The first report was from a U.S. Army troop, call sign Bandit, at a checkpoint on Highway 12, just east of the Syrian border. The soldiers were at maximum alert. Word had come down less than an hour earlier that Saddam Hussein and his sons might be in the area, fleeing toward Syria. At 8:29 that Wednesday evening, two white SUVs and a black Mercedes drove into sight from the east. Suddenly the convoy, apparently spotting Bandit in the distance, made a U-turn and raced away. Bandit tried to follow, but the convoy vanished into the night.
That distant encounter began the most intense search yet for Iraq's former dictator. For the next 24 hours, several hundred U.S. troops scoured a 50-mile stretch of stony desert on Iraq's --northwestern border. The searchers included Task Force 20, the top-secret special- operations group specializing in Iraq's most sensitive missions. Fleets of Apache and Blackhawk helicopters filled the air, with Bradley fighting vehicles following below. Before the hunt ended, it would lead to a strange cluster of candy-colored villas in an empty wasteland, and from there across the border into an armed confrontation with a Syrian patrol. U.S. forces were sure their quarry was none other than Saddam himself. "That night was the first time [we] had actionable intelligence," says Lt. Col. Bill Dolan, commanding officer of the Third Armored Cavalry Regiment's First Squadron. "We were told we were after Targets One, Two and Three."
Saddam and his sons are no mere trophies. Iraq's anti-U.S. insurgency isn't likely to go away until the dictator's loyalists are convinced that he will never return. Thirteen Coalition soldiers died in hostile action last week, including two who were abducted and killed. Reconstruction efforts have been crippled by saboteurs and assassins apparently targeting Iraqi "collaborators" in U.S. programs. The capital has only about 20 percent of the electricity it needs--barely enough to keep its hospitals and water-pumping stations in service. Last week three men in a power-company truck gunned down Haifa Aziz Daoud, the electrical-distribution director for north Baghdad, in front of her 17-year-old daughter. The next day a street ambush nearly killed the power company's head of reconstruction (the executive's name has been withheld). Coalition spokesmen may downplay the recent setbacks, but they devoutly wish they could be rid of Saddam.
The White House can only agree. On the morning of June 18, a briefer went directly to President George W. Bush with "solid intelligence" that a convoy of top-level regime officials, possibly including Saddam and his sons, was making a run for the Syrian border. The first clue seems to have come from a satellite phone that was captured a few days earlier with Saddam's personal secretary, Abid Hamid Mahmoud al-Tikriti. Its digital memory led investigators to a phone in the Iraqi desert. Sources in Washington say there was no evidence that any of the Husseins had used that number. Still, the various intelligence "hits" must have been considered pretty good to set off such a massive manhunt.
Back on Highway 12, Bandit radioed its sighting to Tiger Base, the First Squadron's tactical operations center (TOC). Apache attack helicopters and OH-58D Kiowas went up immediately to look for the convoy, and two squads of military police were sent to the main border crossing. An update soon arrived from Task Force 20: the quarry had moved south, toward a spot in the desert six miles from the border. More helicopters were called in, and a platoon of --Bradleys joined the chase. Task Force 20's reports came faster and faster, following the border southwest, into the unguarded desert. "They kept getting hits," says Colonel Dolan. "They were sending us all over the place."
The desert night appeared to be crawling with vehicles, perhaps two dozen in all. "It was a madhouse in here," says Maj. Tony Aguto, who was working the command-desk phones at Tiger Base. Sgt. Matt Michelson, who mapped the chase on computer, says: "We had a front-row view to the biggest thing that was happening in Iraq." As the hours passed, a crowd of onlookers gathered in the TOC, talking and eating popcorn while the phones buzzed. Everyone was too busy to kick them out.
The chase grew more and more chaotic. Some helicopters were running low on fuel. "The order came from regiment to fly until they had to ditch in the desert," says First Lt. Shane Boyd, who was coordinating their movements from a small wooden desk at the TOC. The targets were too important to abandon. The convoys began splitting up and speeding toward the border by ones and twos. At 1:04, Task Force 20 aircraft destroyed four vehicles trying to cross. Soon afterward, the brass sent down orders to hit a site where several cars had been spotted. Press accounts last week called it a village, but it was more like something out of a James Bond movie, a group of palatial compounds with nothing but sand for miles around. Air Force AC-130 gunships began pounding it at 1:29.
Half an hour later, Maj. Paul Gass rode up in a Humvee to witness some of the most intense bombing he had ever seen. For five hours, he and his unit had been following Task Force 20's signal hits into the desert. Now they were about 10 miles from something huge. The sky was lit up with huge balloons of fire, and the noise of helicopters echoed across the sand. Gass and Capt. Chris Alfieri, Bandit's unit commander, made ready to move in and secure the area whenever the bombing stopped.
Back at the TOC, a phone rang; Aguto picked it up. "Dismounts" were abandoning their vehicles and racing for the border on foot, the caller said: "We believe it may be Saddam." Capt. Aaron Barreda relayed Aguto's next order over the command net: "Saddam on the ground. Engage and destroy." But the unit's nearest helicopter was nine minutes away, and running out of fuel. "It never got there," says Boyd.
Someone else evidently did--the mysterious Task Force 20, by all indications. Grid reports at Tiger Base show that helicopters repeatedly crossed the border that night. The Defense Department says only that U.S. forces "engaged with" Syrian border units, not saying when or why. But after the bombs stopped, regular Army troops searching the ruined complex made an unexpected discovery. Shortly before 6, a Chinook helicopter landed on a nearby hillock and quickly took off again. Gass, who had been combing the ruins since 3:45, investigated and found a group of wounded Syrian soldiers, apparently left there by the Chinook. Gass's team sent them to Tiger Base for medical attention. Last week the Syrian government was still calling for their return and seeking a formal explanation.
Later that morning, Gass and Alfieri got another order--to cross into Syria and find "vehicle 4"--an SUV that had made it across the night before. "I didn't feel comfortable with that," says Gass. "I asked for reconfirmation." Gass and Alfieri were told to "disregard all international borders." The team drove its Bradleys over the earthwork that marked the border, accompanied by two Apaches, and stopped at a Syrian outpost on the other side. Without a translator, the Americans and the Syrians stood face to face, about 15 feet apart, weapons at their sides, communicating by gestures and a few shared words. Behind one of the buildings, they found a red SUV, riddled with bullet holes. But no Saddam.
NEWSWEEK visited the bombing site last week. A fierce dust storm was blowing sand and dirt through the broken windows and doors. Giant earthmovers had been digging through the rubble. The ground was littered with clothing. Teams from the Army's Criminal Investigation Command (CID) say they found a few strands of hair, but no roots for DNA tests. "If there were people inside, we would have found them," says one soldier. Official reports say two people died in the attack: a pregnant woman and a man. But troops who were there think other victims may have been removed before regular forces reached the scene. Gass recalls noticing that he smelled no blood and wondering: "Where were all the bad guys? Why didn't I see their bodies? I suspect the bad guys were picked up and put inside that Chinook." The search for Saddam continues. The hope is that if the scorpion's head is cut off, maybe its tail will finally stop twitching.