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Neighbors: Blast missed Hussein by a block

©Associated Press

April 21, 2003

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Saddam Hussein's entourage hid out in the home of a former family bodyguard for much of the U.S.-led air war, fleeing only when a bunker-busting bomb meant for the Iraqi leader struck a block away, residents told the Associated Press on Sunday.

The accounts heightened the possibility that Hussein survived the April 7 attack.

Neighbors said they believed Hussein had stayed in the house in the well-off western Baghdad block, though none interviewed claimed to have seen him. However, Hussein's top bodyguard, Ali Nassir, and the ousted leader's cousin Gen. Ali Suleyman Abdullah al-Majid were among those seen coming and going for about 10 days. Nassir and others guarded the house until all inside fled in the hours after the U.S. bombing April 7.

"They came out in civilian clothes, in groups, and you could see the fear on their faces," said Osama al-Bidery, next-door neighbor to the high-walled compound.

The home's owner, a woman who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Baath Party officials barred her from the house during the time they commandeered it and told her to burn a general's uniform she found when she moved back in.

Hussein, fearful of assassination attempts, was known to move from private home to private home. Even before the war, he declined to spend nights in one of his palaces.

In the last hours of the U.S. entry into Baghdad, the United States unleashed bunker bombs that blew a crater 60 feet deep into a street of the Mansour neighborhood. The bombs blew at least three houses and 14 people into barely discernible bits.

U.S. authorities said at the time it would take digging and forensic work to determine whether Hussein had been inside.

The targeted houses had been on a block behind the ornate United Arab Emirates Embassy. A block away on the other side of the embassy was the house where neighbors say Hussein's camp took refuge.

The neighborhood housed intelligence officials and other ranking members of Hussein's regime, said al-Bidery and neighbor Falhel al-Zaidi. According to residents, Hussein had once given the house in question to one of his favorite bodyguards, an operative who was killed by Uday Hussein after they quarreled at a party, a notorious case that highlighted the eldest son's brutality.

Al-Zaidi and al-Bidery said the current homeowner worked in intelligence for Uday Hussein. But she denied working in any way for Hussein's son, saying she ran a tourism business.

People on the block spoke of the top military officials they said had moved into the ornate two-story limestone residence, saying the squatters barred neighbors from approaching the house.

Residents said they resented the new occupants, fearing they and their frequent use of the trademark white SUVs of Hussein's regime would draw U.S. attack, they said. "Every 5 meters (about 16 feet) you stepped, there was a truck with guns," al-Zaidi said.

Neighbors cited secondhand reports from others in the two blocks around the house who said they had seen Hussein and son Qusay. The people who supposedly had claimed to see the two were not home Sunday.

Asked for the latest information on whether Hussein is alive, President Bush said Sunday that it was more important that Hussein no longer is in power. But he added: "If he is alive, I would suggest he not pop his head up."

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