While U.S. officials have been dropping broad hints that they may have killed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and television news anchors speculated on his whereabouts, the troops in the field are much more jaded about the fate of the Iraqi strongman.
U.S. officials said they had intelligence information from an extremely reliable source Monday that Saddam and other top Iraqi leaders, including at least one of his sons, were meeting at a building in the upscale Al Mansour neighborhood of Baghdad.
Acting on the tip, a lone U.S. B-1 bomber dropped four 2,000-pound “bunker buster” bombs on what U.S. officials described as a residence.
Reporters who went to the scene say they saw a huge crater at the location and the Iraqis claimed at least nine civilians had been killed. But there was no indication whether either Saddam, his sons or other Iraqi leaders had died in the raid.
When told of the attack, the Marines I’m traveling with — the 3rd Battalion of the 5th Brigade of the 1st Marine Division — were less than impressed: they’ve heard too many previous reports that later turned out to be untrue. Sure, they killed him, one Marine told me. “And they got Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar too.”
Added another: “And they’ll probably say they found [former Teamster leader] Jimmy Hoffa’s body in there as well.”
On their trip north from Kuwait to the city limits of Baghdad, the Marines have learned to trust only those things they can see in front of them. They started out thinking they would be rounding up prisoners of war, since the predictions were that the Iraqi regular army in southern Iraq would surrender en masse.
Instead, they found themselves in rolling firefights, against irregular troops dressed as civilians and armed only with machine guns or rocket-propelled grenades who attacked their columns with pickups or even motorcycles.
Their ultimate goal — the vaunted Republican Guard divisions protecting the southern approaches to Baghdad — had been pounded by U.S. warplanes to the point where they were no longer a serious opponent for the Marines by the time they got to the outskirts of Baghdad.
And the current battle for Baghdad — so far — is proving to be less than advertised. The Marines are sweeping in from the east in a pincer movement coordinated with the U.S. Army’s 3rd Infantry Division on the west.
On Tuesday the Marines were told to expect heavy fighting as they moved to within a mile or two of the Baghdad city limits. They have been going block-by-block through a ramshackle residential area, to root out any Iraqi forces they find. But while they’ve found evidence that the Iraqis may have been here a short time ago, by the time the Marines got here, they were gone.
Now the Marines are being told that they will find the real opposition once they get closer to Baghdad. But like much else in this war, they’ll believe it when they see it in front of them.
(NBC News correspondent Chip Reid is traveling with the U.S. 3rd Marine Division in Iraq.)