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U.S. Forces Capture Iraqi Air Force Commander

Coalition forces said Saturday they had captured former Iraqi air force commander Hamid Raja Shalah al-Tikriti (search), who was No. 17 on the U.S. Central Command's most-wanted list.

A brief U.S. military statement gave no other details about the arrest.

The former commander, who is in his late 50s, is from Saddam Hussein (search)'s hometown of Tikrit (search) and was close to the ousted Iraqi president's family. He was one of the Iraqi military commanders seen meeting regularly with Saddam before the U.S.-led war started March 20.

The pilot and three-star general was appointed commander-in-chief of the Iraqi air force during the mid-1990s. He also commanded air bases during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, including in the northern city of Kirkuk.

Before the U.S.-led war started, the commander advised Saddam that the Iraqi air force would be fully prepared to fight and defeat invading coalition forces.

But the Iraqi air force played no role during the war and its airplanes -- which were technologically inferior to the American and British warplanes -- were later found hidden in farms and fields under canopies and palm leaves and in barns.

It was believed they were concealed because Iraqi military chiefs realized their planes would be no match for coalition warplanes, and the decision was made to protect them for possible use later.

Since the coalition defeated Iraqi forces, many of the aircraft since have been looted or fallen into disrepair.

The U.S.-led coalition has detained more than half of its 55 most-wanted Iraqi leaders, including high-level military leaders, senior members of Saddam's Baath Party and top scientists who were reported to have worked in Iraq's alleged chemical, biological, nuclear and missile programs.

Many on the list are believed to have gone into hiding; some may have fled the country. The highest-priority target, American officials have said, is Saddam himself, who some U.S. intelligence officials believe survived the war and is hiding in Iraq.