U.S. spies closely watch Baghdad bombing site

American officials say it might be days before effect on Hussein known

War In Iraq

April 09, 2003|By BOSTON GLOBE

WASHINGTON - U.S. intelligence officials investigating whether Saddam Hussein was killed in Monday's bombing strike in the Mansour neighborhood of Baghdad were keeping close watch through Iraqi agents yesterday on people digging through the rubble of three homes destroyed in the attack, U.S. officials said.

Emergency crews pulled out the bodies of a 20-year-old woman and a young boy, but there was no evidence late last night that Hussein or his sons, Odai and Qusai, were killed in the bombing. U.S. officials say it might take days before they learn anything.

U.S. intelligence officials also are listening for other clues: whether top leaders communicate over radios or satellite telephones. U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that they had intercepted many communications earlier from Qusai Hussein, who has been in charge of defending Baghdad.

It's clear the U.S. air campaign is taking a severe toll on Iraqi communications. Withering air assaults have degraded Baghdad defenses to the point that American attack aircraft can be spotted flying low over the city in broad daylight.

On top of striking leadership targets and providing support for ground troops around the clock, American bombs have knocked out some of the lines of communication between the leadership and military units, leaving Qusai Hussein and other leaders with just their radios and satellite phones, U.S. officials said. Both are easy to intercept.

Monday's strike revealed much about the key role of intelligence in trying to kill Iraq's top leadership in Baghdad, and how quickly weapons can be unleashed after a tip from a source.

From start to finish, it took 45 minutes from the word that Hussein and other leaders might have entered the building until the bombs hit the structure, said Army Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, vice director for operations on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. That is at least four times as fast a reaction as the March 19 strike against another building in which Hussein and other regime leaders were said to be meeting.

One of the major differences in the two strikes was that a B-1 bomber was nearby in the recent attack, compared with the earlier bombing in which a fighter jet was much farther away. Another difference in Monday's attack, according to U.S. officials: a faster OK by military leaders.

Shortly after 2 p.m., U.S. intelligence officers in Baghdad received information from two sources - an interception of communications that indicated the meeting would be taking place, and then an Iraqi working for the CIA or special operations teams who saw some of the leaders entering the building, U.S. officials said.

"The intelligence indicated there was going to be a meeting at the location, possibly including Saddam and others, including Iraqi leadership," said a U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "It was a combination of intelligence."

First, a U.S. intelligence officer gave detailed grid-map coordinates of the site and information about the target in a "digital-burst transmission" - a voice message encrypted and sent out in milliseconds so it is almost impossible to intercept. The message went to the commander of the air war based at Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia, and the bombing approval was delivered back to the airborne command and control plan, the AWACS, and then passed to a B-1B Lancer crew.

"This could be the big one," the AWACS controller told the B-1B crew, according to Lt. Col. Fred Swan, the bomber's weapon systems officer.

Swan, one of four airmen on the B-1B, which was carrying 24 2,000-pound bombs, said after they got word it was a leadership target, "you get kind of an adrenaline rush, the crew does, but then you fall back to your original training that says, `Hey, let's get the job done.' And we knew we had to react quickly to it." The crew was heading to other targets but switched its course. Swan told reporters yesterday he was thinking to himself, "Let's make sure we get it right."

After the strike, the crew, based at Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota, dropped 17 more bombs on two targets, one in western Iraq and the other north of Baghdad.

U.S. military officials decided not to secure the site and sift through the rubble because it was too dangerous, US officials said. Instead, the site attracted relatives, friends and curiosity seekers, including, say U.S. officials, American spies.

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