- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 23, 2003

WASHINGTON, March 23 (UPI) — Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld confirmed reports that some U.S. soldiers were missing Sunday and the Pentagon later said they had been captured by Iraq.

However, speaking on NBC's "Meet the Press" program, Rumsfeld also said he had no information on Iraqi claims that an allied plane had crashed in Baghdad. He said the televised scenes of Iraqi soldiers hunting for the downed pilot, including firing their weapons into the Tigris River, was staged for propaganda purposes.

Rumsfeld also declared that, in the absence of indications to the contrary, "We have to assume (Saddam Hussein) is alive and well." Asked whether the Iraqi leader is in control, he said, "we're getting reports that the leadership is in some disarray."

Later in the interview, he speculated that Saddam might even have crossed the Iraqi border and left the country. Asked how the Iraqi Foreign Minister Najib Sabri had slipped out of Baghdad to attend an Arab League summit in Cairo, Rumsfeld said, "The Iraqi border is porous, like ours with Mexico and Canada. Saddam could have gotten out (across the border)." But he did not elaborate on this possibility.

Iraq has a borders with Turkey, Jordan, Iran and Syria. The most friendly of those countries to Baghdad would be Syria. But there has been no indication from Damascus that Saddam is there.

Rumsfeld warned that, "There have to be tough days ahead. War is unpredictable." He said how long the war would last was "not knowable" and neither was the number of casualties. As coalition forces closed in on Baghdad, "There was a possibility that we will meet some degree of resistance for a period."

Meanwhile, there were "people on the ground" in contact with Iraqis, urging them to surrender. He would not be specific, but said the secret contacts did not extend to the Iraqi leadership.

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