BAGHDAD, Iraq—Hospital workers say they saw the infamous Saddam Hussein henchman known as "Chemical Ali" alive in Baghdad just before the city fell, contradicting British Army claims that he had been killed in an air raid on a house in the southern city of Basra days earlier.
The eyewitness reports that Ali Hassan al Majid, who ordered poison gas attacks on Kurdish villages in 1988 that killed 5,000 civilians, was at the Baghdad Nursing Hospital on April 6 or 7 is an indication of how little is known about the whereabouts of Saddam Hussein's inner circle, both during the war and now.
Most of the 55 most-wanted figures of the regime, displayed on playing cards distributed by the American military, seem to have vanished. Nine reportedly are in U.S. custody. Four of those were captured by coalition forces or the new Iraqi police force. The others surrendered, either to coalition forces in Baghdad or to representatives of the Iraqi National Congress, an anti-Saddam group of exiles formerly based in London.
Like Saddam, who twice was declared dead by U.S. officials after airstrikes only to reportedly resurface in Baghdad, Majid, the king of spades in the U.S. deck, was reported killed in air raids, first on March 22 and then again April 5. A total of three airstrikes were undertaken during the war to kill Majid.
But two workers at the nursing hospital, an elite 250-bed facility that is part of the huge Saddam Hospital complex, said a healthy Majid turned up at the hospital after the last air attack.
"Of course I was very, very surprised to see him, because the radio said he was killed," said a nurse at the hospital, who asked that his name not be used.
Dr. Abdel Azziz al Bayaah, the hospital's director, said Majid, Defense Minister Sultan Hashem Ahmed, an Iraqi bodyguard and some 10 non-Iraqi gunmen left the hospital the morning of April 6 or 7 after spending the night while doctors treated Ahmed and the Iraqi bodyguard.
Bayaah said the hospital's staff had no choice but to host the group. "You know the position in which we are," he said.
Majid and his entourage arrived at the hospital between 7 and 8 p.m. "two or three days before Baghdad fell" on April 9, said the nurse, who treated the bodyguard.
Majid, wearing his spinach-green army general's uniform but no name tag, identified himself and called the bodyguard "one of his dearest friends, a man who had worked with him for 10 years," the nurse said.
"Don't worry. Baghdad will not fall. We are powerful and we are everywhere," the nurse quoted Majid as telling the hospital's staff.
The guard had light glass shrapnel wounds on his face and chest, and during his brief treatment said the group had been driving around the city when another car drove up and shot at them, the nurse added.
One of the non-Iraqi guards also was wounded, in the buttocks, but was embarrassed and refused treatment, the nurse said. He believed the non-Iraqis to be Syrian Islamic radicals from their accents, civilian clothes and long beards.
Several hundred Syrian fighters are known to have rushed to Baghdad during the war to defend Saddam's regime, which espoused an Arab socialist ideology similar to the Damascus regime's.
The nurse said Majid's entourage spent the night in the makeshift emergency room the hospital had prepared on the first floor for war casualties, and was gone when he returned to the ward after breakfast around 10:30 a.m.
The nurse said he was later told that Majid had driven up in "common cars," not the luxury cars usually issued to top regime leaders, paid "a lot of money" to Bayaah and a Health Ministry official, Dr. Munnah Ibrahim, to keep quiet about his stay and then left a changed man the next morning.
"At night he seemed powerful and self-assured. But the other nurses told me that by morning he seemed broken. He changed to (traditional) Arab clothes, shaved off his mustache and escaped in ambulances."
Nonsense, Bayaah said. Majid was still wearing his uniform and mustache when Bayaah accompanied the entourage to its Japanese-made sedans and pickup trucks that morning, Bayaah said.
Only Ahmed left in an ambulance. Bayaah said that was because recent brain surgery had left the defense minister with intense vertigo and headaches.
Asked about the money that Majid allegedly paid him and Ibrahim, Bayaah said, "I have nothing to do with that money." Staffers at Ibrahim's nearby office said she hadn't shown up at work for two days.
Majid hosted a meeting in a hospital conference room before he left, another nurse said, and left behind a military map of Baghdad, marked "secret" and with several pinholes clustered around the northern part of the city.
Handwritten along the top of the map were "Al Tarmiya" and "Al Mishahde," two predominantly Sunni Muslim suburbs north of the capital known to be centers of support for Saddam.
The hospital workers' stories seemed credible and added to the evidence that much of the regime escaped the coalition's occupation of Baghdad, though where they went is uncertain.
While U.S. officials are unwilling to say that Saddam is alive, a videotape given to Abu Dhabi television purports to show him and one of his sons in Baghdad on April 9, the same day his statue was pulled down before an international television audience and two days after he was the target of a bombing in Baghdad's al Mansour neighborhood. Interviews in the neighborhood where the videotape was shot corroborate that Saddam was there that day.
In the days since, the Iraqi National Congress has reported that Saddam had been spotted in the town of Baqubah northeast of Baghdad and, more recently, near the border with Iran.
But INC intelligence is also puzzling. Wednesday, INC spokesman Zaab Sethna said his group had information that Ahmed was executed on Saddam's orders three weeks ago, long before he reportedly was seen at the Baghdad Nursing Hospital.
"We don't know any of the details about it, unfortunately. We do think it happened in Baghdad," Sethna said.
What's certain is that U.S. and British authorities tried very hard to kill Majid.
His Baghdad palace was hit by one of the 40-plus cruise missiles fired on the first day of the war, a barrage that also targeted Saddam. Two days later, a U.S. airstrike destroyed a home believed to be his in the southeastern city of Amara.
On March 30, Marines raided the south central town of Shatra looking for him, as well as the body of a Marine killed earlier in the war.
On April 5, U.S. Air Force F-16s dropped six 500-pound laser-guided bombs on a building in the southern city of Basra where Majid was believed to be meeting with senior military and political officers.
British Army officers in the Basra area reported that they had recovered Majid's body and were doing DNA tests. "The last report was definitely, definitely, this man was dead," one said.
But U.S. military officers remained skeptical, saying they found it puzzling that one of Saddam's top henchmen would risk going to Basra, which had been all but surrounded by the British for the previous two weeks.
"We've had so much human intelligence about him moving from city to city to city," one Marine intelligence officer said at the time, "you start to wonder whether any of it was right."
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Nancy A. Youssef in Baghdad contributed to this report.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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