Searching for the Ace of Spades

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Lt. General Ricardo Sanchez, who took over as commander of U.S.-led coalition forces in Iraq this week, says that if Saddam Hussein is still alive, he will eventually be captured.

Speaking in a TIME interview Saturday, Sanchez said that the U.S. continues to "work hard on trying to determine whether Saddam Hussein is dead or alive" after two U.S. strikes targeting the former Iraqi ruler during major combat operations last spring.

He declined to say whether his forces were closing in on Saddam following Monday's capture of the No. 4 man in the regime, Ahmed Abid Mahmud al-Tikriti, Saddam's closest advisor. He was the ace of diamonds in the U.S. list of regime bad guys, but how close they might now be to Saddam, the ace of spades, was "an operational issue that we cant get into either way," Sanchez said.

He expressed confidence that Saddam's time was running out. "We are focused on making sure that we can capture all of the individuals that are on the black list," he said. "We are going to continue until we have in fact captured all the black list personnel. We are going to be successful, if they are still alive, we will be successful at some point or another."

Sanchez said that if some loyalists are spreading the word that Saddam is still around, "the former regime leadership would consider that important because he continues to leave a specter out there of his possibly someday returning into power." Sanchez added: "That's never going to happen."

Speaking in his tiny office in Saddam's vast Republican Palace on the Tigris River in downtown Baghdad, now the coalition headquarters in Iraq, Sanchez defended his mission against questions about escalating attacks on U.S. forces. He insisted that the attacks were occurring as a result of the U.S. forces stepping up pressure with raids into areas of Iraq inhabited by Saddam loyalists.

"When you go on the offensive, you are going to increase the numbers of confrontations and engagements that you have," he said. "We have not been sitting back waiting for the enemy to come and strike us. When we are fighting, and when America's army is committed, then we are going to have those casualties."

Sanchez denied that the recent operations code-named Peninsula Strike and Desert Scorpion represented a tactical change due to mounting attacks on U.S. forces. "There was no shift in tactics," he said. But he acknowledged that the recent spate of attacks did help prompt the operations. "We were having the activity in the west, in Faluja," he explained. "Part of that was, 'We know there is somebody operating in there, let's go take them down.'" A motivation, he said, was "our desire to go out there and make a pretty significant statement that 'We are not being intimidated, and we are in fact going to go after you.'"

He said besides being designed to respond to attacks against coalition forces, the operations were aimed at enforcing a coalition ban on major weapons that formally went into effect this week. Sanchez said Peninsula Strike and Desert Scorpion had been "extremely effective" in reducing attacks on the U.S. forces.

Sanchez identified the attackers as including members of the Baath Party, the fedayeen Saddam and mujahedeen fighters from other Arab countries. He said the attacks were conducted by small cells with "no regional or national level synchronization or coordination."

 "Clearly what is happening is there are a lot of small groups that are operating and attempting to destabilize Iraq," he said. He said it would be speculation to say whether the different groups were coordinating together, but believed that some of the attacks were being carried out by professionals.

He acknowledged some uncertainty about the complete nature of the enemy, however. "We have not determined what all the cells are that are operating out there, we have not established all the linkages out there, which is a challenge in this kind of environment, all the time, no matter where you are," he said. "We faced it in the Balkans. That's just the nature of the business in this environment. We remain focused on trying to identify and ensure that we can cope with any element that is operating in Iraq to destabilize."

He added that some attacks were being performed by young Iraqis desperate for the money that they were possibly being paid. "They conduct an ambush, spray a few rounds, drop the AK 47 and run off. Probably no real training, just harassing fire against us to make a few bucks."

Sanchez said that the Arab fighters first began entering Iraq during the major combat operations last spring. "I would suspect that there probably are some that are infiltrating in here and trying to conduct operations against us," he said. "When you look at the way that some of these religious fanatics execute their missions in places like Israel, what we are describing here isn't farfetched. This to some extent is part of the reality of us operating in this environment."

Sanchez declined say whether the Iranian government, which has allies in the large Shiite Muslim population in Iraq, was playing a positive or negative role. "I cant tell you that because that is operational information," he said. But Sanchez added that one of Iran's allies, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, was "working the political process" and not acting against his forces.

Sanchez also refused to speculate about whether the U.S. forces risked becoming entangled in a quagmire if the attacks broadened over time. "I wish I had a crystal ball," he said tersely. "I don't." But, he added, "We are prepared for any kind of a contingency. Victory will be when we have got an Iraqi government that is operating, we have the Iraqi people focused on getting on with their life, and bringing some economic revitalization to the country. We are well on our way to doing that."

Asked about some reported confusion in the ranks about the nature of the U.S. mission now that Saddam's regime has been overthrown, Sanchez denied there was a morale problem among the troops. The average Iraqi, he added, supports much of what the coalition forces are doing. "I'll tell you, if you were to accompany some of the raids that are being conducted in Baghdad, you would find that the Iraqi people are cheering our soldiers," he said. "We are getting a lot of cooperation, much more so than we had before. I believe, from the reports I am getting, that we are making a very positive impact on this country."