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Husseins' host couldn't refuse

When the brothers came to an Iraqi's door, he had to take them in. But before the assault, he got out.

By Times Wires
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 24, 2003

MOSUL, Iraq - Sheik Nawaf al-Zaydan Muhhamad answered the front door of his elegant mansion 24 days ago, and greeted a nightmare.

Standing there, he told his neighbors Tuesday, were two sons of Saddam Hussein, Qusay and Uday, Iraq's second- and third-most wanted fugitives, asking Muhhamad to repay years of privilege and favors they had doled out to him.

"I answered the doorbell and there they were, right in front of my face," Muhhamad told his neighbor, Mukhlis Thahir Jubori. "They asked to stay in my house and I could not refuse them. This is a disaster for me."

In an interview Wednesday, Thahir said Muhhamad told his story Tuesday while sitting in a U.S. military Humvee, about two hours after the bodies of the Hussein brothers and two other men were removed from the charred remains of Muhhamad's house.

In a fierce firefight, nearly 200 soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division blasted the house with missiles and grenades Tuesday until Hussein's two most ruthless enforcers were dead. Soldiers who participated in the raid said they didn't know what they were getting into when they headed out to the wealthy al-Falah neighborhood, and learned who had been in the house only when the firefight was over.

The arrival of Hussein's sons posed a dilemma for a 46-year-old man who had made a career out of hanging around the Husseins, said several of Muhhamad's neighbors and longtime friends.

"Nawaf was always bragging that he was a good friend of Saddam's family," said Thahir, a tribal sheik who lives in a house just around the corner from Muhhamad's, and described himself as best friends with him.

Thahir said Muhhamad's comfortable life, including his opulent home, were essentially slop from the Hussein trough.

Muhhamad was always open about his ties to Hussein, neighbors said, and that had caused tension. Iraqis said Muhhamad was Hussein's cousin. But Ahmad Chalabi, a delegate from Iraq's Governing Council and longtime opponent of Hussein, said the former Iraqi dictator's tribe had always denied that.

Thahir said Muhhamad was known as a businessman who specialized in import-export work. But mainly, they said, his business was loyalty to Hussein's family, whose officials kept him supplied with government contracts and perquisites in return.

Muhhamad had moved to Mosul from Tikrit, Hussein's hometown, so the family did not know many of their neighbors, said Ahmed Hazim, 37, who lives around the corner from Muhhamad's three-story villa on Shalalat Street.

Neighbors did not recall seeing anyone suspicious at the house, but said Muhhamad had been acting different lately. Normally, they said, Muhhamad would wait until the desert sun set, then set out chairs on the sidewalk in front of his house every night. Muhhamad, Thahir and other men from the neighborhood would drink sweet tea and Pepsi and chew over current events. Then just over three weeks ago, Muhhamad stopped putting out the chairs.

"I went over to his house and asked him, "Is everything okay? Can I come in?"' Thahir said. "And he said no. He said his wife's relatives were visiting and they were very busy."

Neighbors said they became suspicious when Muhhamad's wife and their four daughters left the house at 6:30 a.m. Tuesday and never returned.

Three hours after the women left, U.S. troops walked up to the front door, knocked and asked all those inside to come out. Muhhamad and his only son, Shalan, left with their hands on their heads, neighbors said. Coalition forces took them away.

After that, U.S. troops called over loudspeakers at 10-minute intervals for anyone else to come out. "Surrender yourselves or face harsh military action," came the words in Arabic, Hazim said.

Those who had barricaded themselves inside responded with gunfire from the upper floors, witnesses and neighbors said.

"It began as gunfire and then it became a battle," said Nasser Hazim, Ahmed Hazim's brother.

"They mowed everything down," Nasser Hazim said.

Abas Muslim Ali, 45, a former tax collector who lives about a block away, said a group of soldiers climbed onto a house in front of his and launched shoulder-fired rockets at the besieged house.

The firefight lasted from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Ali and other witnesses said the helicopters fired about 10 missiles at the house during the last hour. Most of the upper floor, which bore the brunt of the assault, was reduced to smoking rubble. Ten large shell holes pockmarked the north side of the house.

Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, U.S. military commander, said three of the four men, including Uday and Qusay, probably were killed by TOW missiles. Sanchez refused to comment on reports that the last holdout was Qusay's son Mustafa, 14.

And what of the man who harbored them? An American commander said the person who tipped off U.S. forces was in protective custody in Iraq. When asked why, Col. Joe Anderson, commander of the 2nd Brigade, 101st Airborne Division, said: "People know who owns the house, so that's a factor." He refused to say whether the tipster and the villa's owner were the same person.

A U.S. military spokesman said they were acting on a tip that came from a "walk-in" Monday night. The coalition said the $15-million bounty on each of the Hussein brothers' heads will be paid.

While the coalition would not identify the informer, some neighbors said they were certain, and not happy.

"There is no way he (Muhhamad) can come back here now. He is a traitor," said Waad Hamadi, 43.

- Information from the Washington Post, Associated Press and Knight Ridder Newspapers was used in this report.

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