(Times OnLine – UK) – MORE than 26,000 troops from the US Army are now engaged in an aggressive hunt for Saddam Hussein in a region of Iraq north of Baghdad. Backed by a fleet of Predator unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), equipped with high-resolution cameras and Hellfire missiles, the Iron Horse Task Force from the US 4th Infantry Division is focusing its search efforts between Taji and Kirkuk in the north.
The division is equipped with high-tech systems enabling its units to spread out across the region to keep track of every piece of intelligence as it is gathered by troops searching houses and suspected hiding places.
The hunt for Saddam, now seen as an even greater priority than the search for weapons of mass destruction, is being supervised by the CIA and a US Army intelligence-gathering unit known as the Grey Fox, which was involved in similar manhunts in the Balkans and Afghanistan.
As part of the hunt, American troops were engaged in house searches yesterday in the so-called “Sunni triangle”, north and west of Baghdad, which is one of the most conservative and pro-Saddam parts of Iraq.
In the town of Habaniyah US troops apologised to a family after handcuffing a number of women and children. The soldiers had been searching for an Iraqi gunman in the house next door.
Despite the intensive search, there were some indications that the Americans might have succeeded in eliminating Saddam. An unconfirmed report in The Observer yesterday quoted military sources as saying that Predators had fired Hellfire missiles at a convoy of vehicles in western Iraq after a satellite telephone intercept indicated that Saddam and one of his sons might be trying to escape by road to Syria.
However, shopkeepers and residents of a Baghdad suburb claim that they saw Saddam drive through their neighbourhood 24 hours after the alleged incident. Wesam Hassan was outside his sweet shop when he noticed people running along the main road.
He joined the chase in time to see a figure like Saddam being bundled into the back of a Mercedes saloon by three bodyguards. “Some people started chanting Saddam’s name and he suddenly stopped, turned and waved before he was pushed inside the car, which drove off while another vehicle blocked the road to make sure it could not be followed,” Mr Hassan said.
“I was surprised there were so few people with him, but I have no doubt it was him. He looked tired but well. He was in civilian clothes as were the men with him.”
Senior US senators in Washington said that they were nevertheless hopeful that US forces hunting for Saddam may have “scored”. Speaking on the Sunday programme on Fox News, Senator Pat Roberts, the Republican chairman of the Senate intelligence panel, said: “I will not be surprised at any military action that would lead to the possibility that we have finally killed Saddam Hussein. I don’t think the Pentagon has confirmed it. But, with this very aggressive effort that we have been mounting, I would not be surprised.”
The hunt for Saddam has focused particularly in the region between Baghdad and Tikrit after the capture last week of General Abid Hamid Mahmud al-Tikriti, Saddam’s aide and bodyguard. He was found in a house near Tikrit.
General Mahmud is reported to have confirmed to American interrogators that Saddam survived two attempts to kill him during the war, and has been in hiding with his two sons since the fall of Baghdad. American officials cautioned, however, that the general might be deliberately misleading his captors.