Soldiers didn't know they were fighting Saddam's sons

MOSUL, Iraq -- It was 10 a.m. when the four Humvees pulled up outside the handsome villa on Shalalat Street and disgorged a party of U.S. soldiers. Over a bullhorn, they told the occupants to come out with their hands up.

What followed was a firefight from the ground and air that reduced the comfortable villa to a smoking hulk. And only then did the troops find out how high the stakes had been: Their targets, they discovered, were Saddam Hussein's sons Odai and Qusai, second in power only to their father.

The raid was a "turning point" in the campaign against Iraq's deposed regime, the commander of coalition forces in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, said Wednesday in Baghdad. President Bush said it would help convince Iraqis that Saddam's regime is over for good.

But soldiers who participated in the raid said they didn't know what they were getting into when they headed out to the wealthy al-Falah neighborhood in the northern city of Mosul on Tuesday morning.

The night before, an unidentified Iraqi had tipped off the Americans that Odai and Qusai were in the house, Sanchez said afterward. But all Sgt. George Granter knew on that blistering hot Tuesday morning was that intelligence was reporting the house was occupied by Baath Party members.

"They heard high guys, but they didn't know how high," said Granter, of Merryville, Ind., an engineer with the 326th Battalion of the 101st Airborne Division who took part in the battle.

Action began like others

The action that played out on the wide boulevard lined with villas, shops and a mosque began like countless others across occupied Iraq: with orders in Arabic to surrender.

"The intent is always to ask the people to come out voluntarily," said Col. Joe Anderson, commander of the 101st's 2nd Brigade.

The owner of the house, Sheik Nawaf al-Zaydan Muhhamad, walked out with his son Shalan, their hands on their heads, and were whisked away by troops, neighbors said Wednesday.

The other occupants were less cooperative. So after 10 minutes troops tried to enter the building. From the fortified middle floor of the three-floor building came Kalashnikov fire, raking the troops and wounding four of them. The Americans fell back to regroup and reinforcements were summoned.

Soldiers fanned out in the neighborhood and evacuated families from surrounding houses, said Maj. Greg Ebeling of the 101st's 926th Engineer Group.

By 10:45, reinforcements had arrived, and the Americans began firing machine guns, grenades and rockets, Sanchez said. The area was surrounded so "there was no rush," the general said.

Witnesses said beige and maroon tiles popped from the garish facade, and dust flew from the concrete columns. Still, gunfire rattled back from the mansion.

Just before noon, two Kiowa helicopters skimmed in over the rooftops, and rockets streaked into the villa. More and more troops poured into the neighborhood, witnesses said, until about 200 were surrounding the house.

It was their fire from the ground that proved decisive: .50-caliber machine guns, grenade launchers, then TOW missiles that blew out windows, cratered walls and killed Saddam's sons and a bodyguard, Sanchez said.

At 1:21 p.m. soldiers stormed the wrecked mansion. They rushed up the stairs and shot the final holdout, apparently Qusai's teenage son Mustafa.

On the floor where Saddam's sons had chosen to make their last stand lay clothes, bloodstained bedding, a Pepsi can and a box of Mars Bars.

"It began as gunfire and then it became a battle," said Nasser Hazim, who lives around the corner from the villa.

The person who tipped the Americans off to the hide-out is in protective custody, his identity a secret, U.S. authorities said.

Neighbors, however, suspect the tipster was Muhhamad, the house owner, who obeyed the surrender call. They said his wife and four daughters left the house several hours before the raid.

"There is a big question mark there. Did they know something would happen, or was it a coincidence?" said Nasser Hazim's brother, Ahmed.

Anderson fueled the rumor when he was asked why the tipster was in protective custody.

"People know who owns the house, so that's a factor," he said.

He refused, however, to say whether Muhhamad, a cousin of Saddam, was the tipster. If he was, he will apparently be entitled to a reward from the U.S. government of $15 million for each of Saddam's sons.

Muhammad's ties to Saddam cut two ways -- making him rich, but causing him personal grief. Saddam threw Muhhamad's elder brother in jail, reportedly over a tribal disagreement, but released him 18 months into a 17-year sentence.

As the bodies of Odai, 39, and Qusai, 37, were taken to Baghdad International Airport to be flown out of the country, several hundred people gathered outside the razor wire surrounding their still-smoking hide-out Wednesday, chanting pro-Saddam slogans.

"This is terrorism! They are killers!" screamed Saad Badr, a 50-year-old taxi driver who was pressed so close to the razor wire that his left toe was bleeding.

"Americans are unbelievers, and Saddam Hussein is a Muslim. This makes me even more angry at the Americans," said 14-year-old Mohammed Qassem, to a chorus of agreement from the crowd.

The protesters dispersed without incident after the Americans trucked in several dozen Iraqis in civilian clothes and armed with wooden clubs. They seemed friendly and their presence was enough to disperse the crowd as the call to prayers went up from the nearby mosque.

As psychological operations specialists combed the gutted house, Army engineers examined neighboring houses that suffered damage in the raid, and promised over loudspeakers to repair them.

Several troops guarding the area appeared relaxed, taking snapshots of the villa from the gunners' positions of Humvees.

"This makes me feel great," Granter said as he gazed at the destruction. But already, he was looking ahead to the biggest prize of all.

"Saddam, he's the big one," he said. "If we can get him, we can go home."

EDITOR'S NOTE: Niko Price is correspondent-at-large for The Associated Press.