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Hussein, sons moved freely, ex-guard says

BAGHDAD, IRAQ — BAGHDAD, Iraq - Five or six days after U.S. troops seized this city in April, Saddam, Odai and Qusai Hussein gathered secretly with a handful of aides at a house in the Adhamiya neighborhood, according to one of Odai's former bodyguards.

The men were shocked at their defeat, having been convinced that Iraq's military would keep U.S. forces out of Baghdad.

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They had not planned for any kind of underground, guerrilla resistance to what they now saw would be a U.S. military occupation.

But Hussein and his sons had been moving freely around Baghdad, often with astonishingly little effort to hide themselves. Odai had driven right past a convoy of U.S. soldiers, looking at their faces and quietly insulting the men who now controlled his country.

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And while disoriented, the Husseins concluded that fighting the Americans was still possible.

The meeting to plan a guerrilla war was restricted to a handful of Hussein's top loyalists "so that no one would know the details of the resistance," said the bodyguard.

He gave the account of the Husseins in an interview after the death Tuesday of his former boss, but he insisted that he be identified only by a nom de guerre, Abu Tiba.

Abu Tiba, whose father had served as a bodyguard to Saddam Hussein, worked for Odai from 1997 until the first days of the U.S. occupation.

A cousin of his who is distantly related to Odai served as an intermediary, driving with a reporter to Abu Tiba's home. Abu Tiba was interviewed without forewarning, and many of his details of Odai's private life meshed with information from independent sources.

Saddam Hussein's own astonishment was obvious on April 11, Abu Tiba said, 48 hours after U.S. troops toppled his government and his most prominent statue in Baghdad.

Hussein and his sons attended Friday prayers at the Abu Haditha mosque in Adhamiya. Word spread quickly among the worshipers, and a crowd gathered around them outside after prayers.

An old woman in a black abaya walked up to Hussein and berated him with a boldness that, days earlier, could have gotten any Iraqi killed.

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"What have you done to us?" she demanded.

Iraq's once all-powerful leader smacked his forehead with his open palm and pleaded for understanding.

"What could I do?" he asked the woman. "I trusted my commanders. ... They have broken the oath they took upon themselves to protect Iraq. We hope we will be back in power and everything will be fixed."

Hussein's protestations were genuine, Abu Tiba said. "They never planned to leave because they had a very good plan to prevent the Americans reaching Baghdad," he said.

Abu Tiba, 28, who has a black crew cut, thick eyebrows and stubble in the style of his former boss, spoke matter-of-factly about Iraq's defeat and about his former boss' violent death Tuesday at the hands of U.S. troops. He provided new details about the movements of Hussein and his sons during and just after the war:

The initial U.S. missile attack of the war - a strike March 20 intended to kill Hussein and his top aides in a farmland area in the south of Baghdad - missed badly. The intended targets were nowhere near, staying in private houses scattered around the city.

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A U.S. attack April 7 - in which 4 tons of bombs were dropped on Mansour, a residential neighborhood - came close to killing Hussein and his sons, destroying homes and killing a reported 14 civilians only 10 minutes after the Husseins left the area. But the incident was a sting by Hussein against one of his own officers, whom he executed for allegedly helping the Americans target the Iraqi leader.

Video on Iraqi state television of the president and his sons during the war, including a startling April 4 broadcast of Hussein greeting the public on the streets of Adhamiya, was genuine.

Abu Tiba described his boss' mood as confident when the war started but increasingly distraught as things went badly for the regime.

"Sometimes he was tense, especially when his properties or palaces were hit in the war," said Abu Tiba, one of a team of six bodyguards who worked in rotation with another team of six.

"In the 1991 war, none of his sites were hit. He felt someone inside was giving information about his palaces. Then he'd get very tense and angry. You can see that anger in his looks. You can see the agony on his face. He was most suspicious about his friends."

Frequent moves

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Like his brother and his father, Odai moved every two or three days from one private house to another. Sometimes he stayed at one of the more modest of his many homes in regular residential neighborhoods. Sometimes he stayed with friends.

"During the war he went to sleep at 1:30 or 2 in the morning and he'd wake up at 4 to check the news and then he would sleep until 6," Abu Tiba said. "He slept very little. Before the war he would sleep during the day and wake up at night."

The newly responsible Odai would send orders to his fedayeen commanders in small cases carried by messengers, avoiding means such as satellite telephones that the Americans might monitor.

Coordinating Iraq's defense required frequent face-to-face meetings among the president, his sons and other top leaders. Too often for Saddam Hussein's liking, the meeting places then would be bombed.

Suspecting a captain on his staff of informing the Americans, Hussein gave him word that the top brass would be meeting April 7 at a house in Mansour.

"We went inside and then out the back door," Abu Tiba said. "Ten minutes later it was bombed. So they killed the captain. One of Saddam's bodyguards did it."

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Nearly all the time, Hussein had with him a television cameraman whose tapes would be broadcast on Iraqi TV. The footage - including the unexpected sight of the president greeting a crowd of citizens on a street in Adhamiya - was not shot before the war and did not show one of Hussein's doubles, as was widely suspected in the West. "It was real," Abu Tiba said.

Despite this last attempt to encourage his people and troops, Hussein's hours as president were fast ticking by. On April 9, his oldest son watched the television coverage of American soldiers pulling down one of his father's statues.

'Shouting endlessly'

"After he saw the fall of the statue on TV, he was so tense," Abu Tiba said. "His nature changed. It became very hard to talk to him. ... He used to get angry at us, shouting at us endlessly."

Fuming over the loss of Baghdad, Saddam Hussein accused his commanders of betrayal, Abu Tiba said. Commanders failed to carry out elaborate plans that included three lines of defense around the city, and the setting of explosive charges to kill approaching American troops and destroy their armor.

Still the family did not flee. It was during these days that the Americans missed numerous chances to capture Hussein and his sons as they lingered in the city.

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After five or six days - Abu Tiba does not remember exactly - they held their closed-door meeting in Adhamiya. Soon afterward, Odai spoke to Abu Tiba and told him that they had to separate.

"We'll send for you when we need you" were the last words of the subdued Odai to his trusted bodyguard. Odai gave him $1,000 as a farewell gift. Abu Tiba never got the call.

Newsday is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.


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