LONDON – The potted palm looked strangely familiar to Nada Yunis, a 36-year-old Iraqi businesswoman.
She suddenly realized as she watched Saddam Hussein (search) on TV that he was sitting in her living room.
It was April 6, and after two weeks of uncertainty about the Iraqi dictator's whereabouts — as U.S. troops closed in on Baghdad — Yunis' sighting provided the first clear evidence that he had survived a "decapitation strike" at the start of the U.S. invasion.
As she watched the latest pictures of Saddam talking to senior aides, she recognized the orange curtains. The aides were sitting on her dining room chairs, and the palm stood where she had left it.
It was as close as anyone would come to identifying Saddam's precise location.
The next day, a CIA informant claimed to have spotted the elusive president entering another Mansur compound only half a mile from Yunis' home.
Within 45 minutes, an Air Force B-1 bomber demolished the compound with four precision-guided bunker-busting bombs.
"Just in case he didn't die before, let's have him die again," joked a U.S. intelligence official.
Of course, Saddam was not dead.
And it would take eight frustrating months and one of the world's most expensive manhunts to track him down to a hole in the ground.
Now, a week after Saddam's capture, intelligence analysts say a battered green briefcase found in the deposed Iraqi's hiding place gives a clear account of his eight months on the run.
The bag contains documents and reports that show that since the collapse of his government, Saddam commanded a phantom regime from hiding.
The briefcase holds evidence of a resistance movement run on the lines of a Ba'athist totalitarian state, with himself at the top. It contains hundreds of names — all of them now in U.S. hands.
Intelligence sources who saw the bag's contents said they were amazed both by the unexpected extent of Saddam's involvement in the resistance and by his folly in keeping this detailed dossier with him.
They say Saddam believed the reports in his green briefcase, which show he was being lied to by his acolytes. The "battle reports" they couriered to him said what he wanted to hear: that the resistance was defeating U.S. forces.
There is strong evidence that Saddam remained initially in Baghdad — in sumptuous villas with walled gardens — as the Americans took over.
In one Baghdad house, a woman who admitted that her family had sheltered Saddam for a night showed off the butt of a cigar he had smoked under her roof. "I will always treasure this," she said.
In another, the owner revealed that Saddam had given him $5,000 for just one night.
As the Americans closed off Baghdad, he fled by taxi to his home town of Tikrit. But outside Baghdad, conditions were less luxurious. Mud-brick huts are the norm for much of the country. It is believed he rotated between about 20 such huts once he left the capital for the "Sunni Triangle."
Iraqi and U.S. sources believe Saddam lay low at each place for a few weeks, occasionally traveling in a small, battered car to meet resistance commanders.
The documents in his briefcase show the resistance members were all approved by the military bureau of the Ba'ath Party.
One of the documents reveals a "talent spotting" committee of eight officers who recommended former officers, all Sunnis, who had skills the resistance needed.
"Someone would [then] come to your door, and say the president sent us and he needs you to cooperate," revealed an Iraqi working with the Pentagon to translate the documents into actionable information. Nobody declined.
The money and authority for operations came from Saddam.
"His strategy was to embarrass and humiliate Americans," said an Iraqi source.
"The people working for him had their choice of target, within the outline of attacking American soldiers, international organizations, the Iraqi police - any target that would embarrass the Americans. That was the goal. If you, as a cell leader, believed you had the capability, you were authorized to go ahead."
This was no guerrilla army running on faith, however. All the reports in the briefcase make clear that the resistance leaders were jockeying for favor and expected money for their successful attacks.
As the number of resistance attacks increased and the U.S. post-war death toll surpassed its wartime total, senior officers in Tikrit watched the hunt for Saddam unfold.
There were 12 raids after tip-offs. In one, troops raced to a farmhouse where they found furniture covered with thick dust in the front room. The back bedroom, however, was newly cleaned. There were pristine Italian suits in a closet. Bottles of cologne and shampoo were on the night table.
These were not the luxuries of the average farmer, but the suits' owner was nowhere to be found.
Saddam's lifestyle would soon get tougher.
Until late summer, U.S. forces were preoccupied with rounding up what they called "high-value targets," the 55 most wanted members of the old regime and their bodyguards. Then they realized Saddam was with lower-level but highly trusted relatives.
From an initial pool of 9,000 names gleaned from databases, detainee interrogations and local Iraqi informers, U.S. forces zeroed in on the inner tribal circles believed close to Saddam.
In early November, U.S. forces identified a close associate of Saddam whose name kept popping up in intelligence reports. He was originally believed to be one of the former dictator's bodyguards, but his significance increased as intelligence officers found more information.
He was described as a member of a "very important family" based in Tikrit, and as "a middle-aged man with a very large waistline." He has not been named but has been identified as a former senior officer in Saddam's elite Special Security Organization. Finally, on Dec. 12, a raid on a house in Baghdad netted the "fat man."
"When I heard this source was captured, I knew we were onto something," said one insider.
It took only four hours for the captive to spill the beans. He revealed that Saddam was at a farm on the Tigris River, and that the soldiers should look for "an underground facility."
The farm belongs to Qais Naqim, an apparently insignificant former clerk in the presidential office who was long retired.
At Naqim's farm, U.S. troops had their rendezvous with history.