TIKRIT, Iraq – Saddam Hussein has disguised himself and moves around outside of his hometown of Tikrit, but not in the city itself, where he would be easily recognized, an Iraqi police official said.
Hamed Muzhir, police chief of Salah ad-Din province, which includes Tikrit (search), did not say when Saddam was last seen or how he knew the former dictator was in the area.
Muzhir's forces conducted house-to-house searches early Wednesday in a suburb of Tikrit, Saddam's hometown, looking for weapons and insurgents.
Saddam "has covered himself up to be a completely different person," Muzhir told reporters in a news conference. "He passed through these areas very fast, around the area of Tikrit, not inside."
The United States regards the capture of Saddam as crucial to breaking the insurgency in Sunni Muslim central Iraq, the region most loyal to Saddam. Most top officials in the old regime were from his Sunni minority.
The hunt for the deposed leader is led by the top secret U.S. Special Operations Task Force 20 (search) and American officials in Iraq have said little about any progress. Washington has offered a $25 million reward for the capture of Saddam, who was last seen in person on April 9, the day U.S. forces took Baghdad.
Lt. Col. Steven Russell, a U.S. military official in Tikrit, also said it was unlikely Saddam would be active inside the city, where he could be recognized.
Russell believes the arrests of Saddam loyalists have eroded the former leader's core of supporters and could lead to his capture.
"We continue to drain the swamp," Russell said. "As the swamp drains, the eyes and the nose and the tail begin to appear, eventually, the whole alligator will be there," he said.
Asked how long that could take, Russell replied: "That's the 25 million dollar question, isn't it?"
Much of the hunt for Saddam appears to be focused around Tikrit, where Saddam and other key members of his former leadership could find shelter.
Tikrit, a town of some 120,000 people about 120 miles north of Baghdad, is a hotbed of anti-American sentiments and has been the scene of increasing attacks against coalition forces.
On Friday, a U.S. Black Hawk helicopter (search) crashed near Tikrit, killing six U.S. soldiers. U.S. military officers have said they believe the helicopter was shot down.
U.S. military officials have said many of the recent attacks are believed to have been carried out by people paid by Saddam's followers or relatives.
Saddam's sons Uday and Qusay were killed July 22 in a gunbattle with American forces in Mosul, Iraq's third-largest city about 120 miles north of Tikrit.