The Philadelphia Inquirer
JUNE 26, 2003
AL-OWJA, Iraq — Sheik Mahmoud al-Neda knew that the U.S. Army soldiers outside his front door about two weeks ago were looking for more than guns and grenades.
“I was very direct with them,” recounted the leader of Saddam Hussein’s Abu Nasser tribe in this village. “I said, ‘I don’t know where Saddam is. I haven’t seen him since 1995.’ ”
A week later and a few miles away, the soldiers stormed Ahmed Raja Badaw’s home in Tikrit, Hussein’s adopted hometown. They left with Abid Hamid Mahmud al-Tikriti, one of Hussein’s top advisers.
The Americans thought they had an even bigger catch.
“One soldier, he was speaking Arabic, he told me I was Saddam Hussein,” said Badaw, whose only resemblance to Hussein is his thick, black mustache.
The search for Hussein is growing more urgent as his myth grows. His supporters use his name to rally support against the American invaders, and U.S. officials concede that as long as he is at large, or is believed to be, many Iraqis will remain too fearful to cooperate with U.S. authorities.
The United States tried to kill Hussein at least twice, with air strikes on a compound and a restaurant. Both times, top intelligence officials maintained for several weeks that they might have succeeded, but the consensus in the intelligence community and the Bush administration now is that Hussein and his sons probably survived both bombings.
There is no shortage of rumors about Hussein’s whereabouts, although some of them probably are deliberate disinformation. Iraqi exiles backed by the Pentagon said he was holed up in Baqubah, north of Baghdad. No, he was back home in Tikrit, or maybe in Fallujah or Ramadi to the west. No, he was making a run for the Syrian border.
U.S. troops have continued to round up his aides and cronies, most recently Mahmud, who seldom left the dictator’s side while he was in power.
High-tech eavesdropping equipment has picked up some diehard supporters talking about Hussein and the need to protect him. But intelligence officials said they had not overheard Hussein or pinpointed his location.
Coalition officials would not reveal where or how they were looking for Hussein, but they conceded they were making the hunt for him a higher priority. A coalition spokesman, Capt. John Morgan, said that soon after the war, Hussein seemed like a lesser threat, because he no longer controlled the military.
“As we’ve gone on, we’ve realized there is a certain amount of speculation by Iraqi people that he’s going to come back,” Morgan said.
“We need to remove that myth.”
The hunt for Hussein is taking place in foreign and unfriendly terrain, and it extends all the way from Baghdad toward – and just across – Iraq’s border with Syria.
Using information from Mahmud and other Iraqis, U.S. troops last week attacked a convoy that they thought was carrying high-ranking Hussein loyalists, wounding five Syrian border guards in the process. On Tuesday, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said he did not think any high-ranking Iraqis were killed in the convoy.
When U.S. troops arrived a few days ago in Hussein’s adopted hometown of Tikrit and in the village where he was born, al-Owja, they were met with hostility.
Many people in the area, about two hours north of Baghdad, refer to Hussein as “cousin,” and they are devoted to him. Last weekend, someone tossed a grenade into a Tikrit electronics store frequented by U.S. soldiers. The owner said he had been warned repeatedly not to sell to Americans.
“We want Saddam Hussein back, and we will die for him,” said one self-proclaimed cousin, Thfar Farthar, 19, who spray-painted “Saddam Hussein is the hero of the Arab people” on the low-lying wall of a local elementary school. “We love Saddam Hussein. We want him back. ”
Sheik al-Neda said he tried to tell the troops they were wasting time by raiding local homes.
“I can assure you that Saddam is not in al-Owja or Tikrit. Why would he come here when Baghdad is 1,000 times larger?” he asked.
If Hussein appeared in al-Owja seeking sanctuary, he would find it with anyone, said another cousin, Raad Arkan, 23, a lieutenant in the local police force.
“If Saddam came to my house, I’d leave it and let him have it,” Arkan said. “He is alive and he is fighting to come back. He is leading. How do we know? We are relatives. We know.”