Confidant Quickly Became Informant, Pointing the Way
By Alan Sipress
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, December 16, 2003; Page A01
TIKRIT, Iraq, Dec. 15 -- After raiding two farmhouses, the soldiers had found no sign of Saddam Hussein. Under a moonless sky on Saturday night, they began combing the palm groves and orange orchards, then moved on to the open, furrowed fields.
Once again, it was beginning to look as if Iraq's most wanted man had eluded them.
An informant, a confidant of Hussein whom they had brought along on the operation, had led them to that farm on the Tigris River. Now he pointed them to the very spot where Hussein was hiding in an underground chamber, according to soldiers involved in his capture. Moments later, Iraq's fugitive former president was in U.S. custody.
The informant was a senior officer in Hussein's elite Special Security Organization, according to the U.S. commander who led the operation. When U.S. Special Forces troops seized him Friday during a raid in Baghdad, they had not immediately realized that they held someone with precious information about Hussein's whereabouts.
But in little more than a day, U.S. troops determined his identity, brought him to Tikrit and won his vital cooperation, according to Col. James Hickey, who leads the 4th Infantry Division's 1st Brigade. Less than four hours after the informant had divulged that Hussein was hiding on a farm near the village of Dawr and highlighted two possible safe houses, soldiers from the 1st Brigade and Special Forces had caught him.
The senior Iraqi security officer had been sought by U.S. troops since early July because of his intimate ties to the former president. Even as U.S. forces had learned more about the security officer's significance, he had repeatedly eluded capture, including in a series of operations early this month.
"Each raid builds on the previous one and you put the puzzle together best as you can. Sometimes things fit into place at the most unpredictable time," Hickey said.
U.S. officers declined to reveal the informant's name, saying they needed to protect his identity so he could continue to provide intelligence.
Hickey described him as a native of Abou Ajil, a hamlet slightly north of Tikrit, the regional capital 10 miles northwest of Dawr. Tikrit is populated by many members of Hussein's security forces and has been the site of some of the fiercest resistance against U.S. occupation. Hussein's birthplace, the village of Auja, is located close by.
Another U.S. Army officer said the informant was a key figure and financier in the insurgency. This officer called the informant part of the "42-inch waistband" group of middle-aged Hussein loyalists who are orchestrating a campaign of violence largely waged by younger activists.
The man first attracted the attention of the U.S. military in early July, when troops from the 1st Brigade raided his property in Abou Ajil. Though they missed arresting him by moments, the troops captured a trove of photographs, documents and other items that indicated he was related to several key Hussein allies, Hickey and other U.S. officers said.
At first, Hickey said he believed the man was a bodyguard for Hussein, only learning weeks later that he was a senior figure in the Special Security Organization, a force run by Hussein's son, Qusay, and charged with protecting the president, his palaces and other highly sensitive government facilities.
On a tip from the U.S. military command in Baghdad that Hussein might be sheltering on the man's property, Hickey's troops raided the site again in late July but found neither fugitive.
U.S. raids over the following months netted more and more of Hussein's operatives, but the senior security officer remained at large and his prominence in the view of U.S. military intelligence officials mounted.
Over three nights during the first week of this month, U.S. troops carried out raids in Tikrit, Samarra and Baiji in a bid to collar the security officer. The operations produced other suspects, a large amount of cash and more leads, but not the quarry himself.
That achievement inadvertently fell to Special Forces troops in Baghdad, who swept him up Friday while arresting other suspects they had been hunting.
"It took them some time to sort through who was who in this raid. Ultimately, they determined sometime before Saturday morning they had someone we were interested in talking to," Hickey recalled.
At 10:50 a.m. Saturday, Hickey received a telephone call from Baghdad, saying his fugitive was in custody and would be transported to the 4th Infantry's base in Tikrit. Hickey recalled thinking that it was going to be an interesting day.
U.S. interrogators in Tikrit questioned the security officer from midday until late afternoon, Hickey said, and the man began providing information about Hussein's whereabouts.
"This guy was in interrogation. He wasn't willingly giving stuff up," said an officer in the 4th Infantry Division.
The captive initially led U.S. officers to believe that Hussein's hideaway was in one of several locations west of Tikrit, according to Hickey. At 5 p.m., the informant told his interrogators that Hussein was actually in Dawr, directing them to two farmhouses on the edge of town. An hour later, Hickey had 600 soldiers moving toward their prey.
At the first farmhouse, they found a man believed to be Hussein's cook, according to soldiers involved in the raid. At the other house, they discovered the man's brother, who was believed to be Hussein's chauffeur and drove an orange-and-white taxi found parked outside.
The soldiers, however, did not find Hussein.
Hickey said U.S. forces suspected they might ultimately locate Hussein in some sort of underground chamber. There had been rumors in recent weeks, Hickey said, of underground facilities being used by the Iraqi resistance for various purposes.
But beyond these rumors, Hickey said, he had specific intelligence on the day of the raid that Hussein was possibly hiding underground. "We had a pretty good idea," he said. He did not say whether this information came from the informant.
The final breakthrough came as the troops had narrowed their search on the farm. Suddenly, in an effort to lead the posse away from Hussein's hiding place, the detained cook and driver broke away from their captors and tried to flee, said soldiers involved in the operation. The informant, however, drew the soldiers' attention back to the spot where he said Hussein would be found, the soldiers said.
As 1st Brigade troops surrounded the area, Special Forces troops investigated the site, pulling aside a rug on the ground and lifting a Styrofoam lid concealed underneath. There, they found the shelter.
Under standard procedures, Hickey said, the next step for the soldiers would be to clear the hole by dropping a grenade or opening fire into it. But before they could, a pair of hands emerged, raised in surrender.