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Last Updated: Friday, 26 March 2004, 14:42 GMT
On the Tikrit nightshift
Jane Corbin
by Jane Corbin
BBC Panorama reporter

The night was deceptively still as we swung out through the gates of Saddam's palace in Tikrit - now adorned with the words 'Professionalism, Vigilance, Pride and Lethality'

4th Infantry Division
The 4th Infantry Division patrols the streets of Tikrit
That is the motto of the 4th Infantry Division the US unit which now controls the Sunni Triangle in central Iraq and operates from Saddam's favourite palace in his old hometown and power base.

I was going on a night patrol with members of the 1-22 Intelligence Unit - the same soldiers who had successfully tracked Saddam to the 'spider hole' on December 13th last year.

As we swung out into the dark streets of Tikrit, under nightly curfew, barking dogs alternated with the crackle of gunfire in the distance.

The hairs stood on the back of my neck - I was occupying the highest seat in the open topped Humvee and despite the helmet I felt extraordinary vulnerable.

Rocket attack

We had learnt from one of Saddam's bodyguards that the old man himself came to the graves (Qusay and Uday Hussein's graves) on the day of the funeral.
Jane Corbin

The jeeps travelled without lights the soldiers, in full body armour, scanning the streets with their guns - projecting light beams onto suspicious objects. An innocent looking box or bin could contain an IED - an improvised explosive device, a deadly ball of explosives positioned to catch US convoys.

An hour earlier, inside the intelligence headquarters in the Palace compound, a roaring sound overhead heralded a rocket attack by the Iraqi resistance.

If they were brazen enough to try to hit the well fortified palace itself what might they do to a convoy of vehicles in the maze of back alleyways in Tikrit?

Lt Col Steve Russell, the commanding officer of the unit muttered into his radio as we sped along beside the mud walled compounds belonging to Tikriti clans - many of them related to Saddam.

Some of these houses had been raided by Russell and his men during the summer months as they closed in on Saddam himself.

Martyrs

Tikrit night patrol
Soldiers are constantly wary on patrol

These men were rounded up and still the US was no closer to finding the Ace of Spades himself. Russell had picked up a stack of photos and documents when he arrested Saddam's personal secretary and closest aide, in June last year.

The aide had been hiding out in a suburb of the town and the photos proved a goldmine. One showed Saddam, looking every inch the Mafia don, surrounded by his favourite bodyguards and the Americans set out to track them down one by one - to kill or to capture them in a relentless series of raids in and around Tikrit.

These Iraqi bodyguards were from little known families, clansmen of Saddam's, whose whole lives revolved around serving and protecting him.

As we drove alongside the cemetery in Tikrit, Russell and his Arabic interpreter jumped out of the vehicle and moved swiftly along the iron railings seizing the green cloth banners hanging from the spikes.

The interpreter, his head muffled in a scarf to avoid being identified and killed for helping the Americans read out the names printed on them.

Cruel and vicious

Two men had been stopped in a street and they were surrounded by a circle of US soldiers, their guns cocked
Jane Corbin

These are funeral banners inscribed with the names of 'martyrs' who have died fighting the occupation forces and it was one of the ways Russell was able to identify who his men had killed and eliminate them from the search for the inner circle around Saddam.

We moved on under a cloudy sky which obscured the moon and the dark shape of helicopters clattering overhead. We were bound for small village of al Ouja, Saddam's birthplace just outside Tikrit and the funeral ground where Saddam's sons, Uday and Qusay are buried.

They died in a hail of US rockets in a house in Mosul last July. They were betrayed by a relative of Saddam's for US$30 million - the reward money offered by the United States. Now their graves are just mounds of untended earth with no head stones.

These sons of Saddam were hated and feared for their cruelty and viciousness. They had robbed and raped and killed and they died, as they had lived, like gangsters. But no-one in Tikrit was prepared to betray their father by offering information to American forces.

It seems incredible given how closely US forces were watching the area but we had learnt from one of Saddam's bodyguards that the old man himself came to the graves on the day of the funeral - after the mourners had left.

Dangerous

Lt Col Steve Russell
Lt Col Steve Russell led the patrol

He offered prayers and swore he would sacrifice a hundred if he had them but everyone knew that from that moment on he was a broken man.

Eventually Russell and his team would home in on the one man who knew Saddam's whereabouts, arrest him and persuade him to talk.

No reward money would be coming his way - he was a bodyguard with 'a very shady background' as the American's put it and they would get to save the twenty five million dollars they put on Saddam's head.

After two hours on the streets we headed back towards the US base. Two men had been stopped in a street and they were surrounded by a circle of US soldiers, their guns cocked. The fear of a suicide attack from an Islamic militant - explosives strapped round his waist under his coat, is an ever present danger.

One soldier with an interpreter, warily approached the men, frisked them and then handcuffed them. They would have to explain why they were out on the street at one in the morning and where they were going. Attacks on coalition forces have increased and the 4 ID has lost over 80 men.

The 4 ID was about to leave Tikrit after their nine month deployment in the Sunni Triangle.

Despite the success of Saddam's capture Russell and his men know that the American troops which replace them will have a long, hard and dangerous slog to restore security to Tikrit.

Panorama: Saddam on the Run was broadcast on BBC One on Sunday, 28 March 2004 at 2215 BST

SEE ALSO
Saddam on the run
09 Mar 04 |  Panorama
Your comments
26 Mar 04 |  Panorama


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