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Commandos raid Hussein palace, find no one home

©Associated Press

April 4, 2003

CAMP AS SAYLIYAH, Qatar -- U.S. Special Operations forces raided one of Saddam Hussein's favorite residences, the Tharthar Presidential Palace northwest of Baghdad, seizing documents but failing to find the Iraqi leader or his sons.

The sprawling compound at Hussein's preferred fishing hole on Lake Tharthar is one of eight presidential palaces that have long been a bone of contention between Iraq and United Nations inspectors hunting for weapons of mass destruction.

The raid overnight Thursday was believed to be the first on a presidential palace since the war began, although Hussein's Baath Party offices have been blitzed by ground troops on several occasions around the country.

Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks said Thursday the incursion -- captured on night vision video and shown during his daily briefing here -- yielded valuable intelligence documents. He said it "illustrates the ability of this coalition to operate anywhere against any regime target."

But it didn't turn up Hussein or his family, and troops encountered only sporadic resistance from antiaircraft artillery fire and fighters on the ground, said Navy Lt. Mark Kitchens, a Central Command spokesman.

The resistance was overpowered, the raid was successful, and the helicopter that brought the special forces took off without any of the forces being injured, he said.

The palace, like the seven other ones in Iraq, has a storied history.

In 1998, the Iraqi government balked at allowing U.N. weapons inspectors to visit Tharthar and seven other "sensitive sites," where inspectors wanted access to hunt for weapons banned under U.N. resolutions that ended the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

In a bid to avoid threatened U.S. airstrikes, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan brokered a now-infamous agreement allowing inspectors to visit the sites if accompanied by a diplomatic team and only if the Iraqis got advance warning.

The agreement has since been criticized for having allowed the Iraqis to undermine the authority of U.N. resolutions.

Later in the year, U.N. weapons inspectors pulled out of Iraq entirely ahead of U.S. and British airstrikes, launched because the two countries said Iraq wasn't cooperating with inspections.

Four years later, a new inspection regime, UNMOVIC, resumed weapons searches in late 2002, and pulled out last month ahead of the U.S.-led war.

A spokesman for the inspectors, Ewen Buchanan, said during the four-month tour of UNMOVIC, inspectors never visited the Tharthar palace. They visited two in Baghdad itself, though, he said.

Even before the inspectors' interest, Tharthar had a history.

It was built on Lake Tharthar, which draws from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and is about halfway between Baghdad and Hussein's hometown of Tikrit.

Several artificial lakes were built inside the palace grounds and fish were brought in to allow Hussein to go fishing.

In the 1980s, during the Iran-Iraq war, Baghdad TV showed footage of Hussein and King Hussein of Jordan fishing.

Unlike when he was a young boy, Hussein was using a fishing rod that time.

A childhood friend of Hussein's, Ibrahim Al-Zubeidi, wrote last month that when Hussein was young, he would fish by throwing small bombs into rivers.

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