WASHINGTON, April 13 (UPI) -- The second of two parts.
Did Iraqi President Saddam Hussein cheat death yet again and escape destruction in a western Baghdad bunker a week ago? Did he brilliantly use one of his fabled body doubles and outsmart the supposed incompetence of the CIA? Is he holed up somewhere prepared to make a last stand? Or did he escape Iraq to plot his return while laughing at the ineptitude of his enemies?
Answer "No" to all of the above.
The bombs that fell on a restaurant and Iraqi intelligence "safe house" -- that proved far from safe -- in Baghdad's fashionable al-Mansour district on Monday, April 7, probably did indeed blow the most vicious dictator of the modern Arab world to kingdom come. The evidence pointing to this conclusion has been piling remorselessly over the past week.
First, real evidence pointed very clearly to Saddam indeed being in his bunker at that meeting in a supposedly secure bunker when the U.S. Air Force annihilated it. To repeat a U.S. intelligence assessment widely quoted since then, many people saw him go into that bunker, no one saw him come out.
There were in fact at least two reports claiming that he did come out. Ahmed Chalabi, head of the Iraqi National Congress and long touted by Pentagon civilian policymakers as the future George Washington of Iraq, told CNN in an interview that Saddam had indeed left the bunker before it was destroyed. But there has been no hard evidence to support his assertion and it was, after all, Chalabi who repeatedly assured the Bush administration that the Iraqi army would put up no fight at all and would disintegrate as soon as the U.S. Army crossed its borders. His track record of credibility on intelligence pronouncements is not impressive -- to put it mildly.
The other report, appearing in The Times of London claimed that British intelligence had received reports Saddam was still alive. But there was no independent confirmation of whether this was just a pick-up from Chalabi or whether top level British intelligence analysts had given much -- or even any -- credence to this report. Nor for that matter has a single other British news source received any confirmation or additional evidence to suggest giving further credence to that report either.
Second, the idea that it was not Saddam but a "body double" who entered that bunker is dismissed as ludicrous by every serious intelligence expert on Iraq. Saddam, in fact only used doubles to substitute for him in car rides or from a safe distance. His security and intelligence services never showed any expertise in deception or make-up sufficient to convincingly display body doubles to him who could not be obviously distinguished as such at close range. And U.S. intelligence sources say that reliable eyewitnesses identified him and his sons as entering the location close enough to be sure.
Third, there certainly was no evidence that Saddam had "body doubles" on hand to play the parts of his two sons, who were also clearly identified at close range by eyewitness U.S. intelligence assets on the spot as entering the al-Mansour bunker with him. And the identification of his two notorious sons there is further strong evidence that it was indeed Saddam himself who entered that bunker and not a substitute.
For since the first "decapitation" attempt to kill him with precision-guided weapons failed on the night of March 19-20 at the start of the war, Saddam had been obsessed with keeping his two sons at his side, not because he loved them but quite the contrary: because his lifelong paranoia had finally spiraled out of control and he was determined to keep them in his own sight and under his personal control, U.S. intelligence analysts have concluded.
Fourth, did the tyrant of Iraq escape the scene in another underground tunnel without anyone on the surface seeing him before the bombs hit? Again, exceptionally unlikely. The "safe house" bunker he was in was far from any of his palaces or other major state institutions to make unlikely the assumption that he could enter a vast underground network -- presumably with its own subway rail link or other rapid transit system built only for him. Saddam certainly had the resources to create such things and probably did so. But he would have centered them on his own favorite palaces, not such a secondary and out of the way location.
Fifth, the U.S. bombs created an enormous crater scores of feet deep and wide. Even if he could have left shortly before in a tunnel, he would have been almost certainly trapped and buried in it anyway.
But sixth, according to some U.S. intelligence sources, there is "hard" evidence that he did not. These sources say U.S. signals intelligence monitored a continued conversation between the participants at the meeting, including Saddam and others connected to them by radio or telephone and that this conversation continued until it was abruptly terminated by the first bomb hitting the site.
We stress that this account, which was told to us and to other U.S. news outlets, has not been independently or officially confirmed. But in the absence of hard evidence to the contrary, there appears to be no reason to doubt it.
Therefore, until and unless he emerges at a news conference in Damascus, Tehran or the Russian Embassy in Baghdad, the overwhelming weight of the evidence points to the conclusion that Saddam, who held Iraq in a grip of merciless terror for three decades and a half as first strongman and then full ruler of the second Baath Republic, is indeed finally dead.
Expect to see reports of his resurrection regularly appear on the covers of supermarket tabloids, but nowhere else.