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WASHINGTON (AP) -- U.S. experts are trying to identify those killed and captured when an attack on a fleeing Iraqi convoy lead to the shooting of Syrian border guards, three defense officials said Monday.
Working partly on information from previously captured Iraqi leaders, special operations troops attacked the convoy in western Iraq last week to stop what they believed were fugitives linked to the fallen regime of Saddam Hussein.
It was unclear who shot first, but American forces engaged in a firefight with Syrian border guards and several guards were hit, one senior Pentagon official said on condition of anonymity. The guards were given medical treatment by U.S. forces on the Iraqi side of the border, and it was unclear how many were wounded and whether any had died, he said.
Two officials said they had no reason yet to believe that Saddam or his sons were among the fugitives. They didn't comment on whether Saddam was the intended target in the strike.
The special Task Force 20 commando team was aided in the attack last Wednesday by fire laid down by an AC-130 gunship and other air support, one official said.
The convoy was traveling a known smuggling route near the city of Qaim. It was unclear whether smugglers were among casualties and how many Iraqis were captured or killed.
But a third Defense Department official said forensics experts went to the site to collect evidence, possibly for DNA testing.
U.S. intelligence has no knowledge of any request to identify remains from the strike through DNA matching, said a fourth U.S. official, also speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Sen. Joseph Biden, ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that he and two other senators visiting Iraq do not know if Saddam was among those involved in the convoy attack.
Saddam and his sons are the top three on the U.S. list of most-wanted officials in Iraq, and coalition officials say the lack of evidence about their fate is fueling resistance to the occupation within Iraq. Biden echoed that concern Monday.
Biden said on ABC's "Good Morning America" that senators have "heard no confirmation that it was Saddam."
But Biden also said he thought it was critical that U.S. officials confirm as early as possible whether Saddam is dead or alive.
The Delaware Democrat said "its awfully important that we find out whether he's dead or alive and get him captured because he is, in his absence, in effect, still able to be intimidating, an intimidating factor."
There were multiple reports over the weekend that Saddam's top aide, captured a week ago, had told U.S. interrogators that Saddam and his two sons survived the war and escaped to Syria and other reports that they were then forced to return to Iraq. The claims, attributed to Abid Hamid Mahmud al-Tikriti, could not be verified.
Mahmud was No. 4 on the U.S. list of the 55 most-wanted former Iraqi leaders, behind only Saddam and sons Qusai and Odai.
Some two dozen from the most-wanted list -- and a number from another list of some 200 wanted -- have been taken into U.S. custody over the weeks since the war to disarm Saddam ended.
A distant cousin of Saddam, Mahmud, 46, was the ace of diamonds on the U.S. deck of cards portraying leaders of Saddam's government and the highest official known captured when he was taken into custody last Monday. U.S. Central Command described him as Saddam's national security adviser and senior bodyguard.
Jordan's King Abdullah II told ABC's "This Week" program on Sunday that Saddam and at least one of his sons are believed to be alive.
Abdullah did not say which two he believed may be alive. But he added that it was important for everybody to have "some closure" in terms of Saddam's fate.
Abdullah also said there were reports Saddam has been "moving around the northwestern area (of Iraq) in the tribes, using sort of taxis and pickup trucks."
The Observer newspaper of London reported Sunday that American specialists were conducting DNA tests on human remains recovered last week.
The chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee said Sunday he "would not be surprised" to learn of Saddam's death because of "this very aggressive effort that we have been mounting" to locate Saddam and his loyalists.
"I will not be surprised at any military action that would lead to the possibility that we have now finally killed Saddam Hussein," Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., told "Fox News Sunday."
But he added, "Until we have absolute proof you have to assume he's alive."
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)