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WAR WITH IRAQ / RUMORS IN BAGHDAD

U.S. Bombs Missed Hussein, Residents Say

Iraqis believe he and others were meeting next door. They point to numerous phone lines and a huge desk found in the residence as proof.

April 13, 2003|Michael Slackman | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Ask residents of Baghdad's Mansour district if they think Saddam Hussein's remains are at the bottom of a 60-foot pit blasted out of their neighborhood last week by U.S. bombs, and the answer will probably be no.

It's not that they believe the security-conscious president was hiding elsewhere. The U.S. just hit the wrong house, they say.

Right next to the rubble-strewn hole is a two-story white stucco home that has become the focus of intense speculation. Some neighbors believe Hussein was using it as a hide-out. No one knows for sure, of course, and it may well be a case of gossip run amok.

But neighbors say there is evidence to prove their suspicions. Chances that Hussein was there are "more than 90%, I think," said Saad Waali, 51, a retired general who lives nearby.

Exhibit 1: The five telephone lines hooked into the house. This isn't gossip. Anyone can see the five black wires running off a pole on the street and into the first floor. Five lines may be extravagant even by western standards for a residence, but here, no one has five lines.

"That's not just extraordinary; it's impossible in Iraq," said Gorgees Toma, 62, who lives next door.

Exhibit 2: The desk.

When the four, 2,000-pound bombs fell Monday in what U.S. officials called a major strike on a "leadership target," residents focused their attention on the houses that were obliterated. But as days went by, and the shock began to fade, people realized that a house bordering the crater was empty.

So they looted it.

Once people got inside, rumors started swirling that this was the house Hussein was using, and that the Americans had hit the wrong target.

The main reason was the desk.

Step inside the front door, into the modest, rectangular living room, and there is only one piece of furniture left. It is a large desk at the back of the room. It's not the kind of desk an ordinary person would put in the living room, or even in their home. It has a heavy wood top, about 6 feet long, on a rather gaudy wooden base. To the residents of Al Mansour, it looks just like the desk Hussein sat behind in televised broadcasts during the war.

Hussein is known to sleep in a different place every night and is believed to have told only a very small circle of loyalists of his location.

"It was known to everyone that he had a hide-out in ordinary houses," Toma said. "Nobody knew he was here. If we did, we could have left."

The evidence that he was in this particular house remains circumstantial, but to residents, it's convincing. In addition to the phone lines and the desk, there's the wood dining table that seems too large for the room it was in, the fancy sofa set (which was looted) and the pile of bread and potatoes on the floor. The bread, which appeared to be little sandwich rolls, looked like the kind served as military rations; Hussein traveled with military security.

Locals say that some months ago -- two by one account, seven by another -- the residents of this house sold it or rented it out. In the days and weeks afterward, people dressed in shabby clothing -- perhaps disguises -- were showing up in taxis, one neighbor said.

Another neighbor, a member of Hussein's Baath Party, said he had asked two men who had parked in the driveway to see their identification. He thought they might be criminals, but their documents indicated they were drivers for state general security, he said.

Shortly after the bomb attack transformed this block into a massive hole, residents were reluctant to talk to the foreign press about the president.

With Hussein's government now gone, the attitude among many has changed -- though fear lingers. Even U.S. officials say they're not sure Hussein is dead.

Perhaps, residents here think, Hussein is alive and plans to come back. One neighbor said a man was seen running out the house's kitchen door as the bombs struck.

"Do you think he will come back?" Mustafa, 40, a veterinarian, asked as he gaped at the crater. He declined to give his last name. "We cannot take anything for granted."

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