TIKRIT, Iraq – U.S. soldiers said they missed catching Saddam Hussein’s security chief — and possibly the former Iraqi president himself — by a mere 24 hours early Sunday, while a U.S. Marine was killed in a grenade attack south of Baghdad.
Troops stormed three farms in Tikrit, Saddam’s hometown, in simultaneous pre-dawn raids after receiving a tip that Saddam’s new security chief was staying at one of the farm houses, said Lt. Col. Steve Russell, who led the operation by the of the 4th Infantry.
“We missed him by 24 hours,” Russell said, adding that residents told soldiers that the man they sought had been at one of the farm houses.
The military said one U.S. soldier attached to the Marines was killed and one was wounded in the grenade attack just south of Baghdad. The death was the first of the week after one of the bloodiest seven-day periods in the guerrilla war against American forces since President Bush declared major combat in Iraq was over on May 1.
The military said it had no further information on the 2:35 a.m. attack.
The death brought to 48 the number of Americans killed in action in Iraq since May 1. So far 163 U.S. soldiers have died in the war, 16 more than the number of those killed in the 1991 Gulf War.
There had been hope the killings Tuesday of Saddam’s sons Odai and Qusai, Nos. 2 and 3 on the U.S. most-wanted list, might demoralize the resistance. Instead, their deaths appear to have inspired a wave of revenge attacks.
Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz said U.S. officials thought there would be a spike in violence following the sons’ deaths, but there also has been a beneficial increase in information coming in from Iraqi informants.
“In the last week alone we’ve picked up 660 surface-to-air missiles. That’s a product of the increased intelligence the Iraqi people are providing,” Wolfowitz said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Wolfowitz said that with time Iraqis may give Americans more with sensitive information, which could lead to getting Saddam.
“It takes time for them to trust us to give us the information,” Wolfowitz said. “But they’re giving us more and more. I think what happened last week with the deaths of those two miserable creatures is encouraging more people to come forward.”
Asked whether the Bush administration was confident Saddam would be captured or killed soon, Wolfowitz said: “We’re going to go after him until we get him and it’s a mistake to put timetables on these things.”
Eliminating Saddam could tamp down anti-American violence, too, he said. “Getting rid of Saddam Hussein will have more effect than any single thing we can do.”
Four U.S. soldiers were killed Saturday, three in a grenade attack outside a children’s hospital in Baqouba, 45 miles northeast of Baghdad, and one in a bomb and rocket-propelled grenade attack just west of the capital near the notorious Abu Ghraib prison.
In Tikrit on Thursday, U.S. troops of the 4th Infantry Division captured a group of men believed to include five to 10 of Saddam’s bodyguards. After that, soldiers learned that Saddam’s new security chief and possibly the dictator himself were staying on one of the farms, Russell said.
“The noose is tightening around these guys,” said Col. James C. Hickey, a brigade commander. “They’re running out of places to hide, and it’s becoming difficult for them to move because we’re everywhere. Any day now we’re going to knock on their door, or kick in their door, and they know it.”
The army would not name the man they had targeted, but said he was believed to have taken over Saddam’s security after the June 17 arrest of Abid Hamid Mahmud al-Tikriti, Saddam’s cousin and presidential secretary.
Mahmud, who was No. 4 on the U.S. most wanted Iraqis list, controlled all access to Saddam. He and Saddam’s younger son Qusai were believed to be the only two people trusted with knowledge about Saddam’s whereabouts.
Hundreds of soldiers, backed by Bradley fighting vehicles, surrounded the farms as Apache attack helicopters hovered above. No shots were fired. About 25 men were in the houses and emerged peacefully. They were briefly detained and released later Sunday.