Hussein regime didn't realize it was in trouble

Officers, fearing reprisal, didn't tell leader bad news, American officials say

War In Iraq

April 10, 2003|By Greg Miller | Greg Miller,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

WASHINGTON - In the end, Saddam Hussein's regime was so woefully unaware of its approaching demise that it was issuing orders to units that no longer existed, U.S. intelligence officials said yesterday.

It was so out of touch with the war's events that at times it seemed to believe the impossibly optimistic assertions served up every day by its information minister.

"There was [intelligence] that indicated they didn't fully appreciate the mess they were in," said one U.S. intelligence official. "Part of the problem was they believed their own spin."

"Nobody wants to tell Hussein and senior leaders bad news, so lots of times they don't," the official said. "They tend to believe things are going better than they are, and before you know it, coalition forces are up close and personal."

The collapse was so sudden it appeared to catch U.S. forces off guard as well and touched off a scramble by military and CIA operatives in Iraq for answers to an array of pressing questions. Chief among them are what happened to Hussein, where are his alleged banned weapons, and why weren't they used?

U.S. officials said they do not have answers and do not know what happened to other senior officials of the Iraqi government who seemed intent on holding out until yesterday, when they failed to show up for work and melted into the city.

Officials said rumors out of Baghdad are rampant, with reports that Hussein is holed up in the Russian Embassy, that he fled to Syria, was hiding in Tikrit, was killed in an airstrike Monday or died in a firefight after the bombs missed their mark.

"All those rumors are floating around Baghdad, and all of them have been reported through intelligence channels," one official said. "Any of them can be true. All of them can't be."

Indeed, officials said most of the reports were being chalked up as "rumint," spy agency shorthand for lowly regarded rumors intelligence.

At the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld went through a list of requirements that are likely to drive intelligence work in Iraq for months.

He said the United States is particularly interested in locating Iraqi scientists with knowledge of the country's banned weapons programs. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz has suggested that many of these scientists were rounded up by Hussein operatives before the war began. Their whereabouts are unknown.

The implosion of Hussein's regime renewed speculation that he was killed in an airstrike three days ago. But U.S. intelligence officials said they still have no clear evidence that Hussein or his sons were in the building when it was hit.

U.S. officials discounted reports in several British newspapers yesterday asserting that British intelligence believed Hussein had left the building through an underground tunnel before four 2,000-pound bombs turned the site to rubble.

A U.S. official said Britain's MI-6 had a source who heard from another person Hussein had escaped. "It could be right, but neither they nor we have come to any conclusion," the official said. "No one has determined it to be true."

Rumsfeld suggested yesterday that Hussein or others could have fled the country, saying there is evidence that "senior regime people are moving out of Iraq into Syria" and then on to other destinations.

But a U.S. intelligence official said that while there have been reports that one of Hussein's three wives fled to Syria before the war, there is no indication that Hussein or members of his inner circle have left Baghdad.

"We don't know where they are," the official said, "but there's no evidence that they've gotten out in any direction."

Hussein's ancestral hometown of Tikrit, north of Baghdad, remains a possible hide-out, the official said. But he noted that U.S. forces had all but sealed off routes between the two cities days ago.

Officials said the intelligence community is at a loss to explain why Hussein didn't use the chemical weapons that were the Bush administration's primary justification for the war.

Greg Miller is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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