WASHINGTON - U.S. special operations forces on Wednesday scoured the site of a Baghdad building leveled by American bombs, searching for evidence that Saddam Hussein was inside at the time of the blasts, officials said.
The team is looking for remains or other evidence to prove that the four tons of bombs dropped on the building Monday hit the Iraqi leader, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Multiple intelligence sources put Saddam inside the building in the capital's tony Mansour neighborhood before it was hit, other U.S. officials said.
Intelligence officials described the information that led to Monday's strike as solid but did not provide details. One source was believed to be an eyewitness who watched Saddam go inside the building. No one would discuss the identity or characterize the credibility of the witness.
The officials stopped well short of declaring Saddam dead, describing the information as encouraging but not conclusive.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld laid out several possibilities: "He's not active. Therefore, he's either dead, or he's incapacitated, or he's healthy and cowering in some tunnel someplace trying to avoid being caught."
Most officials expect Saddam to remain in Baghdad until the very end. If he flees, it could be to his hometown of Tikrit, to the north of Baghdad, which has been bombed heavily but isn't under U.S. control. Officials cast doubt on speculation he could go to Syria, or seek refuge in the Russian Embassy in Baghdad.
On Monday, U.S. intelligence heard that Saddam and his sons, Qusai and Odai, were possibly going to attend a meeting with Iraqi intelligence officials in a building in the al-Mansour neighborhood in western Baghdad.
The intelligence information was passed to the military, which sent a B-1B bomber to the site. Forty-five minutes later, it dropped four guided bombs.
Three houses were destroyed. It was unclear who was inside, or whether anyone survived. Iraqi rescue workers recovered bodies from the debris Tuesday, including the body of a child and part of a young woman.
The target was not a well-known neighborhood restaurant, as some U.S. officials had reported, but a site near that restaurant.
The fate of Saddam's sons is also unknown.
Military officials in the region said Saddam doesn't appear to be in control.
"I don't think the regime is maintaining influence over hardly any of the military forces any more," said Capt. Frank Thorp at U.S. Central Command headquarters. "The fighting we see from the Iraqi military, although sometimes fierce, is not organized in any way shape or form."
The U.S. military should maintain a presence in central Baghdad for the foreseeable future to convince the Iraqi people that Saddam is no longer in power, commanders said.
"That's the next mental jump, is for the Iraqis to realize that even if he (Saddam Hussein) is still alive, he's not in charge anymore," said Col. David Perkins, commander of the 2nd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division, in downtown Baghdad.