Defense officials said yesterday that they were investigating whether a strike on a three-vehicle convoy fleeing Iraq near the Syrian border last Wednesday killed top officials in the government of former president Saddam Hussein, perhaps including Hussein or his sons.
The officials said that DNA tests were being carried out on the victims, and the AC-130 gunship strike by Special Operations forces had drawn high-level attention in the Pentagon. But they added that so far there was no evidence Hussein was hit. Some intelligence officials expressed doubt about whether the strike had targeted Hussein or his sons, Uday and Qusay. They are the top three on the U.S. list of most-wanted officials in Iraq.
The attack on the moving convoy took place close to the Syrian border in western Iraq, officials said. One source said the strike “chewed up something big” and added that the targets were believed to be among the top four or five Iraqis being sought. Separately, a senior defense official said there was “nothing specific” about Hussein in the intelligence that prompted the attack, “although it was tied to the leadership in some manner or another.” A third U.S. official said there was very good intelligence that “one or more high-value targets” were in the convoy.
The search for Hussein gained a new impetus June 16 when U.S. forces captured his closest aide, Abid Hamid Mahmud, in a house in Tikrit, Hussein’s home town. Defense officials said last week that Mahmud had told U.S. authorities that Hussein and his sons had survived the war and that the sons had escaped with Mahmud to Syria, only to be forced to return to Iraq. Officials expressed uncertainty about whether Mahmud was telling the truth, and one official said Mahmud had not provided specific information on where Hussein might be found.
There have been a number of strikes on locations where U.S. forces believed Hussein to be hiding, but there has been no evidence that he was killed. At the beginning of the war, on March 20, U.S. officials thought they had good intelligence on Hussein’s whereabouts in a bunker at a military command-and-control complex, Dora Farm, which was hit with cruise missiles. In another raid April 7, U.S. bombers hit a site in a Baghdad neighborhood after receiving reports that Hussein might be there.
The Observer, a British newspaper, reported yesterday that the airstrike last week was carried out after U.S. officials intercepted a satellite telephone conversation in which either Hussein or his sons were overheard. The newspaper said the strike occurred near the border town of Qaim, site of earlier battles as some Iraqis fled toward Syria.
A Bush administration official said last night, however, that U.S. forces followed the convoy into Syrian territory and attacked it there. The Americans, the official said on condition of anonymity, were “in hot pursuit and wound up crossing the Syrian border.”
The possibility that Hussein or other Iraqi leaders might have been in the targeted convoy was not reported through normal CIA channels, said another senior U.S. official, who added that intelligence officials had no knowledge of any request to match Hussein’s DNA, which is in the possession of the U.S. government, with DNA found at the convoy site.
Speaking on “Fox News Sunday,” Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said U.S. forces had mounted a “very aggressive effort” to find Hussein. But Roberts said neither he nor the committee staff had been led to believe anything significant had happened during the strike on the convoy.
Senior members of the congressional intelligence committees have not been notified of the possibility that Hussein or other senior leaders are believed to have been in the convoy, according to two congressional sources.