The Iraq war is essentially over and the regime has been deposed, but a nagging $ 200,000 question still casts a shadow over the US military victory: where is Saddam Hussein?
General Tommy Franks, who led the invasion of Iraq, is fairly clear on that. "He's either dead or running a lot," he told CNN recently.
At As-Saliyah, the US Central Command's war headquarters in Qatar, officials shrug when asked about the man on whose head the United States has put a $ 200,000 reward -- as compared with a whopping $ 25 million for the capture of Osama bin Laden, who heads the Al-Qaeda terror network.
Privately, some US officials admit that capturing Saddam would be a valuable symbolic victory for the United States as its troops seek to restore order amid the chaos of post-war Iraq.
But publicly, the top military brass play down their eagerness to get their hands on the man they see as the mother of many, if not all, evils, and whom they accuse of stockpiling banned weapons of mass destruction, which as yet have not been found.
Centcom officials have repeatedly insisted that grabbing Saddam is not that big a deal, and that capturing any of the other 54 members of his regime who figure on a US most-wanted list is just as important.
In any case, says Brigadier-General Vincent Brooks, the main thing is the man accused of leading a brutal dictatorship has been ousted.
"We are very comfortable that we have been very successful, and we anticipate that we'll have more success now," he said.
US troops in Iraq have put up wanted posters with the names of Saddam, his sons Uday and Qussay and other military or political leaders of his regime.
Above the names and photographs appear the words: "These men are wanted for crimes against the Iraqi people."
"Any information leading to their arrests is worth up to 200,000 dollars. Report this to coalition authorities," the text says.
In an unusually candid moment, Brooks admitted on Wednesday that US-led forces in Iraq "might not find any one of them". But he promptly added that the goal of the war launched on March 20 had been achieved: "the regime is not in place."
"Our efforts nonetheless will pursue any leads that tell us where any of the regime leaders might be," said Brooks, who for the past few weeks has fielded on an almost daily basis questions from journalists about the fate of Saddam.
The search for deposed Iraqi leader is further complicated by the fact that he is known to have used several body doubles, surgically enhanced to make it almost impossible to visually determine who the real Saddam is.
But US officials say they have DNA of the toppled Iraqi strongman which would enable them to make a positive identification.
Until then, as Franks put it, "he'll simply be alive until I can confirm he's dead."