Saddam, bin Laden: Still missing, to Bush administration's chagrin

Posted: Sunday, April 20, 2003

WASHINGTON -- Just when U.S. officials began to believe they'd heard the last from Saddam Hussein, there he was again -- maybe -- greeting a crowd in video footage supposedly taken days after a bomb strike that was meant to finish him off.

The Bush administration may be wondering whether Saddam, like Osama bin Laden before him, may never really go away but will just keep popping up on tape. The administration has a lot of credibility staked on its manhunt for the two.

''Many Americans would welcome some closure on Saddam, but we may not be able to get it,'' said Heritage Foundation Middle East expert Jim Phillips. ''If he did go up in a puff of smoke, it may be difficult to recover his DNA. So there may be no final accounting of Saddam. But I think he's probably dead.''

Indeed, plenty of people say they believe Saddam is dead. They range from some high-ranking U.S. officials, like White House chief of staff Andrew Card, to Iraq's own ambassador to Poland, Sami Sadoun, a Saddam loyalist who said Friday that Baghdad would not have fallen so quickly if the leader were alive.

Which raises questions: Was that really Saddam depicted on Abu Dhabi TV in military garb and a thick gold necklace, looking slightly bashful over the cheers of excited Iraqis? Did he actually tell his supporters, after he was supposed to be dead, ''Aggressors are always defeated?''

After all, Saddam is said to use stand-ins as a means of thwarting possible assassins.

''Even if the U.S. recovered Saddam's body and established it conclusively with his DNA, there would still be conspiracy theories in the Middle East that it was just a double, and Saddam escaped to fight again,'' Phillips said. ''There are (people) who would try to manipulate that to revive Saddam's legacy.''

Pentagon officials said Friday that they haven't fully evaluated the tapes yet. But they also said the question of authenticity really matters little because Saddam is so obviously out of power.

Authentic or not, Saddam on tape creates uncertainty about American ability to nab him, just as it does for bin Laden, the target of American bombing strikes in remote, mountainous areas of Afghanistan.

Friday's tapes could undercut U.S. political efforts by feeding hope to the remnants of Saddam's government, said Joe Montville, director of the preventive diplomacy program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

''It actually sounds like a page out of the bin Laden book,'' Montville said. ''If people don't show up for a while, they're dead. But if nothing else, by putting Saddam tapes out, it antagonizes (the Bush administration) and keeps alive the idea of Arab defiance of the overwhelming force of the U.S. military.''

Abu Dhabi TV says the source that provided both tapes said they were made April 9, two days after a massive U.S. strike on a building where Saddam was thought to be. If so, why didn't Saddam comment on the happenings of the day -- like the fact that statues and other images of him were being trashed all over Baghdad?

That, in itself, puts the onus on Saddam, not the Bush administration, to prove he is alive, Montville said.

The U.S. case also is helped by the fact that Saddam's tapes -- and really, bin Laden's as well -- may seem less credible to Arabs now that there is no repressive government controlling what they see on television.

''Psychological distances between Arabs and Americans have been closed big time, despite the loss of life,'' Montville said. ''People realize there are some political actors trying to play with us, but we don't have to play.''

Sonya Ross has covered national and international affairs for The Associated Press since 1992.



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