BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Using bulldozers, backhoes and loaders, U.S. Army combat engineers dug through a rubble-filled crater Wednesday, trying to determine whether Saddam Hussein died in an April 7 airstrike on the house where he was believed to be hiding.
The site was attacked two days before U.S. forces took control of the capital. The U.S. military said at the time that it had reliable information that Saddam and members of his family and entourage were there.
"For us to expend the amount of money it took to destroy this place, it must have been a key target," said Maj. Scott Slaten of the newly arrived 1st Armored Division, which is now assuming responsibility for Baghdad.
An engineering unit of the Utah National Guard was excavating the site and moving the rubble to an undisclosed location to be examined for human remains, Slaten said.
The United States does not know Saddam's fate. Video allegedly taken on April 9 showed him atop a vehicle waving to supporters in the Azamiyah neighborhood. But U.S. officials question the accuracy of the footage.
For the six weeks that followed the end of fighting, the two-floor home in the upscale Mansour district -- in which at least 14 civilians are believed to have died -- was left mostly undisturbed.
Seeking DNA for testing
On Wednesday afternoon, Lt. Gen. David McKiernan -- commander of U.S. ground troops in Iraq -- said searchers combing through the rubble in al-Mansour had not yet come across any DNA that would prove that Saddam had been killed.
"We don't have any evidence of any blacklisted remains," he said, adding that U.S. troops searched the site after they occupied Baghdad.
"We did this initially, but it's been apparent that we didn't do a thorough enough job," McKiernan said. "We will account for Saddam Hussein and his sons Qusai and Odai at some point."
As he spoke, a bulldozer, a backhoe, two loaders and a dozen heavy trucks were hard at work at the site, which was covered by a thick layer of dust from the pulverized bricks.
Dozens of U.S. troops, three Bradley fighting vehicles and concertina wire protected the engineers clearing the debris.
Officers said they expected to be done with excavation by June 11. Crews were expected to remain for another week to 10 days to repair nearby homes damaged in the airstrikes and to clean the site and surrounding street.
"There's nothing interesting here, just a lot of rubble," said Pfc. Walter Phillips, 30, of Chicago, as he stood near his backhoe at the edge of a 15-foot crater.
Iraqis nearby doubted whether the soldiers would find the remains of Saddam, who they suspect was hiding at another house, just yards away.
"No, no -- Saddam ran away. He's hiding," said Munther Meki, a grocer whose shop -- its front window gone and shelves empty -- is next to the destroyed house.
Meki said Saddam's government rented a small house opposite the targeted building about six months ago and that official-looking vehicles were parked outside before and during the war.
"Nobody knew for sure if it was Saddam or someone else," Meki said.
Except for the broken windows, the empty, unfurnished house appeared structurally undamaged. Its metal doors were held shut with a heavy chain and lock, and the interior was littered with smashed glass and broken bricks.