Secret CIA and military teams in Iraq and surveillance devices set up to monitor Saddam Hussein's inner circle yesterday reported that nearly the entire Iraqi leadership had vanished.
U.S. military commanders said they suspected that some leaders had headed to Hussein's hometown of Tikrit for a final bloody showdown and that others had fled to Syria. Dogged fighting by Iraqi forces at Qaim, near the Syrian border, has led some U.S. and British officials to suspect that Iraqi troops there may be protecting important Iraqi leaders or family members, although it was not clear whom.
As Baghdad slipped from Hussein's control yesterday, covert CIA and Special Operations teams dedicated to killing or capturing the Iraqi president and senior leaders discovered that the Baath Party leaders, Republican Guard leaders, troops and high-level government officials they had targeted were not at their usual posts. Even the information minister, who had been briefing journalists with outlandish versions of daily events, did not go to work.
"All of a sudden, all communications ceased and the regime didn't come to work," was the way one senior administration official described what happened in Baghdad. "Even the minders for [foreign] journalists did not go to work," he added.
The most likely explanation for the sudden dropoff in detectable communications and activity among such a large number of key people, according to reports from analysts in the CIA's Iraq Operation Group at Langley and those working at the U.S. Central Command in Doha, Qatar, is that an order to disappear was given in Hussein's name, and that he is still alive.
"There was no sign of any leaders, anywhere," a senior U.S. administration official said.
Another less probable possibility, intelligence sources said, is that the Iraqi leader died in one of two U.S. air attacks that targeted Hussein -- one March 19, the other April 8 -- and that word of his death finally leaked out.
If Hussein is alive, he and his loyalists may have sought refuge in Tikrit, a town about 90 miles north of Baghdad on the low bluffs overlooking the Tigris River. "We certainly are focused on Tikrit," Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks of the U.S. Central Command's told reporters yesterday, " to prevent the regime from being able to use it as a place to command and control, to restore command and control, or to hide."
Brooks said new Iraqi troops have been deployed to Tikrit to try to "reinforce those initial defenses." Hussein has been a generous benefactor to the town and has filled key posts in the army, his security apparatus and the Baath Party with Tikritis. They, in turn, are extremely loyal to Hussein and are expected to fight hard to protect him.
Capturing or killing Hussein remains a top U.S. priority. "In order to come to closure" psychologically, "we need to demonstrate he's not in control anymore," a senior administration official said. "It will make it easier to start afresh."
Some Iraq analysts, such as former CIA analyst Kenneth Pollack, said Hussein is highly conscious of how he will be perceived by history. Therefore, he would be unlikely to leave Iraq, and would probably prefer to make a last stand in Tikrit.
His support is so strong there, said Pollack, research director of the Brookings Institution's Saban Center, that "this could be a Mogadishu. There is a civilian population who are willing to actively assist Saddam's loyalists." There was fairly credible intelligence reporting from more than a week ago that Hussein's first wife and other relatives had left Baghdad and probably are in Tikrit.
Tikrit has been a special target for U.S. precision bombing, including what was described as a major underground bunker that Brooks called a command and control center. He said last week that U.S. Special Forces have set up checkpoints on the main roads between Baghdad and Tikrit to prevent movement between the two cities.
Tikrit is also the only part of Iraq where there apparently are enough military and paramilitary units to mount a sizable, organized fight.
Of Hussein's inner circle, only Ali Hassan Majeed, better known as "Chemical Ali," is believed to have been killed by allied forces. Hussein's younger son, Qusay, who headed the Special Republican Guard and the defense of Baghdad, has not been heard from for some time, although "there have been references about him in traffic within the past few days," one senior official said. Uday, Hussein's older son, has not been heard from since the war began March 20.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld raised the possibility that Iraqi leaders are fleeing to Syria. "Senior regime people are moving out of Iraq into Syria, and Syria is continuing to send things into Iraq," he said. "We find it notably unhelpful."
The most likely escape routes to Syria include Qaim and Mosul, where fighting also continues. At the same time, U.S. intelligence officials said allied forces continued to stop and turn around busloads of non-Iraqi fighters attempting to come into Iraq from Syria.