Published December 15, 2003
BAGHDAD, Iraq – U.S. officials now believe Saddam Hussein was staying exactly where intelligence officials placed him — in Baghdad — during two attempts to kill him just before and during the war last spring. But bombs missed him the first time and he fled with minutes to spare the second time.
Having missed twice, the U.S. military focused instead on Saddam's home area of Tikrit (search), once Baghdad was captured and the war's major combat phase ended. Troops caught him there Saturday hiding in a hole.
The Associated Press obtained information on the earlier near misses before Sunday's dramatic announcement of Saddam's capture.
In the first attack on March 19, as U.S. troops were poised to invade Iraq, U.S. bombs narrowly missed a small palace where the Iraqi leader was reportedly staying. The compound around the palace was leveled.
A second attempt to kill him came on April 7, just before Baghdad fell. U.S. intelligence sources had put him in a house in a wealthy neighborhood on the city's west side, but believe he fled just minutes before Air Force bombs destroyed it.
Searches at both sites after the war found little evidence pointing to Saddam's presence at either, according to military officials. But the intelligence that put him at both locations remains credible, and much of it has been corroborated by postwar interrogations of Saddam's former associates, officials said.
The officials discussed the sensitive intelligence information only if granted anonymity.
It is unknown if Saddam survived the second strike because he was tipped off, or because he simply got lucky.
In the first attack, sources told the CIA (search) that Saddam was spending the night at a bucolic riverside compound south of central Baghdad, in an area called Dora Farms (search). Within hours, stealth fighters rocketed toward the site, their bunker-buster bombs joining a salvo of ship-launched cruise missiles to decimate the compound.
Before the strike, one source told the CIA that Saddam was inside the central palace building, according to a senior military official.
Just before dawn, the stealth fighters' 2,000-pound bombs and ship-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles blanketed the compound, destroying garages and guard posts. Bunker-busters were used on the presumption the compound had underground tunnels where Saddam could be hiding, intelligence officials said.
But the weapons targeted on the central palace missed, exploding nearby. Fire from the blasts scorched the palace, but not badly enough to kill everyone inside.
In the immediate aftermath of the attack, regime security forces joined emergency personnel at the site.
The intelligence source saw a man who resembled Saddam being put in an ambulance. It was unclear if the man was hurt, however. A female, identified by some neighbors as a relative of Saddam, was pulled alive from another nearby building that was badly damaged by the strike.
Within hours, a video of Saddam, looking shaken and reading from a notepad, appeared on Baghdad television. While it appeared impromptu, intelligence officials don't know whether it was recorded before or after the attack.
Military and CIA search teams, who arrived at the site more than a month later, found no underground tunnels. Nor did they find signs of Saddam himself. There was none of his blood at the compound, according to a senior commander who investigated the site.
Search teams made one odd discovery — the remains of a garbage truck, surrounded by tiny pieces of thousands of American dollar bills, all burned in the bombing, the commander said. They concluded the truck had been used to move cash around the country.
In the second attack on April 7, U.S. intelligence received information putting Saddam's sons, Qusai and Odai, at a meeting in a house in the upscale Mansour neighborhood in western Baghdad.
Within an hour, a B1-B bomber dropped four bombs on the house, destroying it and two others. After the strikes, intelligence sources reported seeing Saddam go in before the bombing but not come out, U.S. officials said, prompting some premature jubilation in Washington.
Now, officials believe he left minutes before the bombing.
Iraqi emergency personnel pulled the remains of a child and a woman from the rubble. In June, American troops excavated the site and found no evidence of Saddam.
The group Human Rights Watch said last week that the strike killed 18 people.
On April 18, a new video of Saddam aired, showing him outdoors in the city, atop a vehicle surrounded by adoring Iraqis. Iraqis said it was recorded April 9 — two days after the Mansour strike and the day U.S. troops overran Baghdad.
U.S. intelligence officials said they could not verify when it was shot.
The Dora Farms site in southern Baghdad is now part of a massive U.S. military base and has been sealed off from the public.
The excavated Mansour site has since been filled in, ringed with coiled wire and turned into a garbage dump. Neighbors said they never knew who owned the house and no one has claimed the land.