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Slayings Send a Powerful Signal, Officials Say

The deaths of Hussein's sons could begin to choke off support for him and curb his ability to change hiding places. Loyalists may lose heart.

July 23, 2003|Greg Miller | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Saddam Hussein's sons had escaped strikes by 2,000-pound bombs on their sleeping quarters, split from their father to throw pursuers off the scent and for months eluded a top-secret team of military hunters known as Task Force 20.

Despite a constellation of satellites and unmanned surveillance planes, the real break in the search for the fugitives came from the most mundane of sources: an Iraqi informant eyeing a $30-million reward.

The deaths of the sons, intelligence officials said Tuesday, have moved the U.S. a step closer to capturing or killing Hussein himself.

Officials said Hussein was not believed to have been near his sons when they were killed, or to have been in contact with them in a way that might give away his location.

But several officials said the deaths of Uday and Qusai could begin to choke off support for their father, curtail his ability to change hiding places and give those around him new reason to see their resistance as a lost cause.

"It furthers his isolation, makes his position even more tenuous," one U.S. intelligence official said. "It sends a powerful signal to the Iraqi people that the regime is not coming back, that the remnants of the Saddam regime are being rolled up, and that the trends are in favor of coalition forces. If there are people who are hedging their bets, I think they might start reconsidering."

The CIA has seen no indication that Uday or Qusai had played an active role in coordinating the resistance to the U.S.-led occupation in Iraq, officials said.

"We don't have any evidence that they were doing much of anything other than trying to stay alive," the U.S. intelligence official said.

Officials said they felt they were closing in on the sons in recent days, with fresh clues that the two were holed up in the northern part of Iraq.

The officials would not elaborate on the intelligence that led them in that direction, but they said it came from multiple sources and did not specifically point to Mosul, let alone the compound where the sons were killed Tuesday during a six-hour operation.

The new information had been greeted with skepticism because Mosul, at the northern tip of Iraq, is in territory controlled by ethnic Kurds, who had been persecuted by the regime.

Most analysts expected Hussein and his sons to be hiding closer to Baghdad, where large parts of the population are either loyal to members of the former regime or scared enough that they might return to power to refuse to cooperate with U.S. troops.

"On the other hand," the official said, "if you're hiding, you don't hide in the first place we're going to look."

Some military and intelligence officials said they had hoped the sons would be captured.

"They would have preferred to get them alive," a Pentagon official said. "Those two probably had information as to where their father might be."

If they had been caught, the sons probably would have been taken to the same facility at Baghdad's international airport where other high-value detainees are being interrogated, the official said.

But he and others said the raid could yet yield clues to Hussein's location. U.S. forensic teams are said to be scouring the site in Mosul for any devices or documents that could provide useful information.

Officials said that since the war, Hussein and his sons appear to have been extremely careful not to use phones or other communications equipment that might give their positions away.

L. Paul Bremer III, who is leading the rebuilding effort in Iraq, said on CNN that the Husseins "kept a distance between themselves" and had probably been communicating by courier. "That would be the safest way to do it," he said.

That makes it unlikely that U.S. teams will find phones or other communications gear that would yield numbers or locations of other people in the country with whom the Husseins coordinated their movements.

But a defense intelligence official indicated that some records or documents were found on the sons that helped in identifying their bodies, suggesting that there might have been other meaningful information at the site.

U.S. intelligence officials believe Hussein is alive and likely to be hiding in a Sunni Muslim area of central Iraq. An audiotape surfaced last week in which a voice purported to be that of Hussein calls for a jihad to oust U.S. troops. The CIA believes the tape is authentic.

Before Tuesday, the hunt for Hussein and his sons had been a source of deep frustration for the military and the U.S. intelligence community, which have devoted enormous resources to the mission and carried out a string of unsuccessful attacks.

The first came on the initial night of the war, March 20, when U.S. warships dropped bunker-busting bombs on a palatial compound in Baghdad called Dora Farms, where Hussein and his sons were said to be hiding. The tip came from human sources on the ground.

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