BAGHDAD, Iraq—U.S. troops killed two of the most feared and powerful figures of Saddam Hussein's regime—his sons Odai and Qusai—during a fierce six-hour gun battle Tuesday in the northern city of Mosul, the top U.S. commander in Iraq said.
Four U.S. troops were wounded in the fight.
The deaths of the two brothers marked an important military and morale-boosting breakthrough for U.S. troops, who for weeks have been killed in daily attacks and who sometimes appeared to be on the brink of losing control in the country they and British forces conquered three months ago.
Their deaths also raised hopes of at least a psychological blow to hardcore loyalists of Saddam's former Baath party regime, who U.S. officials blame for carrying out the attacks. It was unknown whether the two brothers played any active role directing the resistance to U.S. forces.
Celebratory gunfire broke out and streams of tracer rounds ripped through the sky over Baghdad Tuesday as word of Odai's and Qusai's deaths spread. Hopes also grew that the back of the Baathist guerrilla insurgency had been broken and that Saddam Hussein would be next on the American hit list.
The deaths were welcome news at the White House, where President Bush monitored developments in Mosul in a series of telephone calls from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. The demise of Saddam's closest relatives gave Bush and his advisers something to rejoice about after a steady stream of headlines highlighting the mounting U.S. death toll in Iraq, problems in establishing a democratic government, and Bush's use of flawed intelligence in making the case for war.
Even so, White House officials were slow to trumpet the news from Mosul, having been burned before by inaccurate reports of Saddam's death. Bush had no public events Tuesday and did not offer any reaction to the deaths.
"Over the period of many years, these two individuals were responsible for countless atrocities committed against the Iraqi people and they can no longer cast a shadow of hate on Iraq," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said in a statement. "While there is still much work to do in Iraq, the Iraqi people can see progress each day toward a better and more prosperous future for their country."
On Capitol Hill, Ambassador L. Paul Bremer, the top U.S. official in Iraq, was more effusive as he made the rounds of congressional offices to shore up support for the administration's post-war effort.
"This is a really great day for the Iraqi people.
"It's a wonderful day for the fine American men and women in our services, who have shown again how competent and professional they are," Bremer told reporters after a closed-door meeting with lawmakers. "The fact that Baghdad was lighted up with celebratory fire tonight shows you how important this is."
At a late night news conference near Saddam's sprawling presidential palace on the banks of the Tigris River, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez told reporters that Qusai and Odai were killed after U.S. troops surrounded then stormed an opulent villa in an affluent neighborhood of Mosul where the two brothers were hiding.
After the gunbattle, U.S. troops searched the villa and found four men dead, Sanchez said.
"We have since confirmed that Odai and Qusai were among the dead," Sanchez said. The bodies of the other two men had not yet been identified, though there was some speculation that one was Odai's bodyguard and the other was Qusai's teenage son.
Sanchez said the raid came after a local informant tipped U.S. soldiers to the brothers' hiding place.
"It was a walk-in last night who came in and gave us the information," Sanchez said. He promised a detailed briefing on the raid Wednesday afternoon.
Odai was Saddam's oldest son and was renowned for his unpredictable behavior and cruelty. Qusai was believed to be first in line to succeed his father and was commander of Saddam's feared Republican Guard and Special Republican Guard.
The Hussein brothers were No. 2 and No. 3 on the U.S.-led coalition's most-wanted list of members of the former Baath party regime. Before the raid, U.S. and British forces had apprehended 34 of the 55 people on the list.
Sanchez said the identities of Odai and Qusai were established through "multiple sources," but added that "the bodies were in such a condition where you could identify them."
The United States had placed a $15 million bounty on the head of each. Sanchez said that those bounties would likely be paid.
Sanchez declined to say whether the deaths of Odai and Qusai meant that U.S. forces were closing in on Saddam himself, but U.S. troops "remain focused on fixing (the locations), killing or capturing all members" of the former Baath party regime, he said.
An audiocassette tape appeared in Baghdad last week in which a voice claiming to be Saddam's appeared to suggest that U.S. forces might be closing in on him. In the tape, Saddam urges his followers to wage holy war, and exhorts them to keep fighting even if he is killed or captured.
"The only way is a jihad against the occupation," the voice on the tape said.
Sanchez said he "firmly believes" the deaths of the Hussein brothers "will have an effect" in reducing the number of attacks on U.S. troops.
At least 38 troops have been killed in Iraq since Bush declared major combat operations over on May 1. The latest occurred Tuesday when a soldier with the Army's 3rd Armored Calvary Regiment was killed and another wounded after their convoy came under fire from rocket-propelled grenades and small arms fire. At least 153 U.S. soldiers have been killed in Iraq since the war began May 1.
Word of the two brothers' deaths began to spread through Baghdad around 10 p.m. Gunfire rang out and a traditional Arab celebratory cry—a loud trilling sound—rose from women who peeked out, scared to leave their homes after the curfew imposed by coalition troops.
Some Iraqis said they feared Saddam would avenge the deaths of his sons with more attacks on U.S. troops and other targets. But one man said he would worry about that later.
"This is a celebration," said Hassan Hamed, 55. "Odai and Qusai were criminals, animals. He killed so many Iraqi people for nothing."
Another man, 44-year-old Anwea Franso, said he was disgusted by the lavish lifestyles Odai and Qusai led while many other Iraqis went hungry. Franso said he was wounded while serving in Saddam's army during the war with Iran 15 years ago and was told there was no money for compensation.
"This was the Iraqi people's money," he said. "I wish they could have caught them alive without killing them so we could put them in a zoo."
That regret was shared by Abbas Mehdi, a Minnesota-based exile who heads the Union of Independent Iraqis. The group falls under the umbrella of Adnan Pachachi, who was just named as a representative to Iraq's Governing Council.
Mehdi said the exile community was elated by the news of the deaths, but they still have their eyes on Saddam.
"This is good, but we're waiting for the big one," he said in a telephone interview from the United States. "I hope the people who helped find Odai and Qusai will eventually help find Saddam."
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Ron Hutcheson contributed to this report from Washington.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ
ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Uday Hussein, Qusay Hussein
GRAPHICS (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20030722 USIRAQ deaths, 20030722 Iraq Mosul, 20030722 Saddams sons