Richard Armitage, the second high-ranking American official in less than a week to indicate Washington would not mind seeing Hussein killed, made his views clear during a CNN interview.

His views are a direct contrast to the wishes of senior British officials who say they would like to see the former leader captured and put on trial.

Speaking in Congress last week, Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said top Pentagon officials had left it to commanders in the field to decide whether to take former senior Iraqi leaders dead or alive.

“If a person is determined to fight to the death, then they may very well have that opportunity,” said Rumsfeld.

Now Armitage, the Deputy Secretary of State, has echoed Rumsfeld views encouraging speculation that the former Iraqi leader is simply wanted dead by the US.

"If Saddam Hussein could be captured safely, without any harm to US service persons, that would be great. If there is a question of harm being done to US servicemen, then he should be killed," he said. 

Armitage’s remarks come a week after occupation troops killed Hussein’s sons Uday and Qusay in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul.

Imminent capture?

Britain's Greenstock said Hussein
should not meet the same fate
as his sons

The killings boosted Washington’s search for Hussein. Armitage insisted that American troops were hot on his trail.

“We believe we were just hours behind Saddam Hussein,” he said, adding there were three raids against suspected hideouts. During one of these raids, five bystanders were killed when US troops fired at their vehicle.

But US army officials said they had no evidence that Hussein’s capture was imminent.

Armitage's remarks came a day after Britain's new envoy to Iraq Sir Jeremy Greenstock urged Hussein be take alive to be brought to trial.

Greenstock, who quit a post at the United Nations to resume responsibilities in Iraq, said Uday and Qusay's killings were a "genuine success" but that it was important for Hussein to be tried.

Armitage also expressed regret that more Iraqi soldiers were not killed during Washington’s initial stages of the war in 20 March, saying this would have helped curb resistance attacks.

"We thought they would fight more of a set-piece battle and that we would, frankly, kill a lot more of them and, therefore, have a slightly better security situation," he said.

Occupation forces face almost 13 resistance attacks a day in Iraq, said US military sources.

In other developments, US forces captured one of the former Iraqi leader's bodyguards in Hussein's hometown of Tikrit during a raid late on Monday.