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Tiny Bedouin Village Is Caught in Path of the Hunt for Hussein

Residents say a mother and infant were killed, five houses destroyed in U.S. attack on a convoy believed to be carrying the former Iraqi leader.

June 25, 2003|Hector Tobar | Times Staff Writer

MUGR ALTHEED, Iraq — The residents of this Bedouin village say they were sleeping when the American planes zoomed overhead, signaling the beginning of a battle on the other side of the moonscape of desert ridges that separates them from the Syrian border five miles away.

An hour or so later, the bombs began to fall on Mugr Altheed, destroying five concrete houses and a dozen or so vehicles, and sending villagers scattering into the star-filled night.

In the days that followed, the military action would be the subject of unconfirmed media reports and rumors discussed on Sunday talk shows in Washington and among the GIs stationed in Baghdad -- that an Iraqi "leadership target" had been struck, perhaps Saddam Hussein's two sons, or even the deposed dictator himself.

Now residents in this wind-swept, desolate hamlet of 300 have stepped forward to give their version: Neither Hussein nor any other top Iraqi leader has ever set foot here. Of those who died in the raid last Wednesday, residents said, two were villagers -- a 22-year-old woman and her infant. Also killed, they said, were some smugglers who had earlier passed through Mugr Altheed.

"I ran for my life with my wife and children," said Mneef Abdullah, whose house was destroyed in the attack. "The Americans came here at the start of the war, and we welcomed them. No one attacked them as they passed. Why do they do this now?"

Pentagon officials have said the attack on the six-vehicle convoy was carried out by AC-130 gunships and other aircraft commanded by Task Force 20, a covert unit specializing in tracking and targeting Iraqi officials. Five Syrians were held after U.S. troops entered Syrian territory in pursuit of the convoy.

A senior defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the tip about the convoy came either from Abid Hamid Mahmud Tikriti, the fourth-most-wanted Iraqi official recently captured by U.S. forces, or from information gathered as part of his capture.

On Tuesday, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said he has "no reason to believe" senior officials from Hussein's regime were killed in the attack on the convoy.

Rumsfeld and Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also declined to confirm that U.S. forces had crossed the Syrian border in the assault, although defense officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, had confirmed Monday that they did. Rumsfeld did confirm that five Syrians, three of them wounded, remained under the control of U.S. troops as a result of the attack on the convoy.

Meanwhile, a senior State Department official declined to comment on talks between the U.S. and Syria over the incident. The Pentagon's top civilian and military leaders also told reporters Tuesday that they did not know who or how many people were killed in the convoy. Asked if mistaken intelligence might have led the military to strike mere curfew violators or petty smugglers, Myers said, "I'm confident we had very good intelligence."

Rumsfeld said he was unable to say more about the attack because it "was in a remote area and a considerable distance from Baghdad" and that troops were still "busy doing a variety of things," including ensuring that no one had escaped.

He also said that a spate of recent incidents, including the deaths of four U.S. soldiers over the last eight days and six British soldiers on Tuesday, highlights the fact that "difficult work remains" in Iraq.

The villagers of Mugr Altheed know about difficulty.

On Tuesday, they watched as a convoy of U.S. military vehicles approached and disappeared behind a ridge. A section of this settlement -- about two dozen homes scattered over a square mile -- has been sealed off by American troops. Those same troops prevented foreign journalists from approaching the houses that villagers say were destroyed last Wednesday.

"We are now under siege. The Americans don't allow anyone to go inside the houses," Hamed Mohammed said. Two of his cousins were wounded in the attack. Both remained hospitalized in Qaim, about 75 miles north of the village.

"We are independent people; we live only on the livestock. We have nothing to do with the Baathists," Mohammed said, referring to the former ruling party.

A few days after the attack, village residents buried the dead woman and her child in Ramadi, the capital of the border province of Al Anbar.

Mugr Altheed is one of a handful of villages along the border. About 40 years ago, the families of the Al Bufahad tribe were nomads, grazing their sheep across the desert. They have since gained a small measure of affluence, thanks to an admitted ability to bypass customs and smuggle livestock into Syria.

Some villagers suggested that the attacked convoy may have belonged to a member of another tribe who was smuggling sheep across the border.

"Even if there was smuggling going on, does that mean you destroy houses?" asked Ahmed Hamad, a villager whose house was damaged in the attack. "If we did something wrong, we should be held responsible for that. In the same way, the Americans should compensate us for the destruction of our property."

Dahham Haraj, sheik of the Al Bufahad tribe, lashed out at the Americans. "They said they were giving us democracy, and we believed them," he said, "but instead they have come to attack us."

Later, after sunset, the sheik sat down with 30 members of his tribe to watch the news via satellite television. Under the night sky, he watched a news conference by Rumsfeld in Washington. He had hoped to hear an explanation for last week's attack, but was unsatisfied by what Rumsfeld had to say.

"I don't understand this man Rumsfeld," the sheik said, shaking his head.


Times staff writers John Hendren and Sonni Efron in Washington contributed to this report.

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