BAGHDAD, Iraq – U.S. Army (search) combat engineers using bulldozers, backhoes and loaders dug through a rubble-filled crater Tuesday in an effort to determine whether Saddam Hussein (search) died in an airstrike on the house where he was believed to be hiding.
The site was attacked on April 7, just two days before U.S. forces took control of the capital. The U.S. military said at the time it had reliable information Saddam and other members of his family and entourage were there at the time.
"For us to expend the amount of money it took to destroy this place, it must have been a key target," said Maj. Scott Slaten of the newly arrived 1st Armored Division (search), which is now assuming responsibility for Baghdad.
He said an engineering unit of the Utah National Guard attached to the 1st Armored was excavating the site and carting the rubble off in dump trucks to an undisclosed location where it would be sifted and examined for human remains.
The United States does not know if Saddam is alive or dead. The deposed dictator's last purported public appearance was apparently April 9, in the Baghdad neighborhood of Azamiyah. He stood atop a vehicle and waved to supporters in video released several days later. But some U.S. officials have wondered aloud whether the footage was really filmed on that day and whether he was already dead.
It was not immediately clear Wednesday what sparked the sudden new interest in finding his remains.
For at least 1 1/2 months after the end of the fighting, the two-floor residential dwelling in the upscale Mansour district — in which at least 14 civilians are believed to have died — was left virtually undisturbed.
On Thursday, however, a bulldozer, a backhoe, two loaders and a dozen heavy trucks were hard at work at the site, which was covered by a thick layer of dust from the pulverized bricks.
The engineers were protected by three Bradley Fighting Vehicles and dozens of armed troops posted around the city block. Concertina wire was strung across the streets to prevent cars and pedestrians from passing through.
Officers said they expected to be done with the digging by Wednesday. They said engineers will likely remain at the location for another week or 10 days in order to repair nearby houses damaged in the blasts, level the dug area and clean up the street.
Soldiers digging through the wreckage — which was strewn with twisted girders and reinforcement bars — said they had not found anything out of the ordinary.
"There's nothing interesting here, just a lot of rubble," said Pfc. Walter Phillips, 30, of Chicago, Illinois, who operated the backhoe doing most of the digging. As he spoke, his machine was perched precariously on the edge of the 5-meter (15-foot) deep crater, its shovel resting on a broken water main at its bottom.
Iraqis living or working near the dig said they doubted whether the soldiers would uncover anything worthwhile. They speculated that Saddam had in fact been hiding in a neighboring house, just meters (yards) from the crater.
"No, no — Saddam ran away. He's hiding," said Munther Meki, a grocer whose shop is located next door to the destroyed house. The storefront window had disappeared, but the shop and its rows of empty shelves appeared undamaged.
Meki said the small house opposite the targeted building had been rented by the government about six months ago and that official-looking vehicles had occasionally parked on the street in front of it before and during the war.
"Nobody knew for sure if it was Saddam or someone else," Meki said.
Except for the broken windows, the empty, unfurnished house also appeared structurally undamaged. Its metal doors were held shut with a heavy chain and lock, and the interior was littered with smashed glass and broken bricks.