Washington, April 10 (Reuters): Rumours flew about the fate of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein yesterday with reports that he was alive, wounded, dead, fleeing to Syria and hiding in the Russian embassy in Baghdad.
It was a heavy day for what US intelligence officials refer dryly to as “rumint” — rumour intelligence. The only absolute certainty, US officials said, was that Saddam’s fate was not known.
Among the rumours circulating were that Saddam died in the initial US bombing on March 20 Iraqi time (March 19 US time), that he died in a second strike on Monday, that he was wounded, caught in a shootout, hiding in the Russian embassy, hiding in Russia and hiding in Syria.
“All of those things can’t be true,” a US official said. “It’s not even certain that any of them are.”
Russia denied reports that Saddam was hiding in its embassy in Baghdad. “This type of statement is not in any way true,” foreign ministry spokesman Alexander Yakovenko told Russian state television.
US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld appeared to squash rumours that Saddam had fled to Syria.
He said while there were “intelligence scraps” that Saddam’s family members and supporters had been fleeing in that direction, they were not “very senior, senior people”.
Ahmad Chalabi, leader of the Iraqi National Congress opposition group who is now in southern Iraq, told CNN: “We have no evidence that they (Saddam and his sons) have been killed” in an air attack. He said Saddam’s son Qusay at least had survived this week’s bombing.
“There’s no question but that it is hard to find a single person,” Rumsfeld told a Pentagon media briefing. “It is hard to find them when they’re alive and mobile. It’s hard to find them when they’re not well. And it’s hard to find them if they’re buried under rubble. We don’t know.”
The US has certainly had experience of how one elusive man can hide — despite a world manhunt and the military conquest of Afghanistan, it has failed to track down Osama bin Laden, leader of the militant al Qaida network.
Earlier, a CIA official said the intelligence agency did not know whether Saddam and his sons were killed or whether they survived this week’s bombing. “It is not known whether Saddam and sons were present and whether they survived the attack,” the official said.
A B-1 bomber dropped four 2,000-pound bombs on a building in the Baghdad district of Mansur on Monday after the CIA received a tip that Saddam and his sons, Uday and Qusay, were inside meeting with Iraqi intelligence officials. The strike demolished the building.
British newspapers yesterday quoted unnamed British intelligence sources as saying Saddam probably survived the airstrike.
US officials say it would probably take some time to determine the fate of the Iraqi leader.
If Saddam survived he will surface at some point or people close to him will talk about him as either dead or alive and that information will be picked up by Western intelligence services, US officials say.