Saddam Hussein was inside the compound destroyed by cruise missiles in the attempted “decapitation strike”, US intelligence officials believe.
The Iraqi leader was thought to be accompanied by one or both of his sons, Qusai and Odai, when the underground bunker in southern Baghdad was attacked during the opening hours of the war.
But intelligence analysts in the US and operatives working in the region were not certain whether Saddam was killed, injured or escaped, senior Bush administration officials told the Washington Post.
“The preponderance of the evidence is he was there when the building blew up,” said one official with access to sensitive intelligence.
Another official said Saddam was believed to be “at least injured because medical attention was urgently summoned on his behalf”.
The condition of his sons, and any others who may have been at the compound, was unknown.
Saddam’s appearance on Iraqi TV after the attack was not a surprise because he was believed to have recorded several statements earlier this week in anticipation of early strikes on his hide outs.
The attack on the compound indicates the CIA has made contact with people close to Saddam.
Senator Pat Roberts, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said that the information about his whereabouts came from “human intelligence”.
The bunker was part of a secure compound guarded by the Special Security Organisation, which is commanded by Saddam’s younger son, Qusai.
Photo analysts said it was severely damaged in the missile strike.
“The bunker was the primary target, but because we couldn’t be sure where all the people were, we had to take out some other buildings as well,” a senior defence official told the Post.
US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said yesterday that authorities had not yet determined whether the bombing had accomplished its goal of taking out Iraq’s top leaders, including Saddam.