U.S. had to overcome loyalty to catch Hussein

Insular Iraqi tribes often hostile to outsiders

December 21, 2003|By Patrick J. McDonnell | Patrick J. McDonnell,LOS ANGELES TIMES

TIKRIT, Iraq - To snare Saddam Hussein in his underground hide-out, U.S. commanders overcame a daunting foe - an age-old, nearly impenetrable tribal tradition that values loyalty above all else and is instinctively hostile to outsiders.

In the entrenched, insular structure of Iraqi tribes, betrayal is not supposed to be an option. Yet that is exactly what happened, U.S. officials say.

For months, Hussein - falling back, as always, on tribal allegiances in times of trouble - had stymied U.S. searchers. Then they found the weak link: a former high-ranking operative in one of Hussein's security services, and a senior tribal figure in the Tikrit area.

"His name just kept popping up," said Maj. Stan Murphy, chief intelligence officer with the 4th Infantry Division's 1st Brigade Combat Team - the unit that found Hussein about 10 miles southeast of here. "We knew he was a somebody. We had to know this guy."

Just one day after the suspect's detention Dec. 12, he had given U.S. forces enough "real-time intelligence" to seize Hussein.

Under the direction of Col. James Hickey, the Army's top Hussein hunter, Murphy's intelligence team started focusing on tribal connections in July.

The intelligence analysts realized that their likely targets mostly flew below the radar screen. They probably were not "deck of cards" fugitives, the big fish U.S. authorities named as the most-wanted Iraqis. Those figures would attract immediate attention and were in no position to organize Hussein's complex concealment.

The intelligence team, working from a bank of computers in the brigade's Tactical Operations Center inside an old Hussein palace along the Tigris River in Tikrit, created a large chart tracking six major tribal groups and their links to Hussein.

"We started building our linkages, and we started looking at certain families, and it just started to snowball," said Hickey, a Chicagoan who is a graduate of the Virginia Military Institute and the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

Hussein had long embraced and manipulated the fundamental tribal nature of his land. He surrounded himself with advisers and security staff from half a dozen or so staunch tribes of the Tikrit area, his home base north of Baghdad. He sneered at the educated classes and professionals, he despised technocrats, and he kept religious zealots in check.

"Everything was tied to families, how families were linked," Murphy said. "It was tied to tribes, and the tribal customs they had. And it was tied to money. I figured if we continued to look at those three things - tribes and families and money - that would continue to bring us closer to Saddam. Those were the keys."

The list of people tied to the tribes expanded in a few months from a handful to 9,000.

After mapping the broad tribal constellation, analysts began focusing on identifying a smaller universe - those Murphy calls the "enablers," Hussein's inner core of trusted henchmen. They may number two dozen or fewer, typically former high-ranking officials of Hussein's vast security network.

Working through translators, soldiers collected information in encounters with Iraqis on the streets, at Army bases, detention centers and the Army's civil affairs office in Tikrit, where residents sought U.S. aid. Also debriefed were Iraqi officials, tribal leaders, imams and others familiar with tribal matters.

They had access to an array of information: interrogation summaries, Army field reports, classified data from the military and other agencies, and human intelligence gathered from the many Iraqis who came forward. Human intelligence was often the most current data, but it had to be processed carefully and checked. Not all motivations were pure - some people were keen to settle old scores by denouncing their enemies to the occupation authority.

On the other hand, people risked their lives by even approaching U.S. forces.

"You have these very loyal tribes, and you don't want to be seen giving information to the Americans," said Capt. Mark Terrell, 35, an Army intelligence officer here. "Some people prevented others from coming forward through coercion, through death threats, just like a criminal organization would do."

As their investigation deepened, Army intelligence officers here became convinced that Hussein's enablers were functioning as paymasters - and in some cases as high-level organizers - of the armed insurgency, financing attacks, bombings and assassinations, at least in the Tikrit area and possibly beyond.

The informer is one of a number of senior Hussein loyalists who dedicated themselves to violent resistance in the hope of returning their patron to power and restoring their lost status, U.S. officials say.

The turncoat, officials said, is ineligible for the $25 million reward because he had been held for anti-coalition activities.

By this month, Hickey said, he felt his raiders were getting close: "We thought we'd have him by Christmas."

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