Excessive Force?

It was much-needed tangible proof that America was making progress in the war in Iraq. After several weeks of drooping morale and a daily, if single-digit body count, the U.S. military on Tuesday announced its soldiers had killed Saddam Hussein's sons in a ferocious firefight in their Mosul hideout.

American officials crowed about it, troops around Iraq high-fived each other, friendly Iraqis fired their guns in the air in celebration. Even the stock markets rose on the news.

Certainly only a few diehards mourned the passing of Uday and Qusay Hussein; the regime's Caligula and its Heir Apparent were if anything despised and feared even more than their dad. But as details became clearer of the raid that eliminated what the U.S. military calls High Value Targets (HVTs) Nos. 2 and 3, a lot of people in the intelligence community were left wondering: why weren't they just taken alive?

At a news briefing today, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, squirmed his way past that question repeatedly. It was, he said, the decision of the commander on the ground based on the circumstances and his judgment--"and it was the right decision." But was it? Who beside the sons might have better information about the one HVT that really matters, Saddam? "The whole operation was a cockup," said a British intelligence officer. "There was no need to go after four lightly armed men with such overwhelming firepower. They would have been much more useful alive." But Sanchez insisted it wasn't overkill. "Absolutely not. Our mission is to find, kill or capture high-value targets. We had an enemy that was barricaded and we had to take measures to neutralize the target."

U.S. forces were led to the brothers' hideout by a "walk-in," an informant who came to them the night before to say they were staying in a posh house in a residential district of the northern city, which has large numbers of Saddam supporters. Twelve hours later, according to Sanchez's account, U.S. forces had taken up blocking positions in the neighborhood around the house, cutting off any escape routes. At 10 a.m., 12 hours after the first tip, a psy-ops team with an interpreter and a bullhorn called on anyone inside to come out and surrender. When there was no reply, soldiers entered the house and began climbing the stairs--only to draw fire from a fortified upper floor with bulletproofed windows and heavy doors. Three soldiers were wounded on the stairs; a fourth was hit outside. U.S. troops retreated and began "prepping the target"--Armyspeak for firing into it. They used heavy machine guns mounted on Humvees outside, as well as light cannons and grenade launchers. Then Kiowa helicopter gunships came in and fired four rockets into the building. By noon, the Americans tried to enter the building again, only to be fired on again, whereupon they withdrew. This time they really poured the prep fire on, with sustained machine-gun fire topped by a total of 10 TOW missiles fired at near point-blank range. By 1:20 p.m., return fire had ceased and U.S. forces entered the building. There they found four corpses--the two brothers and two as-yet unidentified bodies. One of them appeared to be a teenager, who might be Qusay's son. The only weapons: AK-47s and pistols.

Against such lightly armed resistance, couldn't a siege or even a teargas attack have done the job more efficiently, and perhaps captured the HVTs alive? Sanchez repeated his mantra that the local commander made the right decision and he wasn't going to second-guess it. But a total of 200 heavily armed U.S. troops, backed by missiles, armored personnel carriers and helicopters? An officer at the scene made the improbable claim to a NEWSWEEK reporter that tear gas might have hurt neighbors. As it was, there were no reported civilian casualties with the much heavier weaponry; the house, which belonged to a prominent local sheik, was set well away from others. "Bollocks," said one former Special Forces soldier. "A SWAT team could have taken them. It didn't need a company."

The outcome was well-received abroad, but many Iraqis were not so sure. "The death of Uday and Qusay is definitely going to be a turning point," Sanchez said. U.S. officials expressed hope that it would undermine the opposition U.S. forces have been encountering. But that same day, two American soldiers were killed in an ambush in Mosul--raising doubts about whether there would be a letup in the opposition campaign of picking off U.S. troops. And many Iraqis expressed doubt about whether they actually got the right guys. Saddam and his son were well known for using body doubles, and Iraqis have not seen the evidence themselves.

Many even refused to believe the military's account that the victims' dental records matched (100 percent match in Qusay's case, only 90 percent in Uday's, they said), and that four regime figures had made positive IDs. Sanchez said among those identifying the bodies was Hamid Mahmud al-Tikriti, Saddam's personal secretary and the highest-ranking regime official in U.S. custody. Still Iraqis expressed skepticism, which Sanchez acknowledged, saying that the military is considering releasing pictures of the brothers' corpses. A lot of pro-American Iraqis are saying they'd have rather seen them on TV, being tried for their crimes. "There was no reason for us to rush to failure," as Sanchez put it, when he was asked why the raid took so long. But failing to take a little more time to get them alive may yet prove to have been just such a failure.