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Iraq: Saddam Hussein Is Toppled, But Where Is He?

Yesterday, a huge statue of Saddam Hussein was toppled in central Baghdad, along with any trace of the former Iraqi leader's rule. But as RFE/RL reports, the search for Saddam himself continues.

Washington, 10 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Where is Saddam Hussein?

As jubilant Iraqis celebrate his fall from power in the streets of Baghdad, questions persist about the whereabouts of the elusive Iraqi leader and his two sons.

Rumors are rife. Was Hussein killed in a U.S. air strike on 7 April, along with other senior Iraqi leaders? Or did he and his sons, Qusay and Uday, flee to Saddam's hometown of Tikrit?

Then there's the rumor that Hussein is hiding out in the Russian Embassy in Baghdad, with Washington and Moscow supposedly negotiating over his fate.

U.S. officials say they're unsure about Saddam's whereabouts but say they are certain he has lost his grip on power. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told a briefing yesterday: "Saddam Hussein is now taking his rightful place alongside [Adolf] Hitler, [Joseph] Stalin, [Vladimir] Lenin, [and Nicolae] Ceausescu in the pantheon of failed brutal dictators, and the Iraqi people are well on their way to freedom."

U.S. intelligence sources have been quoted as saying that Hussein was inside a Baghdad residential building before it was leveled by U.S. bombs on 7 April. One source, believed to be an eyewitness, said he saw Hussein enter the building. But the officials, who spoke yesterday to the Associated Press, stopped well short of declaring Saddam dead.

Meanwhile, Britain's "The Guardian" newspaper quoted an unidentified intelligence source yesterday as saying Hussein "was probably not in the building when it was bombed." "The Times" of London also quoted an unidentified source who said: "We think he left the same way he arrived in the area, either by a tunnel system or by car. We're not sure." When asked about the reports, Britain's Foreign Office conceded, "It is possible that he escaped."

Although a White House source dismissed the idea that Hussein may have taken refuge in Syria, Rumsfeld said that indeed may be the case for some senior Iraqi leaders. Rumsfeld did not say whether he includes Saddam among them. "We are getting scraps of intelligence saying that Syria has been cooperative in facilitating the movement of people out of Iraq into Syria. And then, in some cases, they stay there and find safekeeping there. In other cases, they are moving from Syria to still other places," Rumsfeld said.

In Lebanon, the speaker of parliament said Saddam may have taken shelter in the Russian Embassy in Baghdad as part of a deal with Moscow. Russia's ambassador to Baghdad, Vladimir Titorenko, left Iraq on 6 April, but his convoy came under fire en route to Syria. He returned to Baghdad on 8 April, saying he had to retrieve an embassy driver who was wounded in the shooting. It has yet to be established who attacked the convoy.

A Turkish think tank in Ankara, SESAR, also reported that credible sources in Baghdad had confirmed that Hussein -- who had extensive commercial links with Russia -- was hiding in Moscow's embassy. That report could not be independently verified.

The Moscow correspondent of the Arab news channel Al-Jazeera quoted a Russian intelligence officer as saying Hussein's safe exit from Baghdad had been assured in return for a halt to Iraqi resistance.

Asked about the Russian connection, U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told a briefing that it appeared to be entirely a "press rumor."

Judith Kipper is a Middle East analyst with Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank. She told RFE/RL that she doubts the Russian rumors but adds that the scenario is not inconceivable. "Our relationship with the Russians is very important. Obviously, if he's already in the embassy, that's Russian sovereign territory, and we're not going to go to war with the Russians over this," Kipper said.

Then again, maybe Saddam is elsewhere in Baghdad, right under the noses of U.S. Marines.

Iraqi opposition figure Ahmad Chalabi, interviewed in Iraq by CNN yesterday, said he had heard from sources inside Iraq that Hussein and his two sons survived the bombing and were in a town northeast of Baghdad when U.S. Marines arrived in the capital.

If he and his sons made it to Tikrit, Saddam's Sunni stronghold 150 kilometers north of Baghdad, there is concern that they could vanish in the labyrinth of tunnels under his presidential compounds.

Still, Rumsfeld said the details of Saddam's fate really don't matter. "He [Saddam Hussein] has not been around. He is not active. Therefore, he is either dead, or he is incapacitated, or he is healthy and cowering in some tunnel someplace trying to avoid being caught," he said.

Yet if Hussein ends up like Osama bin Laden, how complete can the U.S. consider its victory in Iraq to be? Bin Laden, the leader of the Al-Qaeda terrorist network, has not been found and is believed to be alive, despite having been the chief target of America's war in Afghanistan.

"This is not Osama bin Laden, which is an international terrorist network. This [Hussein] is somebody who was president of a country, and the Iraqi people are jubilant and celebrating today, but as things calm down, I think they will remain nervous so long as he is not found, along with his sons and a few other people," Kipper said.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer acknowledged in a briefing yesterday that knowing Hussein's fate would be best for everyone. "I think that, if you put yourself in the place of an Iraqi citizen, they would like to see closure. I think that would be helpful to the people of Iraq. Certainly, we would like to have certain knowledge about Saddam Hussein's fate," Fleischer said. "But the bigger point is the Iraqi people can already see [freedom] and taste it. Their day of freedom has arrived, and it is coming."