Hot on Saddam's Trail

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ON THE PROWL: U.S. troops conduct exercises outside Sinjar, a new hotspot in the pursuit of Saddam

Even when he ruled Iraq, Saddam Hussein led a nomad's life. As President he was too paranoid to sleep in the massive, marble-lined palaces he erected all over Iraq as monuments to his power. According to close associates, he would stay instead in small houses on the edges of his various compounds, changing location every eight to 10 hours and keeping an assistant on duty around the clock to pack and unpack his suitcases. Saddam, his former secretary says, so admired the fortitude of the Bedouin tribes that wander the Iraqi wilderness that he often headed into the mountains—accompanied, of course, by caravans of aides, cooks and bodyguards—to bed down among them. "He lived very simply," says the secretary. "He didn't need much."

That can be a useful quality when you're running for your life. If Saddam's circumstances are anything like those of his sons Uday and Qusay, who died in a shoot-out with U.S. forces in Mosul two weeks ago, he is traveling with only the barest essentials: money and guns. U.S. officials figure that Saddam has probably dispensed with all his well-known bodyguards, who would be recognizable to the growing number of former regime courtiers who are showering U.S. forces with information about the whereabouts of their old boss. "He'll have people around him that no one knows," says a Pentagon official close to the search for Saddam.

And while the U.S. hunt for Saddam remained furious in the cities of Baghdad and Tikrit, American commanders told Time they had picked up a rush of new intelligence that suggested Saddam was moving through the arid plains outside the northwestern city of Mosul, seeking sanctuary with Bedouin loyalists he hoped would defend him to the death. Locals have approached U.S. troops with so many unsubstantiated reports of Saddam's presence in the area that commanders refer to them as Elvis sightings. "He's out there in the desert," a powerful sheik in the town of Sinjar, 60 miles west of Mosul, told Lieut. Colonel Henry Arnold. "He's with the Bedouins."

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Operating on intelligence more reliable than the sheik's tip, members of Task Force 20, the military's special-operations unit charged with nabbing high-value targets in Iraq, quietly descended on an airstrip near Mosul last Wednesday—backed by MC-130 combat Talon planes, modified humvees and so-called little-bird attack helicopters—to prepare for a potential assault. A battalion from the 101st Airborne Division, based in Sinjar, was on alert to seal off escape routes leading to the Syrian border. But that day Saddam was not to be found. "We shoot a lot of dry holes. It's the law of averages," says a Pentagon official. "But his number's going to come up."

After four months of failed hits and false leads, the U.S. pursuit of Saddam accelerated to a dead sprint, propelled by improved cooperation from Iraqis following the deaths of the hated Uday and Qusay. "In the last week and a half, we've had a significant increase in human intelligence," said Lieut. General Ricardo Sanchez, commander of coalition ground forces in Iraq. The U.S. isn't waiting passively for info. American forces set up listening posts in basements near suspected Saddam hideouts, using electronic-communications devices rather than radios to avoid being tracked. A senior U.S. military official says the U.S. increased checkpoints in targeted neighborhoods to discourage fugitives from moving and to stir up anxiety among locals in hopes of getting more of them to talk.

In Tikrit, Saddam's hometown, soldiers from the 4th Infantry Division swept up people with connections to Saddam in a drive to gather information on his location and to deny him the guards, couriers and safe houses he has presumably used since disappearing from public view after the fall of Baghdad. On Friday, U.S. troops in Tikrit arrested three Iraqis with ties to Saddam's inner circle, including a former army officer who is closely related to some of the "ghosts"—a cohort of Saddam's escorts who, as Time reported July 28, vanished after the fall of Baghdad and are suspected of helping protect Saddam and coordinate the resistance to U.S. forces.

U.S. officials believe that Saddam, who was heard on an audiotape last week hailing his sons as "martyrs who sacrificed themselves for the sake of God," will probably make a retaliatory last stand if cornered. "He said this week his sons were martyred by infidels," says a senior military official. "He has to avenge them. I don't care what kind of guy this is. Once you've lost your sons and a grandson, what's left?" The official, who is involved in the operations to track down Saddam, is convinced that Saddam's game now is for Arab history. The aim: to create a lasting impression as a heroic martyr.

"The sons fought hard. They went out tough. He can do no less." The noose around Saddam began to tighten on July 19 when U.S. forces received a tip about the whereabouts of Uday and Qusay. At the time, the source was not regarded as reliable. (According to a senior U.S. military official, the informant failed a polygraph test.) But intelligence units soon picked up an electronic signal that suggested the possible presence of high-level resisters in the same location in Mosul that the source had identified. Just after they began investigating the tip, U.S. forces were approached by Nawaf al-Zaydan Mohammed, a Mosul businessman who told them the brothers were staying at his house. The Americans told him to go back to the house, act normally and wait for U.S. troops to arrive.

In the meantime the U.S. needed another day to study aerial reconnaissance photographs of the neighborhood, cordon it off and get Task Force 20 in place. The savagery of the fight that followed matched the way the brothers had led their lives. Armed with little more than AK-47s, the brothers, Qusay's son Mustafa and a bodyguard repulsed U.S. assault troops four times before the order came to fire an anti-tank missile into each window of the house. According to a commander with the 101st Airborne Division, Uday was still alive when a Delta Force commando stormed the bathroom where the brothers had barricaded themselves. Following Delta Force's standard procedure, the soldier immediately pumped two bullets into Uday's mouth, to ensure his death. The resulting injuries prompted speculation that Uday had committed suicide. Mustafa, 14, was the last to fall, firing from under a bed until he was shot dead.

The U.S. is using intelligence picked up during the fire fight and in subsequent searches of the hideout to ratchet up the pressure on Saddam loyalists. According to a Pentagon official in Iraq, American forces searching the house found a list of payments made to family contacts throughout the country after the regime fell. The value of that information may overshadow the strategic importance of eliminating Uday and Qusay. What's more, during the six-hour shoot-out, the brothers were constantly on the phone, making panicked calls to friends and supporters, providing a windfall for the U.S., which had the house under full electronic surveillance. The military used the intercepted calls to track down and arrest family associates with knowledge of Saddam's movements, according to a senior U.S. military official. Some American officials interpret the fact that the brothers were found together as a sign of their desperation. The brothers' original strategy, the military believes, was to elude U.S. forces by hiding separately.

Saddam disappeared so effortlessly in the days following the fall of Baghdad that U.S. officials have come to believe he plotted the escape months in advance, choosing safe houses and dispensing supplies and money to his most trusted henchmen—and offering rich bounties for dead American GIs. Says a military official: "He knew he might have to just hunker down, try to beat us and hope the situation changes." The plan worked well until U.S. forces began seizing caches of the dictator's money, raiding his safe houses and rounding up his associates. "Saddam has to have some kind of communication," says a Pentagon official. "He has to live somewhere. And he needs money." It is Saddam's untold millions, many Iraqis believe, that allowed him to buy protection and pay off locals not to cooperate with U.S. forces. In recent weeks, the 187th Infantry Regiment has received a flood of tips that Saddam was in the area of Beij, a Bedouin settlement in northwestern Iraq. The town is a regime stronghold whose entrance reads one thousand cheers for you, saddam. But the mayor of Beij, Abdullah Fahed al-Aja'arsh, thinks any support for Saddam is purchased rather than given freely. "Maybe he has money now," says al-Aja'arsh, "but his money will be finished soon."

U.S. commanders hope the same can be said of the ongoing insurgency that plagues the U.S. occupation and took the lives of seven more soldiers last week. Pentagon officials say the attacks on American forces continue to grow in sophistication. The greatest danger still comes from regime loyalists: members of the Baath Party, Saddam Fedayeen, Iraqi Intelligence Service, Special Security Organization and Special Republican Guard. Saddam is not thought to be commanding these forces. A Pentagon official in Iraq says that the communication required to run a resistance movement would make Saddam too vulnerable to U.S. eavesdropping. But officials think Saddam's definitive removal from the scene would make Iraqis feel freer to cooperate with American forces against the resistance. "People will come out and say, 'This man did it.' We'll have more prevention," says the Pentagon source.

In Tikrit, U.S. troops believe their recent success in killing and arresting high-ranking members of the regime has begun to demoralize the insurgents. "It really gets inside these guys," says Colonel James Hickey, commander of the 4th Infantry Division's 1st Brigade. "They can't afford to lose that many. They place a premium on running away." Hickey says the insurgents have scaled back their attacks on American troops in the area, focusing instead on spreading pro-Saddam propaganda and intimidating Iraqis cooperating with the U.S. Nobody expects Saddam's demise to kill the insurgency altogether.

"Everyone agrees that getting Saddam would be a major plus," says a senior U.S. intelligence official. "But you're still going to have the lower and midlevel people who, frankly, just see no other out." U.S. officials are worried that if Saddam is captured or killed, Fedayeen fighters may switch their allegiance to tribal leaders with anti-American grudges or link up with foreign militants who have crossed into Iraq to join the fray.

What's more, as U.S. authorities know by now, the same Iraqis who celebrate the demise of Saddam and his sons today may turn against the Americans tomorrow if the U.S. is not seen to be improving services, putting people to work and turning the country back to Iraqis to govern. "The central focus is how to get Iraq back on track," says a Pentagon official close to the search for the ex-dictator. "Saddam Hussein is important. But he's not that important." And the challenges facing the U.S. in Iraq won't die when he does.