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Saddam inner circle vanishes

Washington, April 12: When US troops, rifles drawn, burst into a headquarters of Iraq’s much-feared intelligence service in Baghdad this week, their mission was to seize thousands of files documenting the nation’s foreign spy network, its secret weapons purchases, its executions of civilians and the location of chemical and biological weapons.

They found nothing.

The safes, shelves and locked rooms of the Mukharabat headquarters were empty, meticulously and “professionally” cleaned out in what US intelligence officials now say they suspect was part of an escape planned by many of Iraq’s top security, military and political leaders.

As US troops yesterday began creeping around the dark, seemingly endless tunnels beneath Baghdad as part of an intensified effort to find deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and his senior officials, the mystery of their whereabouts only deepened. To aid in the manhunt, the US military gave soldiers in Iraq decks of playing cards bearing the photographs of Saddam and 54 other of the most sought-after members of his regime.

This week’s best guess — that Saddam’s inner circle may have fled to his hometown of Tikrit to prepare for a bloody last stand — seemed to evaporate yesterday as images from US air force unmanned drones showed Saddam loyalists abandoning their posts there. The US warplanes have bombarded the town since the war began, significantly weakening combat units and destroying underground bunkers, defence and intelligence officials said.

By the end of yesterday, Syria was left as the most likely escape route for Saddam and his top advisers.

The US military commanders stepped up reconnaissance and unmanned surveillance flights along the 375-mile border between Iraq and Syria, a traditional smuggling route, and moved more troops to the area.

President Bush warned Syria against providing sanctuary for the Iraqi leadership. The US intelligence officials said some leaders’ family members had headed west to Syria before the war began and that others had continued to try to escape there.

Syrian spokesman Imad Moustapha said the US allegations against his country were “a fabrication”. Syria closed its borders with Iraq shortly before the war began, he said. “This is an unfair campaign,” Moustapha said. “We don’t even have an ambassador to Iraq. How would we know what’s going on there'”

On the question of whether Saddam was alive, one senior administration official said the informal “dead or alive” needle had “inched more in the dead direction” yesterday as communication intercepts picked up discussion about Saddam’s death from people “who ought to be in the position to know”.

“They were telling each other they think he’s dead,” the official said. But “we don’t know if they really know or not, or if they are trying to fool us”.

CIA and military intelligence analysts have been wading through a mass of documents, intercepts, imagery and reports from Iraqis in an effort to determine where Saddam and almost his entire retinue of top civilian and military leaders have gone.

“There’s a wide array of sources that provide us information,” Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks told reporters at US Central Command headquarters in Qatar yesterday. He said allied forces were trying to prevent Iraqi officials from leaving “by air, by smuggling (and) by movement in vehicles.”

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