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Iraq insurgency tied to Hussein birthplace

As U.S. forces tracked Saddam Hussein to his subterranean hiding place, they unearthed a trove of intelligence about five families running the Iraqi insurgency, according to U.S. military commanders.
Soldiers Guard Compound Where Saddam Hussein Was Captured
U.S. soldiers in the 4th Infantry Division stand over the opening of the ‘spider hole’ where Saddam Hussein was captured Dec. 15 in Ad Dawr, Iraq. Recent information shows that local familes have been key to running the anti-U.S. insurgency in Iraq.Chris Hondros / Getty Images
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

As U.S. forces tracked Saddam Hussein to his subterranean hiding place, they unearthed a trove of intelligence about five families running the Iraqi insurgency, according to U.S. military commanders, who said the information is being used to uproot remaining resistance forces.

Senior U.S. officers said they were surprised to discover -- clue by clue over six months -- that the upper and middle ranks of the resistance were filled by members of five extended families from a few villages within a 12-mile radius of the volatile city of Tikrit along the Tigris River. Top operatives drawn from these families organized the resistance network, dispatching information to individual cells and supervising financial channels, the officers said. They also protected Hussein and passed information to and from the former president while he was on the run.

At the heart of this tightly woven network is Auja, Hussein's birthplace, which U.S. commanders say is the intelligence and communications hub of the insurgency. The village is where many of the former president's key confidants have their most lavish homes and their favorite wives.

When U.S. forces sealed off Auja in late October, they separated the leaders of the insurgency from their guerrilla forces, dealing the anti-occupation campaign a major blow, said Lt. Col. Steve Russell of the Army's 4th Infantry Division, which is responsible for the Tikrit area.

"It's amazing that all roads lead to this region," Russell said. "It's amazing who lives in that town. It's a who's who of families and a who's who of Saddam's former staff."

The campaign of violence directed against U.S. forces and against Iraqis who cooperate with the American occupiers has raged since shortly after Hussein was toppled in April. The bulk of the attacks have taken place north and west of Baghdad, in the so-called Sunni triangle that encompasses Tikrit and other pockets of continued support for Hussein, such as Fallujah and Ramadi.

U.S. commanders have blamed the violence on a combination of Hussein loyalists, Islamic guerrillas and foreign fighters, but the structure and operations of the insurgents have been the subject of speculation and debate. The commanders say the detailed picture that they now have of the Iraqi insurgency is the result of months of sleuthing, including raids targeting suspected Hussein loyalists in the Tikrit area.

The interrogations and documents uncovered in the raids, coupled with electronic and other intelligence, repeatedly revealed the involvement of the same extended families and marked the way toward the inner circle.

"Our principal focus was to go after the mid- to low-level enemy leaders: the operations, financiers and weapons guys," said Col. James Hickey, whose 1st Brigade of the 4th Infantry Division captured Hussein in the nearby village of Dawr on Dec. 13. "As we learned about the enemy and how he organized himself, eventually it led to some former members of the senior regime."

The inner circle A trusted lieutenant of Hussein, who ultimately pointed U.S. interrogators to the former president's hideout, was one of at least five brothers in Hussein's inner circle, Army officers said. Though U.S. officials have not released the informant's name, they described him as a senior officer in Hussein's elite Special Security Organization with roots in the village of Abu Ajeel, just north of Tikrit.

A longtime confidant, this senior security official emerged as Hussein's "right arm" after U.S. forces captured Hussein's personal secretary, Abid Hamid Mahmud Tikriti, in June, a U.S. military officer said. Tikriti was not replaced, and his duties as Hussein's de facto chief of staff were divided among those in the inner circle, in particular the senior security official and his brothers. The official served as a direct liaison between Hussein and the broader resistance organization.

Hussein himself was a rallying symbol, an irreplaceable "icon," according to Col. James Hickey, whose 1st Brigade of the 4th Infantry Division captured him. But U.S. commanders said they had no evidence that the former president, who moved from one safe house to another and rarely stayed longer than a week in one place, played a role in directing the insurgency.

The loyalists with access to Hussein numbered no more than 40, including those who cooked for him and the drivers who transported him between his estimated 30 hideaways in aging taxis, pickups and riverboats, according to U.S. intelligence estimates.

These inner-circle loyalists, largely middle-aged men referred to by U.S. officers as the "42-inch waistband guys," usually insulate themselves from capture by keeping their distance from attacks on U.S. and allied troops. To avoid detection, they rarely travel with weapons or large amounts of money, slipping to clandestine meetings at modest farmhouses and nondescript cafes.

Their underlings are trusted members of their own families, which can number in the hundreds because men in this region of Iraq frequently take more than one wife and may father more than a dozen children.

Below the top tier are the mid-level operatives who organize specific attacks on U.S. and allied forces, providing arms and arranging financing. At the lowest level are the fighters, who U.S. officials said carry out the ambushes, prepare bombs and fire mortars in return for payments of $250 to $1,000, getting bonuses when they succeed in causing casualties.

U.S. commanders said the resistance sometimes seems to be a nationwide network, with mid-level operatives and low-level fighters from one part of the country surfacing in other regions. A recent rocket attack on Tikrit, for instance, appeared to be carried out by guerrillas from Fallujah, located nearly 90 miles away on the Euphrates River west of Baghdad.

Within the past several months, U.S. officers have also noticed two or three waves of attacks that extended across the country, indicating an attempt at nationwide coordination, Hickey said. But he added that those efforts had failed to gain momentum.

At other times, commanders say, the resistance seems mostly decentralized, with mid-level operatives choosing targets locally and supplying weapons kept close at hand.

Family tiesThe first glimpse of the inner circle came in July with the arrest of Adnan Abdullah Abid Musslit, a key Hussein bodyguard seized during a series of raids in late July, Russell said. These sweeps also uncovered photographs of Hussein posing with a range of people, some previously overlooked by U.S. forces. The photographs provided new clues to those closest to the former president. "We had the makings of a phone book on Saddam," Russell said.

The effort accelerated as U.S. interrogators and analysts came to understand the significance of Arab names in this region. Most men carry not only their own name but also the names of their father, grandfather and tribe -- a confusing jumble of identities for the uninformed but a powerful map to family relations.

Many of the inner-circle names uncovered were previously unknown to U.S. forces. Even some of the most senior figures did not appear in the deck of cards distributed in the spring by U.S. officials as a guide to Iraq's most-wanted fugitives.

The new representation of Hussein's clandestine movement is an easel-sized, multi-colored organizational chart developed by military intelligence officers at the 4th Infantry Division. Nicknamed the Mongo Link, the secret chart has Hussein's photograph in the center, surrounded by the names and descriptions of more than 250 top- and mid-level activists connected in a web of family and functional ties.

Each family is color-coded, with greens and yellows dominating parts of the chart while blues, purples and whites predominate elsewhere. The names of individuals who have been captured and killed are written in red.

Hickey said a couple of the families have now been "decimated" because many of their men have been caught or killed, while others have fled the country. The informant's family has been deeply compromised. Key members are now in U.S. custody and the remainder have been discredited in the eyes of other Hussein loyalists, U.S. officers said.

A few families, however, remain active, and their members are the target of U.S. operations in the Tikrit area.

"There are a handful that we're really interested in getting our hands on," Hickey said. "We know their names and have an idea whenever they're coming or going. We know where their properties are, and we know who the members of their family are, so we can go to them for information."

U.S. military officers said that they have conflicting information about Ibrahim's role in the resistance, including reports that he is little more than an infirm lackey rather than a key operational figure.

"He's worth detaining. . . . We should assume he's up to something," Hickey said.

U.S. commanders said they dealt the insurgents a major blow when they decided Oct. 30 to isolate Auja, surrounding it with fence and razor wire so the sole exit was past a U.S. military checkpoint. Russell said this move severed the insurgency's intelligence and communications hub from the outside campaign.

Fearful that their conversations might be intercepted, resistance leaders are now reluctant to communicate by telephone or radio and rely instead on passing messages by word of mouth, often depending on younger members of the five inner-circle families, military officers said. But U.S. troops are now monitor anyone leaving the village.

They acknowledge, however, that resistance leaders may still be operating from other safe houses in the area, in particular in Abu Ajeel, Qadassiyah, Dawr and downtown Tikrit, where the inner-circle families maintain second homes and farms.

Front Companies U.S. commanders said they have also learned more about how the insurgency is financed, discovering that resistance leaders have used legal businesses to move money to local cells.

While each of the five families has extensive resources, in some cases plundered from the national treasury, their stores of dollars, Iraqi dinars, counterfeit bills, gold and jewelry are often stashed away, making it difficult to provide payments for specific guerrilla attacks, U.S. military officers said.

The families have sought to disperse the money around the country to make it available for local operations. U.S. forces discovered that Hussein loyalists had set up a network of front companies, in particular construction businesses and produce-sellers, to move the cash.

Raids have uncovered caches of millions of dollars, officers said. They said a series of strikes early this month proved especially successful in netting key financiers and revealing front companies. "When we take out pockets of inner-circle families, we also take out the money that we find," Russell said.

Now, U.S. officers said they suspect the resistance may be running low on funds because Hussein partisans have recently been selling off some of their properties, even hawking household items. At the same time, some local guerrillas are demanding higher pay, military officers said.

Hickey said the ambush last month of two U.S. convoys bringing new Iraqi currency to Samarra was carried out by insurgents badly in need of cash. The subsequent firefight left 54 guerrillas dead, according to U.S. military officials.

Hickey added he has detected very little movement of cash around his area. But he and other officers have reported efforts to smuggle munitions into the Tikrit area, an indication that U.S. raids on local weapons caches may have depleted the insurgency's stores. Most of the arms discovered during recent raids, such as rusting, decrepit Kalashnikov rifles, have been of poorer quality than the newer, more sophisticated weapons found during the summer, he said.

Some arms have been transported by trucks, tucked under heaps of hay or concealed in false bottoms, officers said. Smaller amounts have been smuggled along the Tigris River by boat.