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US, UK defence chiefs remain puzzled over Saddam's fate

UK Defence Secy Geoff Hoon is as mystified as his US allies. No one knows if Saddam is dead or alive.

world Updated: Mar 22, 2003 11:22 IST

British Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon is as mystified as his US allies. No one knows if Saddam Hussein is dead or alive after a missile attack on Baghdad that targeted the Iraqi president.

"There is a continuing debate about that," Hoon said after a day of rumours swirling around the world's financial markets that were fuelled by instant 24-hour media coverage of the war.

But Hoon admitted in a BBC interview: "Unless and until we get to Baghdad, we will not be able to verify the truth short of the liberation of Baghdad."

Meanwhile, US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld also said in Washington that he did not know whether Saddam was dead or live. "I don't know," was his emphatic reply when asked about it during a regular press briefing.

Britain's Defence Chief of Staff Michael Boyce did not rule out the possibility that Saddam might have died in the initial air strike on Baghdad.

"If he was in that strike and he was sitting in the right place at the right time when a missile landed, then he may well have been killed," Admiral Boyce said. "We don't know that, we are still evaluating and analysing."

The debate over Saddam's fate offers London and Washington a perfect propaganda opportunity to sow alarm in the Iraqi leadership and sap morale among Saddam's troops.

Sunday Telegraph editor Con Coughlin, who wrote the acclaimed biography "Saddam;The Secret Life", was convinced about the authenticity of the man who appeared on Iraqi television just hours after the raid.

"I think it was Saddam Hussein because he looked so dreadful. He is a very proud man," Coughlin said.

And he is also convinced the Iraqi leader will never flee into exile if he does survive.

"Saddam is a proud Iraqi nationalist and his sole ambition is to remain leader of Iraq. Saddam also has one eye on the history books. He wants to go down in history as a great Arab leader and great Arab leaders don't run away," he said.

A CIA analysis of the broadcast determined it was Saddam's voice but it was unclear whether the tape, in which he appeared unusually wearing glasses and reading his words, was made before or after the attack.

In Baghdad, Iraqi Information Minister Saeed al-Sahaf said Saddam had survived the U.S. air raids and was safe.

On Wednesday, the United States bombed a residence compound in the southern suburbs of Baghdad near the Tigris River where Saddam was believed to have been with his sons Qusay and Uday.

But Washington could not solve the puzzle that has had the whole world wondering since then.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said: "There are all kinds of rumours about what has happened to Saddam Hussein and his sons, but there are no concrete facts to report."

"We believe it is most likely that he and the boys were somewhere in the compound," a US official said on condition of anonymity. "Were they killed? We don't know. Were they wounded? We don't know. Are they alive? We don't know."

First Published: Mar 22, 2003 09:54 IST