- The Washington Times - Monday, June 23, 2003

The U.S. military has begun inspecting the site of an Iraqi convoy destroyed by air-to-ground munitions last week, but there is no evidence that either Saddam Hussein or his two sons were in the vehicles, officials said yesterday.

“We have no indication that that was the case,” said one U.S. official when asked if Saddam might have been riding in the line of vehicles.

Whether the military will perform DNA testing on remains depends on what evidence is collected at the scene and on further intelligence reports.

The three- to four-vehicle convoy was fleeing to Syria and was near the border when it was attacked by a combined Army-special operations team, backed by a Predator drone armed with Hellfire missiles.

The attack came so close to Syria that U.S. forces and Syrian border guards exchanged fire. Seven border guards were wounded. Five of them were treated by Army medical personnel. U.S. officials would not confirm reports that shots were fired across the border. No American casualties were reported.

The attack came after the United States received an intelligence tip that the convoy carried former members of Saddam’s Ba’ath Party regime trying to escape to Syria.

“We have no details on who was in the convoy or the number of enemy forces,” said a defense official. The Army rounded up 20 Iraqis at the site, but later released them after it was determined they were not former regime figures.

After Baghdad fell April 9, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and other senior Bush administration officials complained loudly that Damascus was allowing fleeing Iraqi VIPs to enter Syria and, in some cases, to travel to third countries. Syria is known to have returned some of the Iraqis, but the United States remains suspicious that its borders are deliberately porous.

The CIA has no firm proof that Saddam and sons Uday and Qusay are dead or alive. The Air Force launched at least two bombing strikes on March 20 and April 7 at buildings believed to hold the trio. But explorations in the bombed rubble in southern Baghdad and in the Mansur neighborhood near the city’s center have failed to find remains that match the ousted dictator’s.

In the April 7 strike, eyes on the ground saw Saddam enter a building for a suspected meeting with intelligence service officials. He was not seen leaving before four 2,000-pound bombs struck.

The latest strike came a few days after American commandos captured Abid Hamid Mahmud, one of Saddam’s closest advisers and the highest-ranked official in custody from U.S. Central Command’s deck of cards of the most-wanted Iraqis. Mahmud, like other Ba’athists in custody, has told interrogators that Saddam is alive.

But the United States has not been able to confirm these statements. CIA analysts are described as of two minds on the question of whether Saddam is dead or alive. The agency has collected communications “chatter” from loyalists that point in both directions.

Asked about the convoy bombing, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said yesterday: “I can confirm for you that there were military operations against leadership target or targets. And this should be seen in keeping with the ongoing military effort in Iraq to bring justice to people who we believe are associated with the regime or are leaders in the regime.”

“I will not be surprised at any military action that would lead to the possibility that we have now finally killed Saddam Hussein,” Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, Kansas Republican, said Sunday on Fox News.

Mr. Roberts said it is imperative to capture Saddam and prove his demise to deflate the bands of Ba’athist paramilitaries who are staging deadly hit-and-run attacks on American troops.

“It’s sort of a loose-knit kind of coalition,” Mr. Roberts said. “If we can prove that he’s dead, a lot of the steam certainly will go out of that.”

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