• U.S.

Dispatch: Inside The Hunt For Saddam

9 minute read
Brian Bennett/Tikrit

As the five-ton truck rattles to a stop on a dirt road just before dawn, Lieut. Jason Lojka snaps his squad to attention. “Dirty!” he barks to the men loaded in the back of the vehicle. “Boots!” they reply. Again. “Dirty!” “Boots!” The infantrymen barrel out of the truck toward a two-story home perched on the edge of a sandy bluff overlooking the Tigris, some 10 miles north of the city of Tikrit. They reach the compound’s metal gate, M-16s locked and loaded. A translator bangs on the door. When an old woman opens up, the troops sweep through the garden and into the house. An intelligence report had said Taha Yasin Ramadan, Saddam Hussein’s Vice President, might be in the area.

They didn’t find him. But the raid did turn up some serious firepower: 50 lbs. of C4 plastic explosives, a cache of rifles hidden in the garden and seven AK-47 magazines wrapped in plastic and sunk into a pile of rotting chicken parts. The soldiers also found a Republican Guard uniform and posters of Saddam, and from a field beyond the house they unearthed a telltale box of star-cluster signal flares. “They initiate ambushes with these,” says Lieut. Colonel Steve Russell. The flares are further evidence that the Tikrit area, home base for Iraq’s fallen leader and his most fervent supporters, is a center of resistance to the U.S. forces.

Raids like this, designed to flush out Saddam and his top aides, happen every few days. On one level, they have been successful. In their recent operations around Tikrit, U.S. soldiers with the 4th Infantry Division’s 1st Brigade–known as the Raiders–have enjoyed several big scores: they helped special forces nab Saddam’s trusted aide Abid Hamid Mahmud, seized more than a ton of plastic explosives and hundreds of weapons and uncovered at a farm more than $9 million in cash plus a buried chest of jewels worth more than $1 million that belonged to Saddam’s first wife Sajida. But the U.S. forces have been unable to capture Saddam, even as the former Iraqi leader somehow circulates recorded messages calling on Iraqis to fight against the U.S. occupation.

The U.S. is desperate to find him. At home, Americans are concerned about the constant flow of U.S. casualties resulting from what new Central Command General John Abizaid described last week as a “classical guerrilla-type campaign.” While there is no evidence that Saddam is directing the attacks, U.S. war planners believe that as long as he is at large, he will continue to galvanize his followers. “Until the myth dies,” says Lieut. Colonel Russell, who oversees the town of Tikrit, “people are going to show unnatural fear of his return.” Capturing Saddam would also give a lift to the Bush Administration, roiled by allegations that it misled the public about Saddam’s weapons. “Time to find Saddam,” said a top Republican operative last week. “Time to change the subject.”

Russell is doing his best to oblige. “We get nothing if we do nothing,” he says, and so he sends his 22nd Infantry Regiment out on almost daily raids and ambushes. The strategy is clear. As long as the coalition forces keep up the pressure, says a Pentagon official, Saddam will eventually make a mistake and be caught. “It’s just a matter of waiting for Murphy’s Law to kick in,” says this official. At the same time, the steady stream of arrests of Saddam loyalists, the Americans hope, will eat away at his support structure. “He needs money and trusted friends to move around,” says the official, “and we’re scooping up both.”

The more former regime members U.S. forces nab, the more they are learning about Saddam’s underground network. Brigade commander Colonel James Hickey says a core group of bodyguards around Saddam apparently is moving his money around the area, from Baiji, 20 miles north of Tikrit, to Balad, 50 miles to the south. At the end of June, the brigade intercepted a nephew of Saddam’s who was carrying $800,000 in a Samsonite briefcase, presumably moving it from a hidden stash to a delivery point. The farm where the brigade found millions of dollars and Sajida’s jewels is believed to have been a way station for those aiding Saddam.

He will not be an easy catch. Although he was Iraq’s President, Saddam has been living like a man on the run for more than a decade. A butler who worked for him from 2000 until the day Baghdad fell tells TIME that the former dictator rarely spent more than 10 straight hours in a location. After waking up, Saddam would move on to another place before the call to morning prayer. Though he had his pick of huge palaces, says the butler, Saddam preferred to stay in small houses inside the palace compounds.

Almost certainly, Saddam is traveling with only a few companions. A former private secretary to the dictator tells TIME that a small number of Saddam’s bodyguards and close associates disappeared when he vanished after the fall of Baghdad. Everyone else from the former regime, the secretary says, is accounted for. These missing few, he says, are known around Tikrit as shabbah, or ghosts. “No one has seen them,” he says, “but we know they are out there, helping him.”

The most prominent ghosts come from Owja, Saddam’s home village just south of Tikrit. Khalil Ibrahim Omar al-Mouslit and his brothers Mohammad and Radman were, respectively, Saddam’s favorite bodyguard, personal chauffeur and close escort. Mohammad was seen by the butler driving Saddam’s white Mercedes out of the Baghdad neighborhood of Adhamiyah after the President made a public appearance there on April 9, as the Americans were trying to take control of Baghdad. And the same day, says the former secretary, Radman personally told the other close associates of Saddam that they were no longer needed.

Russell believes that the ghosts are doing more than ushering Saddam around. He thinks they are also doling out cash and heavy weapons to those who want to attack U.S. forces. And plenty want to. In Tikrit last week, stencils reading GOD, COUNTRY, LEADER–with Saddam’s profile silhouetted in the middle–were painted at many prominent intersections. There are pro-Saddam screeds everywhere in the city. (“He’s coming back. We are waiting patiently.” “Cooperate with the Americans and die”). Shopkeepers and homeowners are too frightened to remove the messages, so Russell sometimes does. Raiders hand-paint sabers through the silhouettes of Saddam’s head, and snipers lie in wait to see who comes to remove them. Russell has also made his own stencil, which bears Saddam’s face and the words: WANTED DEAD OR ALIVE: $25,000,000.

The Raiders’ aggression has not been without cost. Russell’s 22nd Infantry Regiment alone has lost two men and has been awarded 22 Purple Hearts for soldiers wounded in action since the beginning of June. Yet American commanders in the region insist that their tactics–especially the capture of Mahmud–are weakening the opposition. Signs of progress: the number of attacks on U.S. forces around Tikrit is down, Iraqi police officers patrol the town at night, and the city’s curfew has been changed from 10 to 11 p.m. At the same time, attacks on civilians are on the rise. And shops are being shot up for selling to Americans. Last week two Iraqis working with U.S. forces died–one shot in his son’s auto-repair shop, the other mysteriously drowned in the Tigris.

The fact is, many Tikritis remain fiercely loyal to the old regime. In a modest, two-story home in Tikrit, Mahmoud Omar, 30, a teacher at a secondary school, says he hopes Saddam will return. The owners of the house proudly display their photos of Saddam. One, bound in leather, shows a young man from the family, in uniform, standing next to Saddam. He was a bodyguard for the former President. “We are keeping these in the house,” says the owner, who doesn’t want to be identified for fear of retribution from the Americans. “We will never throw them away.” Some neighbors, Omar says, are burying their Saddam photos so the Americans won’t confiscate them. “You have to understand,” he says, “these are people who knew Saddam Hussein from the day they were born.” In a Tikrit teahouse, Hakim Salih Mohammad, a former warrant officer in the Special Republican Guard, praises Saddam and contends that the ex-leader came to Saddam International Airport in early April and fired rocket-propelled grenades (RPG) from his own shoulder at the advancing Americans. “This new coalition has dismantled the military and intelligence offices. Hundreds of thousands of people are without jobs.” Saddam, he says, “is our symbol, and he is our destiny.”

It is because so many people in Tikrit think that way that the Raiders stay aggressive. One night last week the Cobra Company of Russell’s battalion responded to reports that two men who had launched RPG attacks at a U.S. convoy had run into a nearby house. Cobra Company stormed the place–and found an old Bedouin, his three sons and their wives. The soldiers apologized, and the old man offered them a glass of chilled water and a warning. “Unless you catch Saddam and show his head to the people,” he said, holding his clenched hand up as if he held a fistful of hair, “they won’t believe he is gone. This will not end.” In Tikrit and in Washington, U.S. soldiers and politicians suspect that he is right.

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