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Saddam's fate still unknown following battle in Baghdad

MARINE COMBAT HEADQUARTERS, Iraq—A firefight in central Baghdad on Thursday that left one Marine dead and 22 wounded was sparked by a U.S. intelligence tip that Saddam Hussein and his youngest son, Qusai, were hiding in a building near the president's Azumiyah palace.

A Marine unit sent to attack the house at 3 a.m. instead ran into a hail of small-arms and rocket-propelled-grenade fire from an estimated 200 foreign Arab fighters holed up in the nearby Imman Mosque. The battle that followed was one of the most intense of the 22-day-old war, said Lt. Col. Dave Pere, a spokesman for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force.

U.S. intelligence officials say they have no reliable information on whether Saddam and other members of the Iraqi leadership are still alive and if they are, where they might be hiding. On Tuesday, the United States bombed a building in western Baghdad where U.S. officials believed Saddam was meeting with other Iraqi officials. Some U.S. officials believe Saddam was killed.

But British news reports have said British intelligence officials are skeptical that Saddam was killed, and U.S. officials acknowledge that there is no hard evidence. A diplomatic source in Israel, quizzed on Saddam's whereabouts this week, said Israeli intelligence has not decided whether Saddam is dead or alive.

"There were days when (Israeli intelligence) knew exactly where he was." And at other times, they "had no idea where he was."

"There has been a lot of disinformation—on both sides," the diplomatic source concluded.

U.S. officials note that Qusai, Saddam's favored son, hasn't used his Thuraya satellite phone in days.

Whoever was at the house when the Marines arrived Thursday "was somebody important, no doubt about it," said Pere, senior watch officer at IMEF's combat operations center.

The house's defenders "fought to the end," Pere said.

A convoy of four to eight vehicles was spotted arriving at the house and leaving again just before the Marines arrived, said Lt. Col. Al Orr, IMEF liaison with the 1st Marine Division troops that carried out the raid.

A Predator surveillance drone followed the convoy for a while but lost it "in the warren of north Baghdad," Pere said.

The Marines' Regimental Combat Team 5 captured eight Arab fighters believed to be Syrians or Jordanians, and was still interrogating them and searching the 35,000-square-foot palace and mosque at nightfall, Orr said.

Asked about enemy casualties, Orr declined to comment but said the captured men wore the black uniforms of the fanatical Saddam Fedayeen militia and added, "I know that many, many of those guys are dead."

Intelligence reports over the past year have alleged that Saddam had delegated to Qusai the authority to use chemical and biological weapons against the U.S.-led coalition forces lined up against him.

U.S. officials have said Saddam's oldest son, Udai, was believed killed Tuesday in a devastating attack on another Baghdad house with four laser-guided 2,000-pound bombs, where his father and brother were believed to be visiting.


(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Carol Rosenberg contributed to this report from Jerusalem.)


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.