AL OWJA, Iraq—Sheik Mahmoud al Neda knew that the U.S. Army soldiers outside his front door a few weeks ago were looking for more than guns and grenades.
"I was very direct with them," recounted the leader of Saddam Hussein's Abu Nasser tribe. "I said, `I don't know where Saddam is. I haven't seen him since 1995.'''
A week later and a few miles away, U.S. soldiers stormed Ahmed Raja Badaw's home in Tikrit, the fallen Iraqi leader's adopted hometown. They left with Abid Hamid Mahmud al Tikriti, one of Saddam's top advisers and the highest-ranking Baath Party official captured so far.
The Americans thought they had an even bigger catch.
"One soldier, he was speaking Arabic, he told me I was Saddam Hussein," said Badaw, whose only resemblance to Hussein is his thick, black mustache. "He insisted on it. I said, `I am not Saddam Hussein. I am shorter than him. I don't even look like him.' Finally, I think, he believed me."
The search for Saddam is growing more urgent as the dictator's myth grows. His supporters use his name to rally support against the American invaders, and U.S. officials concede that as long as he's at large, or believed to be, many Iraqis will remain too fearful to cooperate with American authorities.
The United States tried to kill Saddam twice, with airstrikes on a compound and a restaurant. Both times, CIA Director George Tenet and other top intelligence officials maintained for several weeks that they'd succeeded, but for six weeks now, the consensus in the intelligence community and the Bush administration has been that Saddam and his sons probably survived both bombings.
There's no shortage of rumors about his whereabouts, although some of them probably are deliberate disinformation. Iraqi exiles backed by the Pentagon said he was holed up in Baqubah, north of Baghdad. No, he was back home in Tikrit, or maybe in Fallujah or Ramadi to the west. No, he was making a run for the Syrian border.
American troops have continued to round up his cronies, most recently Mahmud, who in the past seldom left the dictator's side, and U.S. high-tech eavesdropping equipment has picked up some diehard supporters talking about Saddam and the need to protect him. But so far, intelligence officials said, they haven't overheard Saddam himself or pinpointed his location, contrary to a report in the British press.
Coalition officials won't reveal where or how they're looking for Saddam, but they concede they're making the hunt for him a higher priority. Coalition spokesman Capt. John Morgan said Saddam seemed like a lesser threat after the war at first, because he no longer controlled the military.
"As we've gone on, we've realized there is a certain amount of speculation by Iraqi people that he's going to come back," Morgan said.
"We need to remove that myth."
That might take time. Atlanta- and abortion clinic-bombing suspect Eric Rudolph eluded an FBI-led manhunt for five years—in Georgia and North Carolina.
The hunt for Saddam is taking place in more foreign and less friendly terrain, and it extends all the way from Baghdad to—and just across—Iraq's border with Syria.
Armed with information from the captured Mahmud and other Saddam loyalists, American troops last week attacked a convoy that they thought was carrying high-ranking loyalists, wounding five Syrian border guards in the process. On Tuesday, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said he didn't think any high-ranking Iraqis were killed in the action.
Inevitably, the hunt also led to this area two hours north of Baghdad and to al Owja, the village where the mud hut in which Saddam was born has long since crumbled. It quickly becomes clear just how hostile the terrain is here.
Many people here refer to Saddam as "cousin," and they're devoted to him. Last weekend, someone tossed a grenade into a Tikrit electronics store frequented by U.S. soldiers. The owner said he'd been warned repeatedly not to sell to Americans.
"We want Saddam Hussein back, and we will die for him," said one self-proclaimed cousin, Thfar Farthar, 19, who spray-painted "Saddam Hussein is the hero of the Arab people" on the low-lying wall of a local elementary school. "We love Saddam Hussein. We want him back. There's no honor without him. There's no freedom without him."
Sheik al Neda said he tried to tell the American troops they were wasting time by raiding local homes.
"I can assure you that Saddam is not in al Owja or Tikrit. Why would he come here when Baghdad is 1,000 times larger?" he asked. "If you're a criminal, you can't hide in your hometown. You can't stay in the place people think you are. Americans don't understand that."
If Saddam appeared here seeking sanctuary, he would find it with anyone, said another cousin, Raad Arkan, 23, a lieutenant in the local police force.
"If Saddam came to my house, I'd leave it and let him have it," Arkan said. "He is alive and he is fighting to come back. He is leading. How do we know? We are relatives. We know."
But Saddam is not here, the locals say.
The raids are only further alienating them. Badaw, a retired Iraqi Army officer who said he lost his commission after refusing to join the Baath Party, is still angry about how his family was treated during the raid on his home.
He admits to sheltering Mahmud, Saddam's closest aide, but said he'd been told that Mahmud was a man named al Dilany who needed a place to stay while his house was being renovated. After two days, Badaw realized his houseguest's true identity, but he said he never considered contacting the U.S. Army, camped only miles from his home.
"We are Arabs. When you are a guest in my house, you are under my protection. No way I'm going to give you up," Badaw said. "Even if Saddam Hussein came to me, he will get good hospitality and be protected. Even if my brother's killer came to my house and asked for help, I would welcome him and keep him safe."
Tanks rumbled down Badaw's street and helicopters roared overhead before soldiers shot in his door and threw smoke bombs inside. He said he was thrown on the ground and handcuffed, and a bag was shoved over his head.
He's not sure where he was taken, only that he traveled by car and helicopter. For days, he lay in a cell in silence, and was alternately fed salt water and unsalted water. After five days, he and his 13-year-old son were brought back to their home.
"I didn't know if my family was alive or not," Badaw said, holding out his arms and lifting his robe to show cuts on his wrists and ankles. "It was a mistake to do this. Iraq is one big tribe. If you hurt one guy, people will talk and they will all hate the Americans."
Al Neda thinks the U.S.-led coalition is putting too much effort into finding Saddam and not enough into rebuilding Iraq.
"They're not focusing on governing or peacekeeping. They're focusing on Saddam," he said.
Col. Don Campbell, the chief of staff for 4th Infantry Division commander Maj. Gen. Raymond Odierno, said that wasn't true. Although American soldiers have aggressively chased former Baathists in the region—"It was thug central when we got here and it isn't anymore," Campbell said—the troops aren't distracted from their primary mission.
"We're not stopping everything we're doing to look for him," Campbell said. "The longer we go in making progress in the civil affairs world and rebuilding Iraq, the people are going to lose the focus on `Where's Saddam?'''
The danger is that the United States and its allies won't be able to go far enough in rebuilding Iraq so long as Iraqis fear—or hope—that the tyrant will return.
"They'll never get rid of Saddam Hussein," said Muhammed, one of the Saddam cousins. "He's in all cities. He's in all hearts."
"But don't worry. He'll be back."
(Tom Lasseter in Baghdad contributed to this story.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-SADDAM