Bush says it is unclear whether Saddam survived attack

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, April 8, 2003

HILLSBOROUGH, Northern Ireland (AP) - President Bush said Tuesday that Saddam Hussein is losing his grip on power ''finger by finger'' and he may even be dead after a massive bombing strike. Looking beyond the war, Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair said the United Nations would play a vital role in Iraq's reconstruction.

At a joint news conference with Blair, Bush said it was unclear if Saddam were alive after a U.S. warplane dropped four-bunker busting bombs Monday afternoon on a western Baghdad restaurant where he was believed to be meeting with his sons. ''I don't know whether he survived,'' the president said.

''The only thing I know is that he's losing power,'' Bush said at a joint news conference with the British prime minister after a meeting at Hillsborough Castle outside Belfast.

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''The grip I used to describe that Saddam had around the throats of the Iraqi people are loosening. I can't tell you if all ten fingers are off their throats, but finger-by-finger it's coming off.''

And then, as if talking directly to the Iraqi people, Bush added: ''We will not stop until they are free. Saddam Hussein will be gone. It might have been yesterday.''

Holding their third meeting in three weeks, Blair and Bush offered personal assessments of the war. They also sought to boost peace talks in Northern Ireland.

Blair said Saddam's regime is collapsing under the weight of allied attacks in Iraq.

''In all parts of the country our power is strengthening, the regime is weakening, the Iraqi people are turning towards us,'' Blair said. ''The power of Saddam is ending.''

The two leaders looked ahead to the postwar period and sought to minimize splits on who should govern and rebuild the country.

A key component of the talks was U.N. resolutions that would define what role the international body would play in reconstruction and governing. Blair sought to downplay the divide, in which the British leader seems to want a more influential U.N. role than Bush favors.