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Positive ID?

Will science be able to identify any of Saddam's remains if he was killed in the bombing last week?

7:00 AM, Apr 14, 2003 • By RACHEL DICARLO
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WITH THE POSSIBILITY that Saddam Hussein was killed last week in the bombing near a Baghdad restaurant, there has been much speculation over whether allied authorities will be able to positively identify his remains. The blast was so intense (it left a 60 foot hole and shattered windows 300 yards away) that recovery of a body seems unlikely. But using the same technology used in both criminal investigations and the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks, scientists can take minuscule bits of skin and tissue and analyze DNA.

If two or more bodies have become intertwined, as they are sometimes in crashes and bombings, then scientists have to "worry about getting a clean profile," says John Ryan, director of forensic programs at Myriad Genetics, the company that analyzed DNA samples from the World Trade Center. In that situation, scientists would look for the biggest pieces of human remains and cut into them to get a clean, untainted biological profile.

Once the forensic scientists have their samples, they search each one for 13 to 16 distinctive stretches of DNA called short tandem repeats (STRs). These markers are positioned along specific chromosomes and give a unique characteristic profile that can almost positively identify a person. The chances of duplicating each stretch is about 1 in 250 trillion. "The power of discrimination in this process is incredibly dramatic," Ryan says.

So once scientists have tested these biological samples how can they find reference DNA material from Saddam for comparison?

It seems unlikely that he's left behind a marked blood sample from a medical procedure, but there are a few ways to get other types of material. One way is to gather personal effects that he has left behind. DNA can be extracted from a toothbrush, a comb, a handkerchief, a used drinking glass, dirty clothing, or licked stamps or envelopes. Sometimes these items wind up belonging to third, unrelated parties or in the case with hair don't have enough DNA, so for this method investigators will obtain multiple samples of reference material.

If personal effects are not available, another way is to get DNA samples from Saddam's relatives. DNA could be taken from Saddam's daughters Raghda and Rana--who defected to Jordan in 1995--but that could be complicated because paternity, unless previously proved otherwise, is never certain. Also STRs sort themselves randomly when they are reproduced, so children only inherit part of their parents' DNA profiles. The best people to obtain DNA from are his closest maternal relatives. "It's critical that they are as close as possible," Ryan says.

Rachel DiCarlo is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.