After British intelligence sources Tuesday clamed that Saddam had "escaped by minutes" the four 2,000 pound satellite-guided bombs from a B-1 bomber that tried to target him in a suburban Baghdad restaurant, there are growing suspicions that he has made his escape from the beleaguered capital to Tikrit.
Believed to contain the last intact Republican Guard units, from the Adnan and al-Nida divisions, Tikrit also contains a major air base, the Iraqi Air Force academy and Saddam's Tharthar Palace.
Allied air reconnaissance has established that nests of anti-aircraft guns are posted on rooftops throughout the city, and networks of defensive bunkers guard the approaches.
"We believe that Tikrit is a stronghold for the regime leadership," commented U.S. military spokesman Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks. "Tikrit has not escaped our attention, nor has it escaped our targeting."
Saddam's family name is al-Tikriti, signaling his birthplace some 65 years ago, and his tribe has been the greatest beneficiaries of his long regime. The Tikriti clan dominated the top ranks of the military and the Mukhabarat secret police. No single place in Iraq has more to lose from Saddam Hussein's fall.
During his reign, the population of this sleepy, dusty town on the edge of the Syrian Desert swelled from less than 100,000 to over 260,000 as public buildings, palaces and military bases were built to reflect the new glory of al-Tikriti.
The town's glory is unlikely to survive the Saddam Hussein regime, and any attempt at a last stand will met an ugly fate from massed coalition air power and the high-tech weaponry of the 4th Division eager to win its spurs after fruitless weeks of waiting on ships off the Turkish coast, refused permission to land.
Tikrit is also a key to Iraq's clouded political future, the last major Sunni town on the Iraqi lowlands before the land starts to rise to the northern mountains that have been for centuries the heartland of the Kurds. Along with the ethnically mixed cities of Mosul and Kirkuk, Tikrit is one of the handful of northern cities that will shape the Kurdish future -- and may decide whether or not Turkey decides to intervene forcefully to prevent the mergence of an independent Kurdish state.
So far under strong U.S. political pressure, backed up by the presence of the arrival by parachute late last month of the 173rd Airborne brigade, the Kurdish Pesh Merga militia have not advanced beyond their mountain strongholds to take Kirkuk and Mosul. The Iraqi garrisons have withdrawn some 20 miles, under steady U.S air bombardments, but have not abandoned the two cities, which dominate Iraq's rich northern oilfields.
Turkey, with its own restive Kurdish minority, has long feared the effect of an independent Kurdish state on its borders, and has repeatedly mounted military raids into Northern Iraq to attack Kurdish guerilla bases and intimidate the population.
Kurdish leaders, who have built up their own autonomous regions under U.S. and British air cover over the last 12 years of the No-Fly Zone, insist that they understand Turkish fears and the political realities and will be content with an autonomous Kurdistan within an Iraqi federation.
But as allies with the United States against Saddam's regime, and with the traditionally Kurdish city of Kirkuk spread out tantalizingly below their advanced posts, the Kurds will not be easily dissuaded from trying to establish the independent state they have been seeking since the fall of the Ottoman empire 85 years ago.
The arrival of the U.S. 4th Division in the north gives coalition commanders a new political tool to help decide the political fate of the north. And armored reinforcements have been landing over the past 24 hours at the 173rd Brigade's airbase at Hariri in the Kurdish-held region of northern Iraq, the first time M1-A2 Abrams tanks have been landed by air in a combat zone.