Senior Pentagon officials expressed new skepticism Sunday that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and his powerful sons survived a strike designed to kill them on the opening day of the war.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, appearing on morning TV talk shows, all but challenged Hussein to show himself and prove that he is alive after the U.S. bombarded a bunker in Baghdad where the Iraqi leader and his sons were thought to be sheltering.
“We have not seen their leadership since” that March 20 attack, Rumsfeld said. “Where is Saddam Hussein? Where is Qusai, where is Uday -- his sons? They’re not talking.”
His comments, and similar remarks by Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, came even as another U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that no new evidence has emerged to indicate the fates of Hussein and his sons.
However, intelligence officials took note of at least one intriguing sign: Iraq’s defense minister appeared on Iraqi television last week accompanied by a man believed to be Hussein’s longtime bodyguard.
“It’s worthy of note,” the U.S. official said. “Here’s a guy who’s always seen with Saddam. You always see him in the videos.”
U.S. officials wonder why the bodyguard would leave Hussein’s side at a moment when the Iraqi leader presumably would be concerned about coup attempts and his personal security.
Rumsfeld described the bodyguard’s appearance as “interesting.”
“It may be an indication that Saddam Hussein is not moving around much,” he said.
A TV appearance Sunday by Iraq’s ambassador to the United Nations, Mohammed Douri, did little to scuttle speculation about Hussein’s well-being.
Asked on NBC’s “Meet the Press” whether Hussein was alive, Douri hesitated for a moment before saying, “I think that he is alive, of course, because we saw him several times on the TV.”
Douri was referring to recent televised appearances by Hussein, including one just hours after the attack intended to kill him.
U.S. officials have said those appearances could have been taped in advance and do not prove that he survived.
Speaking from New York, Douri suggested that the regime could outlast the death of Hussein or his sons.
“It is not a question of one person or two persons,” Douri said.
CIA officials remain convinced that Hussein and his sons were in the Dora Farm compound struck by cruise missiles and “bunker-buster” bombs in the opening salvo of the war.
Rumsfeld also suggested Sunday that some members of Hussein’s family, and members of other Iraqi leaders’ families, may have fled to Syria.
The U.S. official speaking on condition of anonymity said there have been “rumors and reports” to that effect, but there is “no hard evidence” that any members of the Iraqi leadership’s families have fled.
The official cautioned that some of these reports have come from Iraqi opposition groups that, like the Pentagon, have an interest in making Iraqi military commanders wonder whether they have been betrayed.