by David Pratt / The Sunday Herald –
LONDON (December 21, 2003) — Saddam’s capture was the best present George Bush could have hoped for, and then Gaddafi handed a propaganda gift to Blair. But nothing’s ever that simple.
It was exactly one week ago at 3.15pm Baghdad time, when a beaming Paul Bremer made that now-famous announcement: “Ladies and gentlemen, we got him!” Saddam Hussein: High Value Target Number One. The Glorious Leader. The Lion of Babylon had been snared. Iraq’s most wanted — the ace of spades — had become little more than an ace in the hole.
In Baghdad’s streets, Kalashnikov bullets rained down in celebration. In the billets of US soldiers, there were high fives, toasts and cigars. In the Jordanian capital Amman, an elderly woman overcome by grief broke down in tears and died. Inside a snow-blanketed White House, George W Bush prepared to address the nation.
“There’s an end to everything,” said a sombre Safa Saber al-Douri, a former Iraqi air force pilot, now a grocer in al-Dwar, the town where only hours earlier one of the greatest manhunts in history had ended under a polystyrene hatch in a six-foot-deep “spider hole.”
But just how did that endgame come about? Indeed, who exactly were the key players in what until then had been a frustrating and sometimes embarrassing hunt for a former dictator with a $25 million (£14m) bounty on his head?
Task Force 20, Greyfox and Qusrat Tasul Ali
For 249 days there was no shortage of US expertise devoted to the hunt. But the Pentagon has always remained tight-lipped about those individuals and groups involved, such as Task Force 20, said to be America’s most elite covert unit, or another super-secret team known as Greyfox, which specialises in radio and telephone surveillance.
Saddam, of course, was never likely to use the phone, and the best chance of locating him would always be as a result of informers or home-grown Iraqi intelligence. On this and their collaboration with anti-Saddam groups the Americans have also remained reticent.
Enter one Qusrat Rasul Ali, otherwise known as the lion of Kurdistan. A leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), Rasul Ali was once tortured by Saddam’s henchmen, but today is chief of a special forces unit dedicated to hunting down former Ba’athist regime leaders.
Rasul Ali’s unit had an impressive track record. It was they who last August, working alone, arrested Iraqi vice-president Taha Yassin Ramadan in Mosul, northern Iraq. Barely a month earlier in the al-Falah district of the same town, the PUK is believed to have played a crucial role in the pinpointing and storming of a villa that culminated in the deaths of Saddam’s sons Uday and Qusay.
In that mixed district of Mosul where Arabs, Kurds and Turkemen live side by side, PUK informers went running to their leader Jalal Talabani’s nearest military headquarters to bring him news on the exact location of the villa where both Uday and Qusay had taken shelter.
Armed with the information, Talabani made a beeline for US administration offices in Baghdad, where deputy defence secretary Paul Wolfowitz was based for a week’s stay in Iraq at the time.
The Kurdish leader and US military chiefs conferred and decided that PUK intelligence would go ahead and secretly surround the Zeidan villa and install sensors and eavesdropping devices. The Kurdish agents were instructed to prepare the site for the US special forces operation to storm the building on July 22.
Kurds Set-up Saddam’s Sons for Public US Assassination
American officials later said they expected that the $30m bounty promised by their government for the capture or death of the Hussein sons would be paid. Given their direct involvement in providing the exact location and intelligence necessary, no doubt Talabani’s PUK operatives could lay claim to the sum, but no confirmation of any delivery or receipt of the cash has ever been made.
The PUK and Rasul Ali’s special “Ba’athist hunters” have, it seems, been doing what the Americans have consistently failed to do. In an interview with the PUK’s al-Hurriyah radio station last Wednesday, Adil Murad, a member of the PUK’s political bureau, confirmed that the Kurdish unit had been pursuing fugitive Ba’athists for the past months in Mosul, Samarra, Tikrit and areas to the south including al-Dwar where Saddam was eventually cornered. Murad even says that the day before Saddam’s capture he was tipped off by PUK General Thamir al-Sultan, that Saddam would be arrested within the next 72 hours.
Clearly the Kurdish net was closing on Saddam, and PUK head Jalal Talabani and Rasul Ali were once again in the running for US bounty — should any be going.
It was at about 10.50am Baghdad time on last Saturday when US intelligence says it got the tip it was looking for. But it was not until 8pm, with the launch of Operation Red Dawn, that they finally began to close in on the prize.
US Military Feeds US Media a Cover Story
The US media reported that the tip-off came from an Iraqi man who was arrested during a raid in Tikrit, and even speculated that he could get part of the bounty. “It was intelligence, actionable intelligence,” claimed Lt. General Ricardo Sanchez, commander of coalition ground forces in Iraq. “It was great analytical work.”
But the widely held view that Kurdish intelligence was the key to the operation was supported in a statement released last Sunday by the Iraqi Governing Council. Ahmed Chalabi, leader of the Iraqi National Congress, said that Rasul Ali and his PUK special forces unit had provided vital information and more.
Last Saturday, as the US operation picked up speed, the Fourth Infantry Division moved into the area surrounding two farms codenamed Wolverine 1 and Wolverine 2 near al-Dwar, the heart of the Saddam heartland — a military town where practically every man is a military officer past or present. It is said to have a special place in Saddam’s sentiments because it was from here that he swam across the Tigris River when he was a dissident fleeing arrest in the 1960s.
Every year on August 28, the town marks Saddam’s escape with a swimming contest. In 1992, Saddam himself attended the race. It was won by a man called Qais al-Nameq. It was al-Nameq’s farmhouse — Wolverine 2 — that about 600 troops, including engineers, artillery and special forces, surrounded, cutting off all roads for about four or five miles around.
Next to a sheep pen was a ramshackle orange and white taxi, which US officials say was probably used to ferry Saddam around while he was on the run, sometimes moving every three or four hours.
Inside the premises was a walled compound with a mud hut and small lean-to. There US soldiers found the camouflaged hole in which Saddam was hiding.
It was 3.15pm Washington time when Donald Rumsfeld called George W Bush at Camp David. “Mr President, first reports are not always accurate,” he began. “But we think we may have him.”
Kurd’s Role in Saddam’s Capture First Broke on Iranian TV
First reports — indeed the very first report of Saddam’s capture — were also coming out elsewhere. Jalal Talabani chose to leak the news and details of Rasul Ali’s role in the deployment to the Iranian media and to be interviewed by them.
By early Sunday — way before Saddam’s capture was being reported by the mainstream Western press — the Kurdish media ran the following news wire:
Saddam Hussein, the former President of the Iraqi regime, was captured by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. A special intelligence unit led by Qusrat Rasul Ali, a high-ranking member of the PUK, found Saddam Hussein in the city of Tikrit, his birthplace. Qusrat’s team was accompanied by a group of US soldiers. Further details of the capture will emerge during the day; but the global Kurdish party is about to begin!
By the time Western press agencies were running the same story, the emphasis had changed, and the ousted Iraqi president had been “captured in a raid by US forces backed by Kurdish fighters.”
Rasul Ali himself, meanwhile, had already been on air at the Iranian satellite station al-Alam insisting that his “PUK fighters sealed the area off before the arrival of the US forces”.
By late Sunday as the story went global, the Kurdish role was reduced to a supportive one in what was described by the Pentagon and US military officials as a “joint operation”. The Americans now somewhat reluctantly were admitting that PUK fighters were on the ground alongside them, while PUK sources were making more considered statements and playing down their precise role.
So just who did get to Saddam first, the Kurds or the Americans? And if indeed it was a joint operation, would it have been possible at all without the intelligence and on-the-ground participation of Rasul Ali and his special forces?
The Secret Role of the PUK and other Conspiracy Theoris
If the PUK themselves pulled off Saddam’s capture, there would be much to gain from taking the $25 million bounty and any political guarantees the Americans might reward them with to keep schtum. What’s more, Jalal Talabani’s links to Tehran have always worried Washington, and having his party grab the grand prize from beneath their noses would be awkward to say the least.
“It’s mutually worth it to us and the Americans. We need assurances for the future and they need the kudos of getting Saddam,” admitted a Kurdish source on condition of anonymity. It would be all to easy to dismiss the questions surrounding the PUK role as conspiracy theory. After all, almost every major event that affects the Arab world prompts tales that are quickly woven into intricate shapes and patterns, to demonstrate innocence, seek credit or apportion blame. Saddam’s capture is no exception.
Of the numerous and more exotic theories surrounding events leading to Saddam’s arrest, one originates on a website many believe edited by former Israeli intelligence agents, but which often turns up inside information about the Middle East that proves to be accurate.
According to Debka.com, there is a possibility that Saddam was held for up to three weeks in al-Dwar by a Kurdish splinter group while they negotiated a handover to the Americans in return for the $25 million reward. This, the writers say would explain his dishevelled and disorientated appearance.
But perhaps the mother of all conspiracy theories, is the one about the pictures distributed by the Americans showing the hideout with a palm tree behind the soldier who uncovered the hole where Saddam was hiding. The palm carried a cluster of pre-ripened yellow dates, which might suggest that Saddam was arrested at least three months earlier, because dates ripen in the summer when they turn into their black or brown colour.
Those who buy into such an explanation conclude that Saddam’s capture was stage-managed and his place of arrest probably elsewhere. All fanciful stuff. But as is so often the case, the real chain of events is likely to be far more mundane.
In the end serious questions remain about the Kurdish role and whether at last Sunday’s Baghdad press conference, Paul Bremer was telling the whole truth . Or is it a case of “ladies and gentlemen we got him” – with a little more help from our Kurdish friends than might be politically expedient to admit?