Saddam hiding in or near Tikrit, U.S. commander suggests

Saturday, September 6, 2003

TIKRIT, Iraq -- Saddam Hussein probably is hiding among the dusty towns or date palm groves of his home region around the town of Tikrit, moving frequently to avoid the Americans and Iraqis hunting for him, the commander of U.S. forces here said Friday.

"If he makes a mistake, we'll have him," said Maj. Gen. Ray Odierno of the 4th Infantry Division. "That's what we're waiting for."

Odierno's troops have captured several of Saddam's former bodyguards in the Tikrit area in the past month and may be closing in on the deposed Iraqi dictator, the commander told reporters traveling with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

The recent captures could help whittle down the network of tribal and family supporters that has so far allowed Saddam to remain hidden, Odierno has said.

On the move

It's believed the former president has been moving and changing hiding places three or four times a day -- a tactic he has used over the years to avoid would-be assassins, Odierno said recently. At some raids, U.S. troops have found indications that someone "extremely important" had been at those sites, according to the general. The raids also have netted several Iraqi generals and Fedayeen militia organizers.

Odierno is in charge of some 20,000 soldiers and a sector of Iraq from north of Baghdad to Kirkuk and east to the Iranian border. The Pentagon says American troop efforts have led to a significant improvement in security in the area.

But they acknowledge Saddam could be hiding anywhere -- such as the home of a tribal supporter or even a public facility.

Tikrit remains one of the most dangerous places for American troops. Odierno's division is based in a walled palace compound, its green and white logo posted on the walls and even painted on the marble floor of the main palace building.

Every day, troops here face ambushes and roadside bombs. Every night, the palace compound itself is attacked.

"You can hear the gunfire and see the RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) rounds go over," said Capt. Carlos Rivera, 36, of Dublin, Calif.

Saddam grew up in Tikrit, a city of flat-roofed houses on mud-colored bluffs overlooking the Tigris River. It is near the ancestral home of the Muslim warrior Saladin, to whom Saddam has compared himself.

While in power, Saddam surrounded himself with fellow Tikritis and treated his hometown well, building broad avenues and several of his dozens of palaces in the city 100 miles north of Baghdad.

Those tribal and political ties are apparently what help Saddam hide in this area, which unlike most of Iraq is dominated by his fellow Sunni Muslims.

Saddam's stronghold

U.S.-led coalition forces pushed into the Tikrit area after Baghdad fell in April and have launched numerous operations to track down Saddam's loyalists. Military civil affairs units also have followed behind such missions, offering humanitarian help like the repairing of schools or digging of wells in an attempt to win over support.

There is still a $25 million reward pending for Saddam. And tips on his whereabouts have increased since his sons Odai and Qusai were killed in a shootout with American forces.

Rumsfeld met with Odierno on his second day of a tour of Iraq. The defense secretary also traveled to Mosul, where he met with local Iraqi officials and commanders of the 101st Airborne Division.

There have been numerous "sightings" and tips on Saddam from Iraqis in and around Mosul -- 240 miles north of Baghdad and the city where Saddam's sons were killed.

Wherever he is, Saddam is believed still making audiotapes to spur on his loyalists in the fight against coalition occupiers. At the same time, many Iraqis fear he may exact revenge against those disloyal to him.

The CIA said Wednesday that the latest of several tapes is probably authentic. The message was that Saddam's followers were not involved in the bombing that killed more than 100 at a Najaf mosque.

The voice on the tape called Iraqis who cooperate with coalition forces "snakes hissing ... servants of the invaders, occupiers, infidels."

Associated Press writer Pauline Jelinek contributed to this report from Washington.

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