Ten weeks after the end of the war, Saddam Hussein and his two sons are probably alive and in Iraq, their presence fuelling resistance to 150,000 US troops, US intelligence officials now believe.
The latest thinking on Saddam's location expressed with increasing frankness by US officials has been strengthened by intercepts of communications between fugitive members of the regime and Iraqi intelligence officials, the New York Times reported Friday
Some officials in the Bush administration had expressed certainty during the conflict that Saddam had been killed by US bombing raids, either during an attack on April 7 on an upper class neighborhood of Baghdad or the strike on a supposed leadership compound in the war's opening hours.
Officials are now reportedly convinced that Saddam's anointed heir, Qusay, is also alive, although there remains some debate about the fate of his elder brother, Uday.
They also believe the former ruling troika has remained inside Iraq, preferring to entrust their fate to their fellow citizens rather than risk betrayal to US forces in a foreign country.
Despite the failure, so far, to locate either Saddam or the weapons of mass destruction which were the Bush administration's stated reason for its invasion of Iraq, US officials insisted that the war had accomplished its goal.
Victoria Clarke, a Pentagon spokesman, said, "Of course, the search for all senior Iraqi regime figures is important, and is getting all sorts of effort. But what is really important is the fact that Saddam is no longer running the country and he won't be."
The newspaper quoted intelligence officials as saying that the fresh intercepts had intensified the hunt for Iraq's former ruling family by the CIA, the army's Delta Force, and an elite navy counter-terrorism unit. The same unit, known as Taskforce 20, has also been charged with finding Saddam's chemical and biological weapons.
Continued resistance by Iraqis to the US, which officials believe may be driven by a degree of centralized command, was made apparent to US forces once again Friday after troops came under fire in Falluja, a center for Saddam loyalists, injuring two soldiers. It was the fifth attack on US forces in 48 hours.
The casualty rate among forces in Iraq has climbed steadily since President George Bush made his dramatic appearance on a US aircraft carrier last month to declare victory over Saddam's regime.
Since then more than 50 US soldiers have been killed in Iraq in guerrilla ambushes and accidents, according to the Pentagon.
The special forces hunting for Saddam have failed to elicit fresh information on his location after the arrest of his personal secretary and closest confidant outside his immediate family.
Abed Hamid Mahmoud was the fourth most important member of the regime, a status recognized by the US when it named him the ace of diamonds in the deck of cards distributed to US troops.
Newspaper reports since his capture was announced this week suggested his arrest had elicited more disappointment than triumph.
Intelligence officials were quoted as saying they had hoped to find him with Saddam or that he would cooperate with his interrogators once in custody.
Such hopes have been thwarted repeatedly by Iraqi officials -- and Saddam's relatives -- with those captured proving adept at supplying vague or circuitous answers, according to intelligence officials.