehicles rolled into central Baghdad as warplanes provided cover against mostly disorganized resistance.

By the end of the day, at the domed New Presidential Palace, U.S. soldiers strolled under huge chandeliers, smoked cigarettes in a reception room, examined seized documents in a filing room and established a prisoners of war collection center in the courtyard.

In a central Baghdad square, U.S. Army tank crews used a 40-foot statue of Hussein for target practice, destroying it. They also occupied a parade ground where Hussein often reviewed his troops.

During their brazen thrust into Baghdad, U.S. tank columns approached the Al-Rashid Hotel, until recently home to many foreign journalists, and passed close to the Iraqi Ministry of Information, according to U.S. officials.

Nearby, Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf asserted that the American invasion had been repulsed and its soldiers slaughtered.

"Be assured Baghdad is safe, secure and great," he said. "There is no presence of the American columns in the city of Baghdad, none at all."

As he spoke, a U.S. shell landed nearby.

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

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