Iraqi military appears cut off from its leadership

Communications down, U.S. officials say, but fate of Hussein still unclear

War In Iraq

March 22, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- U.S. officials reiterated yesterday that they are fairly certain Saddam Hussein and his sons, along with other key leaders, were in the bunker that was a target during the first hours of the attack early Thursday in Iraq.

But officials said they did not know whether Hussein and his associates were still alive.

"There are reports that he was wounded, reports that he is dead, reports that he is alive," said one official of Hussein. "One of those reports is probably right."

The officials said they believed they did kill some key Iraqi leaders in the raid, although they have not positively identified the individuals.

Intelligence officials said the sudden attack -- which occurred Wednesday night Washington time, Thursday morning Baghdad time -- has led to the nearly complete shutdown in normal communications between the leadership in Baghdad and the Iraqi military.

Some officials expressed exasperation over their inability to determine whether the Iraqi leader had been hit in the attack on a bunker in a residential district of Baghdad.

The absence of regular communications from the Iraqi leadership might help explain why military resistance has so far been scattered and uncoordinated in the face of the U.S.-led offensive.

"There has been a real decline in the communications from the leadership," said one U.S. official. "There appears to be a state of confusion and disarray in the Iraqi regime, but it is hard to quantify right now."

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld cautioned, however, that the Iraqi regime probably has various means of communicating with its forces in the field and that it is still doubtful that the United States, with one blow, succeeded in knocking out the Iraqi government's ability to direct its military.

Some officials said the absence of communications traffic is one piece of evidence leading some analysts to speculate that Hussein might have been badly wounded or killed. For example, neither of the two videotapes of the Iraqi leader broadcast after the attack, although probably genuine, provided concrete proof that he had survived the bombing raid.

Moreover, they said that the Iraqi regime could easily resolve questions about his status by showing him in a public setting, a step the Iraqis have so far not taken. But there were so many conflicting reports about his fate that senior intelligence officials said they could not make any conclusive judgments about whether he is still alive.

If Hussein survived the attack, he might have cut himself off, even from his ruling inner circle, fearing that one or more of his lieutenants was no longer loyal and had played a role in tipping off the Americans about his whereabouts, one intelligence official said.

"If he is still alive, this raid has to have had a major impact on the way he manages his life," said one official.

But the official said there was still no new indication that any member of his inner circle had broken with Hussein, who has ruled through a small group of about a dozen longtime loyalists who have carried his repressive policies.

The raid, which was based on intelligence apparently provided by someone who knew confidential details of Hussein's movements, one official said, would be likely to fuel the leader's long-held paranoia about his personal security.

"After the events of the past few days, Saddam can't trust anyone at this point, even those close to him," the official said. "Here's a guy who's obsessed with personal security, about where he goes, who he meets with and where he sleeps at night. Now he's feeling a lot more vulnerable and more distrustful that he would normally."

Yesterday, analysts at the Central Intelligence Agency concluded that the voice broadcast on Iraqi television soon after the U.S. attack was Hussein's. While the CIA has concluded that the man on the tape was Hussein, U.S. intelligence officials say they are still uncertain whether his television appearance was recorded before the attack.

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