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Saddam still in Iraq - UK minister

Hoon walks past a portrait of Saddam being displayed by British troops in Umm Qasr port Wednesday.
Hoon walks past a portrait of Saddam being displayed by British troops in Umm Qasr port Wednesday.

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UMM QASR, Iraq (CNN) -- Britain's defense minister said Wednesday he believed Iraq's former president Saddam Hussein was probably still alive and hiding in Iraq, two weeks after Baghdad fell to U.S.-led forces.

In an interview with British Forces Broadcast Services while in southern Iraq, Geoff Hoon said there were no conclusive reports about the fate of Iraq's dictator. The United States says it does not know where Saddam is, or even whether he is still alive.

"In the end we don't know," he said. "It is still my best judgment that he is (in Iraq). Obviously as each day goes by, as we continue to search those places where he might be hiding, we have to keep an open mind. But it is still my best judgment."

Hoon, the most senior coalition official to visit Iraq since the war began on March 20, said the U.S.-led coalition was making strong progress in finding those officials who were responsible for "the appalling regime here."

The search goes on for those people -- "above all else Saddam Hussein -- but we we are seeing day by day successes as we capture more of those who are to blame and we go on with that effort," he said.

Coalition forces have arrested eight Iraqi leaders on its "most wanted list" of Saddam allies and Baath Party loyalists.

Several rumors have circulated in the past month about Saddam's fate: that he was killed in the first U.S. bombing on March 20, that he died in a second air strike aimed directly at him or that he was being sheltered in Syria.

Abu Dhabi TV broadcast a videotape last Friday showing a man said to be deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein greeting supporters in Baghdad on April 9 -- the day the capital fell -- as well as an audiotaped message calling on Iraqis to battle the U.S.-led forces that control most of Iraq. ('Saddam tapes')

Hoon repeated Wednesday that he was not disappointed by the coalition's failure to find any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

"We always knew it would take time to find weapons that have been deliberately hidden by the regime," the UK's Press Association quoted him as saying.

"We were well aware all through the U.N. inspections process that very determined efforts had been taken by the regime to dismantle weapons to hide them.

"It's a huge country and it can't be surprising that it takes time, it's not a detective game.

"What we anticipate happening now is that as more and more former elements of the regime start talking to us and explaining where these weapons are hidden, then we will find them."

Meanwhile Wednesday, Britain's defense ministry announced that Admiral Sir Michael Boyce is to retire from the post of Chief of Defence Staff next week.

Admiral Boyce, 60, who was made Chief of Defence Staff in February 2001, won a reputation for outspoken remarks, including publicly voicing "extreme concern" at the impact of the firefighters' strike on military effectiveness.

Britain's former Chief of the General Staff General Sir Michael Walker will take over the position on Friday, May 2.

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