TIKRIT, IRAQ — TIKRIT, Iraq - Saddam Hussein has come home.
That, at least, is the conviction of the American soldiers hunting him. They say they have twice come close to capturing or killing Hussein here in recent weeks. Alone and on the run, the soldiers say, Hussein has most likely fallen back to his hometown, where his family and tribal kin are among the small group of people he still believes he can trust.
With that belief in mind, the American military has begun an extraordinary manhunt across the arid plains surrounding Tikrit, Hussein's birthplace, involving hundreds of soldiers and sometimes several raids each night, on homes, farmhouses and other places suspected of harboring followers of Hussein, and possibly the man himself.
American soldiers have detained more than 600 people here in the past two months, including some men said to be his bodyguards. Among those detained, soldiers say, were people working to protect Hussein.
The idea underlying the American approach is that while Hussein might still have a network of supporters willing to hide him, the military will press to make that network smaller and smaller, until the Iraqi has nowhere left to hide.
"It is our operational assumption that Saddam Hussein is here," said Col. James Hickey, commander of a 3,000-man force engaged in daily raids here. "And if he's here, we'll get him. I think it will be sooner rather than later."
Hickey, speaking after a late-night raid, said he had twice received intelligence placing Hussein near Tikrit.
Whether the military can capture or kill Hussein is shaping up to be one of the most important tests facing the United States in postwar Iraq. While Americans appear to have eroded much of Hussein's support network, their aggressive tactics risk alienating many Iraqis.
The capture of Hussein has taken on an added urgency as the remnants of Hussein's army seem to have reconstituted themselves and staged deadly and increasingly sophisticated attacks on U.S. forces. In audiotapes, Hussein has urged his followers to expel the Americans.
While American commanders do not believe that Hussein is coordinating the attacks, he is regarded as the personification of the old regime. His death or capture would deliver a potentially crippling blow to the insurgency, especially now that his two sons and heirs apparent, Odai and Qusai, are dead, killed in an American raid two weeks ago.
Hussein disappeared April 9 as American forces poured into Tikrit. He has reportedly been spotted in numerous places across the Sunni Muslim heartland north and west of Baghdad, and in Baghdad itself. An official of the Iraqi opposition said yesterday that Hussein was last seen about a week ago in Baghdad, but that he is thought to have spent a considerable amount of time near Tikrit.
In interviews, some Tikritis readily acknowledge that Hussein is in the area, protected by the people upon whom he lavished wealth and privilege during his rule. The funeral Saturday of his two sons, attended by dozens of Hussein's family members and friends, gave ample testament to the nostalgia for his rule. Locals said Tikritis who have cooperated with the Americans have been attacked and, in some cases, killed.
"Saddam is with us in Tikrit, and the Americans will not find him," Sheik Ismael al-Dibis, a tribal elder here, said. "They cannot find him even if they searched for a hundred years."
The Americans think they can. Despite boasts of Hussein's supporters, Americans say they have been deluged with information about the whereabouts of Hussein. Besides the 600 Iraqis who have been detained here, the Americans have captured two men on the most-wanted list, including Abid Hamid Mahmood al-Tikriti, who was No. 4, a ranking based in part on his closeness to Hussein.
Americans are handing out rewards for information, but they say their biggest asset is the desire for justice by the many residents whom Hussein brutalized.
Indeed, in the streets of Tikrit, the feelings among many Iraqis parallel that of the Americans. Even loyalists of Hussein say the number of Hussein's enemies seems to grow by the day.
The owner of Madhya Chicken Restaurant, where posters of Hussein adorn the walls, offered an Arabic adage: "As the camel falls, the knives that would stab it multiply."