INTERNATIONAL

The end game is near, says U.S.

Buildings in the al-Mansour neighbourhood of Baghdad lie in ruins after a U.S. warplane dropped four bunker-busting bombs on the site where the Iraqi President, Saddam Hussein, was believed to be holding a meeting with his sons on Monday. — AP  

WASHINGTON APRIL 9 . The Pentagon is maintaining that it could take several days before an assessment is made if the Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein, is alive or dead from the latest targeting of a site in Baghdad.

Officials here are saying that the final determination depends on a lot of digging, forensics and DNA tests. But at a briefing at the Pentagon, the Vice-Director of Operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, argued that the end game was near. "I think that the end game is the end of the regime and that's much closer than people thought it was," Maj. Gen. McChrystal remarked, while going on to make the point that some key elements of the Republican Guard were still operating and appeared to be getting orders from the Iraqi leader but not necessarily following them. "The Republican Guard are receiving instructions, but in many cases are not following them and not capable any more so they're not an effective fighting force,'' the top military official remarked.

Maj Gen McChrystal was asked about the importance of targeting the Iraqi leader and his sons. "As much as they can exert any kind of influence — even if it is limited to Baghdad — we'd like to reduce that,'' he responded.

The top Pentagon official said that he could not provide much information at this time on the whereabouts of the Iraqi President as the site of the attack remained in the hands of the local authorities.

"We do not have hard battle damage assessment on exactly what individual or individuals were on site,'' Maj Gen McChrystal said. A B-1B bomber dropped four bombs including two bunker busters on a target where Mr. Hussein and his sons were holding a meeting.

The site is a restaurant in a residential neighbourhood. Television footages have shown the area completely wiped out to a distance of several hundred yards and at least one 60 feet crater.

Aboard Air Force One, the President's National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice, has told reporters that the U.S. has no further intelligence to confirm whether Mr. Hussein was in the building. "What is clear is that this regime is coming down. Iraq is going to be returned to the people of Iraq, but I don't think anyone knows when the regime is finished,'' Dr. Rice said. The President, George W Bush, also had no information on the whereabouts of Mr. Hussein following the Monday night bombing at the upscale al Mansour neighbourhood in Baghdad.

"I don't know whether he survived. The only thing I can tell you is...that grip I used to describe that Saddam Hussein had around the throats of the Iraqi people is loosening. I can't tell you if all 10 fingers are off the throat, but finger by finger it's coming off and the people are beginning to realise that,'' Mr. Bush remarked.

A member of the fighter aircraft that dropped those lethal bombs has been quoted as saying that the plane was directed to the site after it had finished refuelling over western Iraq. The crew were told that this mission might be the "big one''. Some 12 minutes later the bomber unleashed two 2,000 pound GBU-31s and two special "bunker busters'' that penetrate a target before detonation.