BAGHDAD, Iraq—A tip prompted the U.S. military to start digging again in the rubble of a restaurant that was bombed on April 7 because Saddam Hussein was thought to be hiding inside, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq said Wednesday.
Lt. General David McKiernan would not say what new information inspired the search, and he stressed that it could go nowhere.
"It's a lead," said McKiernan. "It may or may not pan out."
Many Iraqis believe that Saddam is still alive, and conspiracy theories and rumors abound about where he is. Hiding in Russia is one popular report. Others say he's disguised as a Bedouin nomad or walking around openly on the streets of Tikrit.
"At some point there needs to be accountability of Saddam Hussein for the mentality of Iraq," said McKiernan.
On Wednesday afternoon, four large green army bulldozers attacked a diminishing heap of rubble and loaded it onto trucks as local residents stood and watched. Soldiers said they also plan to repair the local road and bomb damage to nearby houses.
The smashed concrete, twisted rebar and debris will be sifted for any possible evidence of remains of Saddam or other senior Baath Party officials.
"We've sent in additional assets to look for forensic evidence," said McKiernan in a briefing Wednesday, the second day of the dig. "When we did this initially we did not do it in great enough detail It's apparent we did not go in thoroughly enough."
While the search for Saddam continued, U.S. forces in his old stronghold around Tikrit continued to meet resistance in the early hours of Wednesday.
Rocket-propelled grenades and small arms fire were aimed at a convoy of U.S. military Humvees near Samarra, and four rocket-propelled grenades were launched at a tank convoy in Baiji. No one was killed, but five soldiers from the 4th Infantry Division were injured in the Baiji attack. Three of the soldiers were hospitalized and two returned to duty. Most of the injuries were cuts on their arms, legs and faces.
More military police will patrol Baiji, and soldiers will rigidly enforce a new 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. curfew, said Col. Don Campbell, commander of the 1st Brigade, 4th Infantry Division.
Nearby Samarra already has a curfew.
In recent weeks both towns have been trouble spots for U.S. soldiers. Campbell said he did not believe violence against troops was escalating, but said the methods of attack were becoming more sophisticated.
Officials said the Baiji attack was organized. The rocket-propelled grenades were launched both from the ground and the tops of houses. The rear of the lead tank was struck by one grenade, disabling the guns so the tank could not return fire. Soldiers swept the area but did not find the assailants.
Campbell speculated the attacks were retaliation for the recent arrests of paramilitary and Baath Party members in the area. Army officials also suspect untrained individuals are being paid, perhaps as much as $400, to fire grenades at U.S. targets.
Also in Samarra, an election scheduled for Wednesday was postponed when tribal leaders could not agree on how many delegates will get to decide who will lead the town. Campbell said the leaders have until June 15 to work out their differences. If they can't, U.S. forces will step in and appoint a temporary leader in the city. There are seven major tribes and four smaller ones in the Samarra area.
Campbell said, "To a certain extent we're allowing democracy to play out down there, to a very small scale."
Officials also reported that few Iraqis were turning in their weapons during a June 1-14 amnesty period. There was no monetary incentive.
"We've probably gotten about 300 plus weapons turned in across all of Iraq. But if that means saving 10 lives, it's worth the effort," McKiernan said.
Bernard Kerik, the former New York City Police commissioner helping rebuild Iraq's police force, said that he is working to outfit the Iraqi Police with equipment, radios, cars and more uniforms. About 8,800 police officers are back at work in Baghdad, but U.S. officials estimate that another 10,000 are needed.
(Hull reported from Baghdad; Pompilio, reported from near Tikrit, Iraq.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.