Dead or alive - where is Saddam Hussein?

April 03, 2003|By Kevin Cowherd | Kevin Cowherd,SUN STAFF

AS IT HAS been for two weeks, the most intriguing question to come out of this nasty little war with Iraq is: Where's Saddam Hussein?

Is he alive?

Is that really him in those grainy images from Iraqi TV that show a puffy Hussein meeting with his military commanders and his two nutty sons? And if so, when was that footage shot?

Or is Hussein pushing up daisies somewhere in Baghdad, blown into early martyrdom by U.S. cruise missiles on the first night of the war?

Now comes a terrorism expert who says, basically: What difference does it make?

The United States should "declare Saddam dead and move on," says Dr. Saul B. Wilen. "Let's not agonize over this. If we're wrong, prove us wrong."

Wilen, 57, is a medical doctor who made a dramatic career switch and now runs an educational think tank called International Horizons Unlimited in San Antonio, Texas.

His bio says he serves on the Secret Service Task Force on Electronic Crimes and Terrorism and is a recognized authority in "prevention strategies" and "problem solving."

And if we want to get past one of this war's thorniest problems, Wilen says, here's what we do.

Tell the Iraqi people Hussein sleeps with the fishes.

"Over the last few months, all we've heard is `Saddam this' and `Saddam that,'" Wilen said over the phone yesterday, moments after an appearance on WBAL radio. "The psychology is: It's Saddam's war, Saddam's troops, Saddam's oil wells ... "

And two weeks into the war, with no credible proof that Hussein is still alive, all the media references to the Iraqi dictator are a psy-ops stumbling block to coalition forces.

"All it does is reinforce to the Iraqi [people] that Saddam is still there, still in charge," Wilen said. If we want the Iraqis to rise up against the Hussein regime, he said, tell them their leader is dead.

Anyway, Wilen is so sold on this idea that he sent it along to the White House a couple of days ago.

"To date," his memo said in part, "all intelligence sources are unable to confirm that Saddam Hussein is alive or in any way in control. The only reasonable assumptions are that he is dead, totally incapacitated, or has run away and abandoned `his people.'

"It is not the responsibility of the coalition to prove that Saddam is dead, but rather it is the responsibility of the Iraqi government to prove that he lives."

Wilen said he was amused to hear Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, during a televised press briefing a day later, use similar phraseology in a reply to a reporter on Hussein's whereabouts.

Maybe it was a coincidence, Wilen said. Then again, maybe it wasn't.

By the way, Wilen says there's really no downside to the idea of trumpeting Hussein's death, even if the Iraqi leader were suddenly to appear in public looking like he just came from the gym.

"If he's alive," said Wilen, "we say: `Oh, well, our intelligence is faulty. Let's move on.' And if we flush him out and we can target him, well ... "

Despite his occupation, Wilen said he hates war.

"War is madness," he said. "But it's the reality of the day."

There seems to be little doubt in the good doctor's mind, though, that Hussein is no longer among the living.

"We had a bunker [attack] and from then on, we heard nothing about Saddam," he said. "We know he has an ego bigger than Baltimore. You think he's just going to sit back and let [the war] go on without him?"

Maybe, maybe not.

But my problem with the Saddam-is-dead theory is this: What does the remaining Iraqi leadership gain by covering up Hussein's death?

In his memo, Wilen says it's "an obvious self-serving effort on their behalf in hopes of consolidating any possible power, holding out for an eventual negotiated settlement beneficial to them, prolonging the conflict with the coalition to the point where the external forces generated by the rest of the world would result in a ceasefire and compromise."

Well, we'll see if he's right.

But another thing that makes me skeptical about Hussein's death is this: If the remaining Iraqi leaders are engaged in a massive cover-up, they're sure doing a helluva job.

Look, I don't know two people who could keep a secret of that magnitude in this country.

If it happened over here, someone close to him would be calling Fox TV or the National Enquirer and saying: "Hey, Saddam just checked out and I've got all the details. And if the price is right, I got some 8-by-10 glossies, too."

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