As U.S. troops closed in on Baghdad yesterday, U.S. officials said yesterday that Iraq's central government appeared to be maintaining important elements of control within the capital. But they could not tell whether Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is still calling the shots -- or, if he is not, who is.
Military and intelligence officials agreed that outside Baghdad, longstanding lines of control seemed near collapse.
This night-scope video shows a U.S. Special Operations attack on a presidential palace near Baghdad that targeted Iraqi leaders.
(U.s. Central Command)
"We can't tell who's in charge," Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks said at the U.S. Central Command headquarters in Doha, Qatar. "I don't think the Iraqi people can tell who's in charge, either. And we have indications that the Iraqi forces don't know who's in charge."
Asked when he had last received a reliable report on Hussein or his sons, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told reporters in Washington, "I see so much intel, and so much of it is anecdotal. . . . I haven't seen anything that was multiple-source, from known reliable sources or methods, that suggests that he is or isn't alive."
A yearlong covert CIA and military effort to instigate a coup against the Iraqi leader or rattle the government into falling apart without a battle for Baghdad is still being pursued.
"We have had ups and downs," a senior administration official said yesterday. But the likelihood that it could happen before fighting begins in the city seemed slim, as U.S. troops positioned themselves on the outskirts of the capital and appeared to seize its airport.
While a number of Republican Guard and other military commanders have surrendered or defected to U.S. or British troops in recent days, there have been no major defections or surrenders of well-positioned governmental leaders in Baghdad or other key cities. None of the top dozen leaders close to Hussein has been captured or killed, U.S. government officials confirmed yesterday.
Rumsfeld said covert conversations are continuing with Iraqi commanders through third parties. "There are still contacts," he said. "And you never know."
But, he added, the commanders who want to surrender must be certain that Hussein "is going to go," and then figure out a way "to live and not get shot by some of the folks that have been infiltrated into their operations."
Intelligence officials still believe Hussein was badly injured the first night of the war, in the March 20 air attack on a compound in which he was sleeping, and that recently aired videotaped statements and meetings with his inner circle may have been prerecorded.
They have noted a significant drop-off in the electronic, telephone, e-mail and courier communications they tracked in the past, reaffirming to analysts that Hussein is dead, wounded or virtually incommunicado. "He's gone to ground one way or the other," one CIA veteran said.
Some analysts, however, interpreted this to mean that Hussein simply is being careful in contacting his supporters. Meanwhile, most U.S. officials are acting as if he were still alive.
Reflecting that attitude, Rumsfeld yesterday repeated his concern that foreign governments might be encouraging the Iraqis to hold out for a deal that could include a safe exit for Hussein. "Some governments are discussing, from time to time, some sort of a . . . cutting a deal," he told reporters.
Those efforts, Rumsfeld said, "give hope and comfort to the Saddam Hussein regime" and give hope "that one more time maybe he'll survive."