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Iraq Journals

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Thursday, April 3

Experts say Saddam could escape

By John Yaukey | GNS

WASHINGTON - Saddam Hussein's regime may be doomed.

But is Saddam?

On Friday, Iraq's state-run media released video of a mustachioed man purported to be their president walking the streets of Baghdad after a missile attack two weeks ago that led to speculation he was dead.

If the footage is genuine, Saddam appears to be physically capable of escaping U.S. forces if he decides to flee, which no paucity of experts say is a legitimate possibility with real chances of success.

``I'd say the odds are decent,'' said Michael O'Hanlon, a Brookings Institution fellow and one of the most widely quoted experts on military affairs.

Saddam is known for using body doubles and the Iraqi media are notorious for unimaginative propaganda. That said, several experts and authors of books on Saddam told various news shows Friday that the video could well be legitimate, though it was not clear when it was shot or how extensively it might have been altered.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer played down the video as insignificant.

``In the bigger scheme of things, it really doesn't matter because whether it is him or isn't him, the regime's days are numbered and are coming to an end," he said.

Not surprisingly, the military community takes a dim view of Saddam's chances of surviving on the run.

``I can assure nothing like that is going to happen,'' said retired Air Force Gen. Thomas McInerney. ``We are not going to see Saddam rise up as some sort of guerrilla after the war.''

Stripped of his army, it's not likely Saddam would be able to do much militarily. But he could cause significant problems for U.S. efforts to rebuild Iraq after the war, as most Iraqis live in mortal fear of him and his legendary reputation for pitiless revenge. Saddam secretly living somewhere atop a fortune in diamonds or some other untraceable wealth could raise grave doubts among Iraqis about the commitment and competence of the United States in rebuilding their country.

``The survival of Saddam Hussein has great implications,'' said Judith Kipper, director of the Washington, D.C.-based Middle East Forum. ``Finding him is going to be a major factor in the way things turn out.''

Politically, President Bush would suffer at the hands of critics who still lambaste him for letting Osama bin Laden escape from Afghanistan despite saying that he wanted the master terrorist linked to the Sept. 11 attacks ``dead or alive.''

The Bush administration has made clear the offer before the war for Saddam and his two sons to leave is now void, and that U.S. forces are intent on rounding up the Iraqi president and his henchmen.

``For the senior leadership, there is no way out,'' Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Thursday. ``Their fate has been sealed.''

Some of those charged with sealing it reportedly include teams of super-elite Delta Force commandos ordered to kill or capture Saddam.

That said, Saddam has had more than a decade to prepare for his survival in the event of a second war with the United States. And survival has always been a top priority.

His many palaces are reportedly fortified with bunkers and escape tunnels. And these are hardly last-minute preparations. Even as vice president of Iraq in the late 1970s, Saddam traveled to the former Yugoslavia to marvel at the spectacular bunkers Marshal Tito built.

North or west to safety?

Fleeing to the south of Baghdad would be suicide for Saddam.

U.S. forces have flooded into the region and established a vast network of checkpoints and security. What's more, this territory is inhabited by Iraq's majority Shiite Muslims, who loathe Saddam for decades of repression and for an infamous slaughter in 1991 to suppress a rebellion.

If Saddam were to try and escape, he would presumably have to go through the north, where he was born and raised and where coalition troops are spread more thinly; or perhaps west, across the vast uninhabited desert toward Jordan. Both of those routes, however, are extremely perilous as well.

In the north, he faces the Kurds, whom he also slaughtered and who are now eager to join coalition forces in taking Baghdad. And while the vast majority of U.S. firepower is south of Baghdad, the north is crawling with special operations units and the Army's 173rd Airborne Division. U.S. forces have also secured swaths of territory west of Baghdad.

Every route out of Baghdad is a dangerous gauntlet, but Saddam has made a career of escaping enemies and returning to fight.

In 1958, after a botched assassination attempt against then-Iraqi leader Abdul Karim Kassem, Saddam escaped from a prison and a death sentence, fleeing into Syria and then Egypt.

Since he took power in 1979, he has survived numerous attempts by the U.S. military to target him, as well as assassination and coups plots from inside his own regime.

During the 1991 Persian Gulf War, U.S.-led coalition forces launched 260 air attacks on "leadership" targets that included Saddam's Baath party headquarters, bunkers and military command centers. They still failed to get him.

He survived a 1995 coup attempt by his own officers by having them boiled in acid before they could strike.

Would Saddam flee?

Saddam is a bit of an enigma when it comes to this question of whether he would leave Iraq to save himself.

``He's certainly homicidal,'' said Kipper. ``But not suicidal.''

He's also a megalomaniac who sees himself as having a profound place in Arab history as a valiant foe of the colonial West. Running from the United States would destroy this image.

As the second war with the United States approached, Saddam portrayed himself as a modern day Saladin, the great Islamic leader who clashed with Richard the Lionheart during the Third Crusade.

Moreover, throughout his political life, Saddam has espoused dreams of a unified Arab superpower stretching from the Euphrates River to the Suez Canal, replete with nuclear weapons and his hand on the trigger.

In a widely quoted analysis of Saddam, former CIA officer Regis Matlak concludes that Baghdad is Saddam's last stand.

``His dreams of glory are too great for a humiliating epitaph that headlines his imprisonment, or execution as a war criminal, or his body being ripped to shreds in Baghdad's streets,'' Matlak wrote. ``Short of assassination, he would more likely fall cloaked in glory befitting a leader of historic proportion.''