DRAGON BASE, Iraq—Outside the barbed-wire fence of this remote, sand-swept U.S. military base along the Syrian border, Jassem Hussin, 14, gestured and muttered softly in Arabic. His father was a key figure in a guerrilla cell that was killing American soldiers, he said.
Jassem wanted him arrested. The GI on guard duty radioed his superiors.
Military intelligence—key to fighting the insurgency in Iraq—can come from unexpected sources. With Saddam Hussein's capture, U.S. military officials are hoping that more Iraqi informants, such as Jassem, will come forward.
Staff Sgt. Matthew Guetschow and a translator arrived and drove Jassem to the base's gate in a Humvee. Jassem asked to be "arrested"—in case someone was watching. Becoming an informant carries a death sentence in the unruly frontier town of Husaybah, filled with angry Saddam loyalists and smugglers, which butts against Dragon Base.
So Guetschow searched Jassem and handcuffed him with strips of plastic and pulled a black hood over his head.
"Here we go again, another informant," the soldier from New Mexico recalled thinking. "We get three to four of them a day. We never know if the information is leading you into a trap. Or if the information will be productive."
Little did the soldiers of Dragon Company, 1st Squadron, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, based in Fort Carson, Colo., know that the smiling boy with the sapling-sized arms would become one of their best informants and that soon they would have to protect his life.
At the base, Jassem poured out his story through a translator. His father, Muhammed Hussin, was a former Iraqi colonel who fought against the coalition, and was still loyal to Saddam. He used to like watching a video of Iraqi soldiers slitting the throat of a captured American soldier during the war.
Hussin often physically abused Jassem and his mother. He forced the boy to drop out of school when he was 8 to pick fruit on a farm.
"I told them that my father was attacking Americans and that he had a lot of weapons," said Jassem, who is short, squinty-eyed and likes kung fu films. "And he had 50 friends helping him."
Jassem said his father often held clandestine meetings at their home to plan attacks on U.S. forces in Husaybah. The cell included former Iraqi army officers and Syrians who financed the attacks, the boy said. He said he knew they were Syrian from their accent and dialect.
About two weeks ago, Jassem's father ordered him to join his cell.
"The plan was to hit a U.S. convoy. My father was going to shoot it with an RPG," Jassem said, referring to a rocket-propelled grenade. "My job was to cover his back."
Jassem refused. His father then threatened to kill him. So one day Jassem told his mother he was going to look for work in another town.
Instead, he ran away to the American base.
Jassem told the officers of Dragon Company that his father had hidden a cache of weapons in a field next to their house. The soldiers were skeptical. But then the boy provided the names of 10 combatants who worked with his father. The soldiers checked the names against their intelligence files.
"Some of the names he gave us were high on our lists," said Capt. Chad Roehrman, 29, the commander of Dragon Company.
They decided to test the information of their latest—and smallest—informant. The next night, they raided Hussin's house. They detained him and a friend, snapped Polaroids and took them to Jassem, who was waiting in the Humvee.
Jassem identified them. As a helicopter gunship buzzed above them, the soldiers began to search the field. Jassem, disguised in military camouflage and a black ski mask, joined in the search.
After an hour and a half, they struck pay dirt. Buried near a wall, they found two Chinese rockets, a rocket-propelled grenade and other weapons. One of the rockets had been modified so it could be fired from the shoulder, a method the soldiers had never seen before. The cache was an important find.
"It was one of the first times we've found Chinese rockets," said Guetschow, who led one of the teams. "That's what's been getting the tanks. Every one of those we can get off the streets, the better."
They arrested Hussin and his friend. Hussin later claimed he was holding the weapons for a friend, the soldiers said.
After the raid, the soldiers took a liking to Jassem. They nicknamed him Stevo, after the character in the MTV show "Jackass." They gave him $300 for the weapons find, and a job on the base helping the cook.
Jassem now wears desert fatigues and sports a military-style buzz cut. He lives in a small room with the cook. On a wall above his bed are pictures of bikini-clad women. A soldier gave him a disposable camera. He's been snapping pictures with his new friends ever since—and giving them more tips.
"He's been fingering people from pictures from other raids," said 1st Sgt. Daniel Hendrex, who's from Oklahoma. "Oh yeah, that's the mortar man. I look at our list, sure enough he's a mortar man."
Jassem's life, however, is in danger. While interrogating his father and his friend, special forces soldiers revealed that Jassem was the informer, Roehrman said. It underscored the difficulties the U.S. military faces protecting informants as intelligence is processed.
Soon afterward, Jassem's neighbor, who's also a member of the cell, threatened to kill his mother if he didn't hand himself over. When Jassem heard about the ultimatum during a visit home, he told the soldiers at Dragon Base.
"The Americans should help me like I've helped them," Jassem said.
The soldiers raided the neighbor's house, but spies tipped him off and he disappeared. Last weekend, they tried again. This time they found a passport-sized photo of the man, which they can use to track him down.
After the raid, Hendrex visited Jassem's mother. He gave her $200 to help get her family and herself out of town until they've captured the neighbor.
Even though Jassem has helped them tremendously, the soldiers keep a close watch on him. In Iraq, even informants as nice as Jassem can turn, with enough money or threats. The last thing they want is to have Jassem provide intelligence to the guerrillas about Dragon Base.
"He's not leaving this base with that camera," Hendrex said.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): usiraq+intelligence+jassem