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AFTER THE WAR

Neighbors Say Hussein Son Survived Bombing

Qusai was seen in a car shortly after U.S. blast. One man says he kissed Saddam two days later.

May 21, 2003|Alissa J. Rubin | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — About an hour after U.S. forces targeting Saddam Hussein and his sons bombed Baghdad's Mansour district on April 7, Ali Kashif Ghata watched from a street corner as a white Peugeot raced down the block.

Hussein's younger son, Qusai, was riding shotgun.

"Qusai was in the front passenger seat with a machine gun between his legs," recalled Ghata, a dentist and resident of Mansour.

The U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division had moved into Baghdad hours earlier. Within days, the battle for the Iraqi capital would be over. But the mystery over the fate of President Hussein and his sons would remain.

The U.S. government acknowledged that it bombed a street in Mansour after receiving intelligence that Hussein was meeting there with Qusai and his other son, Uday. Army Maj. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, vice director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said April 8 that the airstrike had been "very, very effective," but that it was not known whether the three men had been killed.

U.S. officials say they still have conflicting reports about whether the three survived the bombing.

Interviews by The Times with four witnesses who live near the bombing site, and with a former bodyguard for the Hussein family, indicate that Qusai Hussein survived the blast, and that his father and older brother most likely did as well.

The bodyguard, who declined to be identified, said Hussein and his sons were at the meeting, as U.S. intelligence suggested. But the bodyguard was told by colleagues at the scene that all three men left the gathering just before the U.S. military dropped four 2,000-pound bombs on the street, and that Hussein and his older son parted company then with Qusai.

These accounts and those of other witnesses also suggest that the U.S. military either targeted the wrong house or missed the mark. The witnesses, along with neighbors on the block, say houses on either side of the two homes crushed by the bombs were used by the Husseins. They also say that at least 14 civilians were killed.

Although none of the witnesses have any idea where the Husseins may have gone after the bombing, events leading up to it provide a glimpse of how the ruling family sought to protect itself in the last days of the war.

Mansour offered an attractive hide-out to the Iraqi leadership. It is near the large palaces where many key officials worked and is on the west bank of the Tigris River with access to the main highway leading out of the country to Jordan and Syria.

Even now, in the postwar disarray, Mansour has a gracious air. Grand sandstone houses with well-tended gardens line the boulevards. Shopping streets have chic restaurants, and boutiques offer fine goods from across the Arab world and Europe.

While it is a large urban neighborhood, Mansour has a small-town feel. Despite high walls around the gardens, few movements go unnoticed. If a house changes hands or a new power line is laid, questions are discreetly raised.

"Before the war, many of the government ministers or high people rented or bought houses here to serve as safe houses," said Ceasar Magid Athari, the district's top real estate agent, whose office is decorated with a house-by-house street map of the neighborhood.

Athari is certain that a house next to one of the two that were hit was sold to a government official three weeks before the attack. The previous owner boasted that he had sold the house for $200,000, the real estate agent said.

"It was maybe worth $140,000, maybe not even that," he said. "[He] told me they gave him the money in cash, in new bills, and told him to leave all the family furniture and belongings and just take their clothes."

The buyer was almost certainly a front person for a regime member who did not wish his identity to be known, Athari said. The modest two-story home "was a simple house ... so that nobody would know Saddam Hussein was there," he said.

By the third week of the war, as U.S. troops neared Baghdad, an increasing number of government security people began to arrive in the neighborhood. Their presence worried residents, who suspected that people at the highest level of the regime were hiding there and might make the area a target of U.S. bombing.

"We started being really scared" around April 4, said Ghata, the dentist. He recalled that was the day Hussein showed up unannounced on one of Mansour's wealthy residential streets, accompanied by his secretary, Abid Hamid Mahmud Tikriti. Ghata, who was with his brother at the time, believes that it was the president rather than one of Hussein's famed doubles because the entourage was on edge.

Ghata's brother recognized a Hussein bodyguard named Nafer and approached him. "Nafer said, 'If you take one more step, I'll kill you,' " Ghata recalled.

On the same day, Mansour residents noticed government pickup trucks armed with heavy weapons stationed on many of the area's side streets.

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