The first layers of the complete story behind the momentous capture of Saddam Hussein on Saturday, December 13, are beginning to surface as its stunning effect fades.
One obvious question: Was the celebrated exchange between the hunted man – “I am Saddam Hussein. I am the president of Iraq and I am willing to negotiate” and the unnamed US 4th infantry division soldier who was first to climb down the spider’s hole and said: “President Bush sends his regards” – a prearranged code to make sure no one started shooting?
It is beginning to sound as though it might have been.
What is certain, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources and political analysts, is that Saddam’s capture will bear strongly on the course of events inside Iraq in the next four months, on the decisions relating to the US military presence in the country and on President George W. Bush’s re-election prospects.
While the US military is basking in the limelight of achievement, much of the credit belongs to the special Kurdish intelligence unit of Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Front for the Liberation of Kurdistan (PUK). Commanded by Kosrat Rasul, one of Talabani’s closest associates and “prime minister” of the important Kurdish city of Suleimaniya in southern Kurdistan, the Kurdish unit led the 4th Infantry Division’s 1st Brigade combat team and US special forces up to Saddam’s farm hideout at Ad Douri (often mispronounced Ad Dawr) near Tikrit.
Talabani told Rasul to keep the details of the Kurdish role in the operation under his hat beyond sketching in the fact of their presence at the site. Rasul, a prime CIA asset since the Kurdish autonomous region was established in northern Iraqi during the 1991 Gulf War, owes his first loyalty to Talabani.
Here, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources lift another layer of mystery from the episode.
It was the PUK leader himself who personally oversaw the hunt for Saddam and liaised with US authorities. In fact, he found out where the former Iraqi ruler was hidden around late November and identified the people with whom he needed to negotiate his surrender or capture. Rasul then probably took over the actual bargaining, in the course of which Saddam was moved from another hideout to the Ad Douri farmhouse.
And now the most sensational layer is laid bare. Those people our sources have discovered were members of Saddam Hussein’s own family and they handed him over on Friday, December 12, 24 hours before this was officially reported. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s most exclusive sources reveal that the former dictator was actually surrendered by Colonel Muhammed al Hamushi of Tikrit, head of security for the presidential palaces, a kinsman who answered directly to the president and was trusted implicitly by him.
As described by our sources, the train of events leading up to the moment of discovery at Ad Dour is incomplete and raises as many questions as answers.
They reveal that in early February, when Saddam Hussein became convinced an American invasion was inevitable, he sat down alone with al-Hamushi and entrusted him with a top-secret task – to build 50 holes in the ground in different places outside Baghdad, similar to the one in which he was eventually found. The colonel was to do the work with his own hands and tell no one about it. Hamushi had always obeyed Saddam’s every command, but he explained he could not possibly buy materials and equipment, transport them and do the actual work single-handed. He needed three or four people to help. His boss finally allowed him to recruit two cousins, Allah and Jassem Hamushi, as well as a third relative whose name is unknown.
These four were the only people in Iraq who knew about the holes in the ground ordered by Saddam Hussein and their locations. Saddam himself did not know where they were and they were never recorded in any documents or maps. He simply handed his kinsman the cash for the project with the proviso that the pits be ready by Thursday, March 10.
On March 18, after midnight, the president ordered two groups of people to present themselves forthwith – one conmprised of his two sons Qusay and Uday and his private secretary Abd al-Hamid Mahmoud; the second, al-Hamushi and his three helpers.
Saddam informed the first group that the American bombardment of Baghdad was only a few hours away (raising the question: How did he know?). He sent his sons and assistant out to the state bank with instructions to withdraw $900 million in hundred dollar notes and another $100 million in euros.
Reports appearing in the media in May 2003 described this withdrawal as “one of the largest bank robberies in history.”
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources provide the sequel to this incident.
Saddam told the trio holding the money to call together his inner leadership circle and share out the cash amongst them, awarding each as much as he needed to save himself and immediate family from the oncoming catastrophe. He kept no more than $1million for himself – not the whole billion as reported. He then told his sons to flee for their lives. The family would have to split up and not dare stay in touch, he said, if they wanted to save themselves.
Colonel al-Hamushi was then called in and told to take him to the first hole in the ground.
That was how the former Iraqi dictator’s odyssey among the 50 holes in the ground began on March 18.
The only time he is thought to have broken cover was on April 9, when he suddenly turned up on the streets of Baghdad shaking the hands of astonished Iraqi passersby. After that, he was swallowed up in oblivion until December 12, nine months later.
According to the best information obtained by DEBKA-Net-Weekly, Saddam Hussein maintained no direct contact with anyone outside the small circle of Colonel al Hamushi and his three helpers, members of his own family.
It was the fauthful colonel who relayed Saddam’s instructions and requests to his cousin Barzan Ibrahim al-Tirkiti, who kept him in touch with the commander of the Fedayeen Saddam, the Saddam Hussein Martyrs and the Baathists who kept faith with him. Al Hamushi it was who delivered his audio-taped messages for broadcast to the Iraqi people at pre-arranged “drops”, where they were picked up Al Jazeera and al Arabiya television correspondents. Saddam was never seen or accessed by anyone else, including his sons who were later killed by the Americans.
He never took personal command of the guerrilla war against American forces. That campaign was and still is directed by Special Republican Guards generals and colonels, Saddam Suicide fighters and various intelligence bodies. Arab and Muslim volunteers from outside Iraq and al Qaeda are running their own offensive. The two groups join forces ad hoc from operation to operation.
Our sources have not established at what date contact was made between Al Hamushi and Kosrat Rasul’s special PUK Kurdish intelligence unit. The colonel is believed to have met Rasul and his people several times in August and September. The Kurdish side was careful not to push too hard for information for fear of frightening the other party off. In those encounters, Hamushi talked in general about underground hideouts without specifying who was sheltering there. The Kurdish contacts soon gained the impression that was later borne out that Hamushi and his people viewed the fugitives they were hiding as captives who were theirs to dispose of with authority to decide whether to keep moving them around from hole to hole or abandoning them.
Later, the colonel appeared to lose patience with his obligation to the unidentified parties in his care. Rasul reported this to Talabani who passed the information on to Paul Bremer and Lt.-Gen Ricardo Sanchez. He also sent a message to CIA director George Tenet.
They all joined forces to explore likely locations of the mysterious holes in the ground but found nothing.
Early November saw a change. Saddam’s former obedient servant began to give way under the pressure of his three helpers and their families and to consider the $25 million reward on offer for the capture of Saddam Hussein. The prize started looking more attractive than the thankless task of caring for a one-time ruler who was sunk in apathy most of the time. By then, they were neglecting his basic needs, which accounts for the unkempt and unshaved condition in which he was found.
In the last week of November or early December, Hamushi admitted to Rasul that the man in his care was Saddam Hussein himself and that he and his friends were willing to surrender him.
The negotiations then picked up speed. The terms agreed by the Kurdish go-betweens with the Americans, on the one hand, and with Hamushi, on the other – such as the disposition of the reward – are not known to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources.
They do know that the first ten days of December were spent in hectic preparations by the Americans, the Kurds and Hamushi for the handover of Saddam Hussein to the Americans. The Iraqi colonel was still keeping them guessing about Saddam’s whereabouts.
It was finally agreed that on December 10 he would moved from the hole in which he was held at the time to one near Ad Douri. Hamushi would point out the spot to the Kurds who would lead the Americans to the hole after the colonel and his cousins stood aside and left the ex-dictator alone to be pulled out of the hole by US forces, as indeed happened. Hamushi and cousins Allah and Jassem were picked up. The fourth member of the band disappeared and is now sought in the Sunni Triangle.
American forces will now go looking for the other 49 holes to find out what other secrets they may hold.
Ad Douri, is the family home-town of Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, Saddam's terminally ill vice-president and the most senior Iraqi regime figure still on the run.
It was not by chance that the deposed ruler, a native of nearby Tikrit, was brought to this district just before Saddam’s capture. Al-Douri, who is dying of leukemia, may have been the subject of a deal similar to the one that led to Saddam’s capture. They were therefore held close together in the same corner of the Sunni Triangle.
On Talabani’s instructions, the al-Douri family was granted asylum in Suleimaniya under the protection of Rasul’s intelligence agents. In return, they left the 61-year-old king of clubs in his hideout with enough medicine for a couple of days and one or two caretakers. Like his boss, he was to wait there for US troops to come and get him.
This has not happened. Now that Saddam is in the bag and al-Douri deserted by his nearest and dearest, the US administration and military command in Iraq are in no hurry to pick him up. They are reluctant to have him die in their custody.
Here, another piece of the puzzle emerges. Since Saddam fell into their hands, US troops have been carrying large-scale search and destroy missions against the remnants of his Fedayeen Saddam, focusing heavily on the Samarra district. They have also procured information on Baath terrorist cells in Baghdad and Mosul in the north. But they are acting on information received – not from Saddam or the documents alleged to have been found with him at the farmhouse, but on the intelligence obtained by Rasul’s agents in negotiations with the close associates of Saddam and al-Douri before the ex-dictator was handed over.