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Captive guerrilla tied to Hussein

Said to receive $1m for attacks

SAMARRA, Iraq -- As recently as two days before his capture, Saddam Hussein dined with a top lieutenant coordinating guerrilla attacks on the so-called "Highway of Death" leading north from Baghdad to Tikrit, and gave the leader more than a million dollars to finance the attacks, a US military commander said yesterday.

 

The deputy, Qais Hattam, was seized at a farmhouse south of Tikrit early Tuesday morning along with 73 suspected Saddam Fedayeen guerrillas, a huge cache of explosives, and paperwork accounting for $1.9 million to finance attacks, said Colonel Nate Sassaman, who led the raid.

Massive raids against suspected guerrillas continued yesterday, as US forces conducted their first cordon and sweep of an entire city, sealing all roads into Samarra early yesterday morning and arresting about 30 suspected insurgents. Samarra, a city about 30 miles south of Tikrit, is located on the Tigris alongside the Tikrit-Baghdad highway.

The show of force signaled an escalation in the anti-insurgent campaign and reflected a growing sense that the military has to change tactics if it is to defuse the spate of increasingly well-planned attacks in Iraq's Sunni Muslim heartland.

"The city of Samarra has been a point of friction over time. It has needed this kind of focus," said Colonel Fred Rudesheim, commander of the Third Brigade combat team of the Fourth Infantry Division.

The operation, code-named Ivy Blizzard, had been planned before Hussein's capture, Rudesheim said.

Hattam, believed to be Hussein's top lieutenant for guerrilla operations north of Baghdad, has been on the Fourth Infantry Division's wanted list for months. An Iraqi informant came to a US base just hours after Hussein's arrest was reported in Iraq and said that Hattam was meeting with regional Fedayeen militia commanders.

It's unclear how much control Hussein had over the guerrilla campaign centered in Samarra, where at least 54 Iraqis were killed in a downtown firefight earlier this month and insurgents mounted a sophisticated two-stage ambush against a US patrol on Monday, two days after Hussein's arrest in the village of Adwar, some 20 miles north of Samarra.

And officials wouldn't say whether financial documents found in Hussein's "spider hole" directly linked him to Hattam or other guerrilla moneymen.

Throughout Samarra yesterday, Apache attack helicopters, AC-130 gunships, and F-16 fighters thundered overhead as about 3,000 infantry troops swept through neighborhoods and searched cars at the lone bridge leading to the city.

But serious problems -- including civilian outrage over the troops' strong-arm search tactics -- also underscored the challenge facing US commanders as their counterinsurgency tactics evolve.

A previous attempt to capture Hattam near Samarra was foiled, Sassaman said, when Iraqi police tipped him off as soldiers approached his home.

Dozens of suspects previously under surveillance in Samarra had fled the city ahead of yesterday's sweep, leading US military officials to speculate that they had been warned.

Armed members of the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps, a security body created by the US-led coalition, assisted in the cordon-and-sweep operation yesterday.

Civil defense troops cloaked their faces in ski masks as they checked cars at roadblocks, fearful of reprisals if they are recognized.

"Five days ago men came to my house and said, `If you don't leave your job in 24 hours we will kill you,' " said Jamal Nasser Jaber, a first sergeant in the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps.

That was the third threat he has received, Jaber said, and he takes them seriously; three corps members in Samarra have been killed recently, he said.

Standing guard at the city's entrance, Jaber removed his ski mask to talk to a reporter but wore wraparound reflective sunglasses on an overcast morning.

Iraqi security forces play a key role in the coalition strategy. In places like Samarra, US soldiers hope to turn over day-to-day security responsibility to the civil defense corps or the Iraqi police while lowering their own profile.

Samarra's police force is in turmoil, however, with chiefs resigning or being fired every month. And the jittery defense corps members said that threats and reprisals against them swelled when US troops reduced their patrols on Samarra's streets last month.

Operation Ivy Blizzard, according to US commanders, is meant to send the message that Americans are fully in charge and committed to pacifying the city. Angry residents of Samarra said the crackdown would only inflame anti-American sentiment.

"They cut locks, the blow up doors, they search houses with no evidence," said Hikmat Azzawi. "It's just like the Israelis and the Palestinians."

A tribal elder named Abdullah Shalal said soldiers stormed into his brother's house and injured his wife, but left without making any arrests or taking any evidence.

"Why do they do these things?" he said. "They destroyed everything in the house. The Americans should stay on their bases."

Rudesheim, the commander of Ivy Blizzard, said the US would pay restitution for any property damage, and said that in the long run the residents of Samarra would benefit from the elimination of guerrilla cells.

"Certainly we've inconvenienced a number of the citizens of Samarra as we conduct these operations and in coming days," Rudesheim said. "But these same citizens are the ones who have lived with terrorists among them who brutalize them."

Hattam, the alleged guerrilla financier, was one of five Ba'ath party officials who oversaw Iraq's 18 provincial governors, and was considered very close to Hussein, according to US intelligence reports cited by Sassaman.

Because he was not on the list of top 55 suspects, Sassaman said, Hatem "could fly under the radar" and plan attacks while other senior Ba'ath Party members went into hiding.

US commanders in the area said they believed the sheer amount of explosives and money seized, along with the mass arrests of suspected guerrilla financiers, recruiters, and fighters in the last few days, should stem the tide of attacks -- and show just how centralized the guerrilla command is.

"I'm kind of curious to see if folks start capitulating with Saddam being caught, and that will give us a sense of whether Saddam had his finger in it, if he was the one directing operations from his hole in Al-Dawr," Sassaman said.

Operation Ivy Blizzard will continue for several days, however, since dozens of known suspects remain at large.

"They'll probably go underground and watch us, look for patterns in our movements, wait 72 hours, and I'm confident they'll attack us," Sassaman said.

Thanassis Cambanis can be reached at tcambanis@globe.com.

Saddam Hussein Saddam Hussein after his capture by US forces. (Reuters Photo)
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