WASHINGTON – U.S. officials say they see signs of renewed control by Baghdad of military and security forces around Iraq, but say they don't know whether that leadership is provided by Saddam Hussein or by his senior chiefs.
The partial revival of Iraqi command comes as U.S. forces close in on Baghdad. Already, airstrikes are hitting the armored vehicles of the Republican Guard units guarding the city's outer reaches.
American war strategists are proceeding on the assumption that Saddam is alive even though intelligence on his fate remains inconclusive, Bush administration officials said Tuesday.
Some in the Bush administration and in Congress believe Saddam survived last week's airstrike aimed at the Dora Farms complex in Baghdad where he slept.
Officials speaking on condition of anonymity say some evidence suggests he was wounded. Others, however, continue to say the information about his status doesn't lead to any clear conclusion. Iraqi officials say Saddam is alive and well.
After the strike, intelligence and military officials described the Iraqi leadership as in disarray. In the field, that seemed apparent too, as some Iraqi combat units fought and others fled or did nothing. But now, officials are seeing more coordination among fighting forces.
Officials have predicted the Iraqi government could crumble without Saddam. That it appears to be holding onto power is taken as another sign he is alive.
U.S. officials acknowledged that a speech by Saddam aired Monday on Iraqi television swayed some toward believing he was alive. But there was nothing in the speech that U.S. intelligence regards as conclusive that it was recorded after the strike aimed at killing him.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he believes Saddam is alive.
"I've found credible the statements that he has made since then" as proof he is alive, he said.
Several U.S. officials said Tuesday that Americans were continuing covert communications designed to get Iraqi military leaders to surrender.
They acknowledged suspicions that some of the talk on the other end was an Iraqi trick, aimed at giving American and British forces pause before attacking a unit that might be on the verge of surrender.
"There are military leaders that have talked about surrendering," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Tuesday, briefing reporters at the Pentagon. "Some have actually done it, others may be engaged in a ruse, that's possible, although the kind of ruse we've seen has tended to be a very small handful of people, Fedayeen Saddam [militia] types, in civilian clothes, pretending they're giving up."
The U.S. officials said there was no mass surrender yet arranged with the Republican Guard, but they remained optimistic the efforts would bear fruit when U.S. troops reach the highly fortified areas around Baghdad where the veteran Iraqi units are located.
One senior official said it is believed some of the Iraqis engaged in the conversations are acting in good faith but don't yet have anyone to surrender to.
That official noted that U.S. military commanders had not bombed the Iraqi Defense Ministry despite extensive runs over Baghdad, a decision affected by the ongoing communications.