U.S. forces are hopeful that Saddam Hussein and his sons Odai and Qusai were killed yesterday in a bombing raid. If human remains are recovered from the smoldering ruins of Baghdad's al-Sa'aa restaurant, how will scientists be able to verify whether or not they belong to Saddam?
A truly definitive answer will be hard to come by, since forensic tests require "reference points" that the U.S. likely lacks. Even if some of the body's facial features survived the blast, the abundance of Saddam imposters means that a simple "eyeball test" isn't going to cut it. If the flesh on the hands wasn't incinerated, fingerprinting is a possibility. However, given the destructive wallop of those "bunker buster" bombs, intact fingertips aren't very likely. Forensic scientists would also need a verifiable impression of Saddam's fingerprint, an extremely difficult—if not impossible—sample to obtain. And fingerprinting isn't quite the foolproof technique that Law & Order makes it out to be; both the reference and post-mortem prints would have to be in pristine condition, and even then an examiner would be hard-pressed to announce an exact match.
Dental records, as analyzed by a forensic odontologist, are often used to identify people who met a fiery end. This is probably a no-go, however, as it will be tough to identify and locate Saddam's personal dentist, to say nothing of authenticating any X-rays that turn up.
That leaves DNA testing, the most trustworthy of forensic identification techniques. The problem here is that the United States probably doesn't possess a tissue sample from a living Saddam. Save for red-blood cells, which lack nuclei, any tissue would do—a hair, a skin scraping, a dollop of preserved saliva. Given Saddam's obsession with physical security, the odds are remote that U.S. intelligence officers have managed to obtain any of these. And forget about combing through one of those seized palaces in search of usable genetic material—there would be no way to tell whether a hair in the drain belonged to Saddam or a guest.
The only logical route, then, is to use DNA from a close relative. Parents are always preferred, but Saddam's biological father and mother are deceased. Aside from Odai and Qusai, Saddam also has three daughters; it's possible that one could be captured and compelled to give a genetic sample, though that's a tall order. It is unknown whether Saddam has any living biological siblings, as his birth father left his mother when the future despot was just an infant. (Saddam's spin has long been that his father died, rather than absconded.) He's widely rumored to enjoy frequent extramarital trysts and may have children out-of-wedlock. But again, finding such children is a difficult mission.
So the United States' best bet may be to entice one of Saddam's many, many cousins into defecting and providing some DNA. Once scientists start looking at more distant relatives, the identification process becomes less certain. Male relatives would be preferred in Saddam's case, since genes on the Y chromosome can be pinpointed and compared. The more distant the relation, the less definite the conclusion as to precise identity of the remains, although DNA analysis should be able to determine whether the body belongs to a member of Saddam's al-Tikriti clan. In the early 1990s, a blood sample from Prince Philip of England was used to verify that remains found in Siberia did, indeed, belong to the royal Romanov family of Russia; the prince was a Romanov descendent, through his ties to the German Hesse family.
Explainer thanks Daniel Drell of the Department of Energy's Office of Biological and Environmental Research.