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Night raids in Tikrit seize Saddam's Baath Party officials

Wednesday, May 14, 2003

TIKRIT, Iraq -- Under cover of darkness, the Bradley Fighting Vehicle rolled up to the wall around the mansion in the al-Awja district of Tikrit, an exclusive enclave in Saddam Hussein's hometown set aside for loyal Baath Party officials.

A former party functionary reportedly had been harassing Iraqi workers taking down Saddam's portraits, and was believed to have directed pro-Saddam rallies in town. The Bradley and some 40 U.S. troops had come to arrest him.

Commanders of the 4th Infantry Division's 1st Brigade, responsible for the Tikrit area, described the mission as a "snatch" -- part of a two-tier approach toward conflict resolution in the tense region.

By day, U.S. military commanders meet with local tribal chieftains and other citizens to overcome the effects of years of anti-American propaganda. By night, to show that the former regime is no longer to be feared, they orchestrate raids to seize Saddam militants believed to be undermining U.S. authority.

"The common goal is to bring stability to this area," said Capt. James Walker, 32, of Newport News, Va., the brigade's intelligence officer.

Since the raids began, mortar and small arms attacks on U.S. troops have stopped, he said.

Getting the message

"When we got here they figured they could try us -- now they've either got the message or are stepping back to regroup," Walker said.

On April 30, scouts from the 1st Battalion, 8th Infantry Regiment, who had been tailing the Baath official, reported that he was at home.

At 11 p.m., the Bradley rolled forward, smashing through the 10-foot high wall and leaving track marks across a flower garden and the neatly manicured grass lawn. Infantrymen followed, and two soldiers bashed in the wooden front door with a heavy metal battering ram, splintering the wood around the lock.

Within minutes, they were bringing out the prisoners -- the Baath official and his two sons -- all with hands tied behind their backs and blindfolded.

Cash and several golden knives were confiscated from a first-floor safe. Shredded documents were collected from an office and placed into a box, together with a binder with Saddam's color portrait on the cover.

Some ammunition was found, but there was no sign of an AK-47 that the Baath leader was believed to possess.

Forty-five minutes after the Bradley crashed through the wall, the soldiers left without a shot being fired.

The following night did not go as smoothly.

Pursuing a senior Baath security official, several paramilitaries and Republican Guard officers, a troop of six Bradleys surrounded a downtown block while 120 soldiers broke into four houses. The Baath official was apprehended, and an AK-47, a hunting rifle and a box of ammunition were seized.

But the other suspects were not at home, and after soldiers learned that they may have been in neighboring buildings, they mounted a door-to-door search.

Eventually, 20 prisoners were led blindfolded into the street and made to sit while Arabic-speaking Americans interrogated them.

Scuffle ends in shooting

But in one house, a man grabbed at a soldier's M-16, according to what the soldier and his companions told their commanders. During the scuffle, the civilian -- who was not one of those sought -- was shot dead.

Col. Don Campbell, the brigade's commander, said an inquiry determined that the infantryman had acted properly. But angry townspeople immediately disputed that contention.

Badir Hassan, an engineer at Tikrit Hospital, said the slain man, who reportedly had poor eyesight, was shot after he shone a flashlight at the soldiers to see who was in his house.

"What do you think we think of the Americans?" he asked. "Nobody supports Saddam. Saddam is finished. (But) if you ... hear what they did to this family, how can you move on the street without being scared?"

Following the incident, Campbell gathered local leaders to explain what had happened. As a goodwill gesture, he ordered the release of 18 detainees.

Still, the killing of an innocent civilian is bound to make the job of trying to pacify Tikrit more difficult.

Brig. Gen. Hosin Jasem Mohamed al-Jbouri, installed by coalition forces as provincial governor, said he would work with the Americans to avoid future bloodshed.

"I would suggest something else instead of going into the houses like that," he said. "We will work on a mechanism to try and prevent this kind of thing."


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