UJA, Iraq – Facing an increasing tide of attacks, American soldiers Friday cordoned off the village where Saddam Hussein (search) was born, suspecting this dusty farming community of being a secret base for funding and planning assaults against coalition forces.
"There are ties leading to this village, to the funding and planning of attacks against U.S. soldiers," said Lt. Col. Steve Russell, a battalion commander with the 4th Infantry Division (search), which is based in nearby Tikrit.
The operation began before dawn with hundreds of U.S. troops and Iraqi police. They erected a fence of barbed wire, stretched over wooden poles, and laid spirals of razor wire around the village, a cluster of mud-and-brick homes set in orchards of pears and pomegranates about six miles south of Tikrit (search).
Checkpoints were set up at all roads leading into the village of about 3,500 residents, many of them Saddam's clansmen and distant relatives.
It appeared the operation was not aimed at catching Saddam but at identifying those who live here and making sure that outsiders are quickly spotted. All adults were required to register for identity cards that U.S. officials said would allow them "controlled access" in and out of the village.
"This is an effort to protect the majority of the population, the people who want to get on with their lives," Russell said. "What we have seen repeatedly month after month is not necessarily attacks against coalition forces in this village, but there are ties to the planning and organizing these attacks. That is not fair to the rest of this village."
The intensive hunt for the deposed leader is spearheaded by the top secret Special Operations Task Force 20, and American officials in Iraq have said little about any progress. The United States has offered a $25 million reward for Saddam's capture.
On Oct. 13, Maj. Troy Smith, executive officer of the 1st Brigade of the 4th ID, told reporters that Saddam was "at the least" maintaining "a strong influence" in the Tikrit area and may have traveled through the region recently.
The next day, however, the 4th ID spokeswoman, Maj. Josslyn Aberle, said the military had no direct evidence that Saddam had been in Tikrit since Baghdad fell to American forces April 9. Saddam was last seen in public that same day in a Sunni Muslim neighborhood of Baghdad (search).
Much of the hunt for Saddam appears to be focused in the area around Tikrit, where Saddam and other key followers could find shelter among family and clansmen.
Saddam's sons Uday and Qusay were killed July 22 in a gun battle with American forces in Mosul, Iraq's third-largest city about 120 miles north of Tikrit.
Secretary of State Colin Powell (search) said he could find no basis for reports that Saddam may be coordinating attacks on Americans in Iraq.
While Saddam may have survived, "we really don't have the evidence to put together a claim that he is pulling all the strings among those remnants in Baghdad and other parts of the country that are causing us difficulty," Powell said on ABC's Nightline.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said it's unclear "what exactly his (Saddam's) role would be, if any. Saddam Hussein is in a survival mode. He is no longer in power, he's been removed from power. ... It's just a matter of time before he is brought to justice as well as other remnants of the regime."
Russell, during Friday's operation, noted that the village of Uja was unusual because so many key figures in the former government had roots in this area.
Among them is Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, a longtime Saddam confidant whom U.S. officials suspect as a force behind some of the recent attacks. U.S. officials believe al-Douri has linked up with members of the Islamic extremist group Ansar al-Islam to stage attacks against coalition forces.
Despite strong support for Saddam in this area, there was no visible resistance to the American operation, and people lined up quietly outside a police station to register for ID cards.
"I chose right in coming here. We need the safety," said Ahmed al-Naseri, who told reporters he was a cousin of Saddam. "We need freedom."
Another self-described Saddam relative, Ali Sherif al-Naseri, said people had no choice but to comply with the American orders.
"It may not be totally fair, but it's a good idea," he said.
As the operation was under way, groups of soldiers manned foxholes at strategic points around the village. Bradley armored vehicles also stood guard.
"There are a lot of peaceful people here, but there are some who are stirring up trouble in Uja," said Capt. Mark Staffler of Harrisburg, Pa. "We want to help them make a better Iraq."
Russell emphasized that the registration system would benefit villagers who want to move forward now that their most famous son is out of power.
"We have provided security," he said. "We have provided a cordon. We are not limiting the movement of those that live in the town. Once they have a pass they have complete freedom of movement as they would at any other time."
Uja Police Chief Ahmed Hamza al-Naseri said the military operation took him by surprise.
"I didn't know what was going on until I received a call in the middle of the night," he said. "This is all new to the people of Uja. They may be afraid at first, but they will accept it."
The police chief said he expected no trouble, and as an example to others, he was first to get an ID card.
"We do know that the residents are ready to cooperate with us," Russell said. "We will have enough security in place to enable us to protect our forces."