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Posted in History / United States / 20th Century

The True Story of the Hunt for and Capture of Saddam Hussein

Sep. 22, 2010 1:58 pm
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Mohammed al-Muslit motioned with his leg towards a floor mat—a white cotton rug—on a patio area. Four or five Delta soldiers pulled back the mat and saw some ropes and handles surrounded by loose earth. They pulled the handles, found a big Styrofoam square in a brickwork area and pulled open the lid with a flashbang grenade (meant to stun, not kill) ready to go.

When they looked in they saw two hands at the bottom — the bottom was a small space — like a grave — and when they saw the hands they decided to reach down and grab whoever it was. Out he came, and began rambling, “I am Saddam Hussein, the duly elected president of Iraq, and I am willing to negotiate.”

But…we are getting ahead of ourselves.

The hunt for and capture of Saddam Hussein by the United States Army is a story with all the drama of a thriller. But it is real, and, for mystifying reasons, not well known. Parcbench was able to track down Oklahoma State Senator Steve Russell, a retired Army Lieutenant Colonel and holder of the Bronze Star for Valor, who is considered by many to be one of the key masterminds behind the capture of Saddam. Although Col. Russell gives great credit to others, especially his commanding officers and Delta Force soldiers, whose names remain classified to this day, based on contemporary press reports from magazines such as TIME and Newsweek, it is clear that Col. Russell was one of the crucial figures responsible for bringing the “Butcher of Baghdad” to justice.

Many Americans, whose only exposure to the war is from television news, or Hollywood dramatizations, think of Saddam’s capture as a kind of indiscriminate assault. Nothing could be further from the truth. The meticulousness and discipline with which our military, especially our field commanders, devised and executed the strategy is, perhaps, one of the great untold stories of modern warfare.

In ancient times the compelling narrative of the capture would have been immortalized in a work such as Gilgamesh, The Book of Exodus, The Iliad or The Aeneid. It has that kind of epic quality. During World War I or II, Col. Russell very likely would have come home to a tickertape parade and a hero’s welcome.

But we live in an era in which heroic initiative has been devalued. Col. Russell is a modest, salt-of-the-earth family man with a lifelong commitment to American service and without a touch of vainglory. He retired from 21 years of active service in 2006 so that his five children would not grow up with their father fighting on foreign soil. Yet, he did not take a cushy job with a defense contractor. He went on to help America win the war in Iraq by pushing the then-ridiculed counterinsurgency strategy here on the home front.

Lt. Col. Steve Russell saw combat in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq, where from 2003 to 2004, he commanded a task force of around 1000 troops: the 1st Battalion, 22nd Infantry. This task force was charged with the occupation of Tikrit in the first year of the war. Tikrit, of course, was Saddam’s home turf, and the 22nd became very engaged in the hunt and capture of Saddam.

Losing the opportunity to celebrate Lt. Col. Russell’s role in this American triumph would be our loss, not his. But luckily, he sat down and shared his reflections from this gripping tale. It is a narrative that is inspiring to those who are proud to be Americans, and it is as important to hear it today as it was a few years ago.

This is the history that Col. Steve Russell presents:

When I first took charge of the task force in June 2003, on my second day in command, two brothers presented themselves to us at our base. They were businessmen, from Ouja, Saddam’s birth village, just to the south of Tikrit and in the greater Tikrit area.

The brothers came and said that they had to see me; they had some information. At the time I thought, “Okay, here we go again.” We would get claims of “important information” all the time. People would bring us little vials of red looking stuff saying it was nuclear material, or bring in mercury, saying that they knew where all the hidden weapons were…all of these grandiose schemes. But when the sergeant told me about these brothers, businessmen, I just had this gut hunch, and told him to show them in.

The brothers began setting forth a story about the apparatus and network of Saddam’s security services before he was overthrown from power. They described his network of 25 bodyguards and another group called, “The 40,” the members of which were very close to Saddam personally and many of whom were related by blood or very old family ties. The 40 also served as bodyguards and provided personal services — cook, driver, and so forth. Beyond these inner circles, the brothers described something called “route clearers.” These consisted of several groups with 800 people each. Saddam, when traveling, would go on any number of routes, choosing which one to travel on a whim. The “route clearers” would proceed ahead on all of the routes he might choose. They weren’t openly armed, but would cover all the chokepoints of all the roads he might choose to take.

The route clearers were not an overtly armed presence, but they and the body guard groups became the source of the incipient insurgency. A clandestine presence. I remember listening to the businessmen brothers’ story at the time and thinking this was either the most elaborate lie I had heard or there was something to it. We began to work with others on finding some of the family network, the bodyguards and “The 40.” According to what we were being told, there were 5 controlling families: the Majids, the Hassans, the Hereimoses, the Hadooshis, and, the family that we found was the most important, the Musslits. We didn’t know why the Musslits became the most important after Saddam’s fall, but they ascended. We were led to believe they were the most dangerous family of all with 10 brothers and dozens of cousins. We decided to trust our informants and to take our investigation down this direction.

By this time, the United States Army had already defeated the Iraqi Army, which had almost disintegrated. In April, the forces Col. Russell would command (he didn’t take command until June) were given orders to occupy Tikrit. By June, the beginnings of the insurgency had really begun to foment.

We — me and my soldiers and the others in the brigade —came up with the strategy to go after the Five Families with particular emphasis on the Muslits. We gave some analysis to my commanding officer Jim Hickey (commander of the first brigade of the 4th Infantry Division) and Maj. Gen Ray Odierno (4th Infantry Division). Our analysis led us to believe that there was an upper tier — the “Deck of Cards” guys — consisting of Saddam and his henchman, the ones who got all the publicity. Then there was the bottom tier, which I called “the trigger pullers,” who we fought in the bloody street battles.

So we asked ourselves, “Who’s in between?” As we looked at it and took the information from the brothers from Tikrit, we concluded that in between was the security apparatus. We called them “the Bodyguards.” We figured that they must be the ones acting as go-betweens between Saddam and his remainder network and the guys fighting on the streets. If we could find them, we could follow them back to find Saddam.

The Bodyguards typically were between 35- 55 years old, much older than the trigger pullers. They had extensive involvement in the Republican Guard and the Saddam Fedayeen (martyrs), the elite, fanatical, loyalist group led by Uday. These were field grade officers when Saddam was in power. Going after this middle group, decided Col. Russell, would disrupt the street fighters who would be cut off from the people who were giving the orders (as well as from their paychecks).

And the Bodyguards also might lead to the big guys they were protecting.

In early June, we began acting on some of these tips. We did not really know how it all fit together but knew the guys we were going after were bad. It was like picking up the edge of a carpet and rolling it up until you got to the end. During the same timeframe, a special operations Delta team known as Task Force 20 arrived. The things we were pursuing and their leads began to overlap. I had an excellent relationship working with their team leader (whose name remains classified), and working directly with his team (size classified).

They wondered where we were getting our information and what we were finding. We shared almost everything, including sources. We earned each other’s complete trust — not something routinely given in a highly sensitive operation like this one. They were working on a much broader geographical scale. We were working on Tikrit, Ouja: the home turf of Saddam and much of his cabinet.

Col. Russell and his colleagues quickly realized that an insurgency was taking place, something Washington took a long time to grasp, almost costing us the war.

As if right out of a great spy or police novel, Col. Russell and his colleagues would get some information and meticulously use it to pursue this line of Bodyguards. In every raid they would search for and find new clues, such as photograph albums. They would look at the pictures in the albums and ask who the person just captured was standing next to in the photo. Then they would raid the house of another former Iraqi Army officer, who looked as if he might be part of the Bodyguard network. The network on the Saddam side had existed before the war, but it had been shattered by America’s assault, and they were putting it back together as best they could. The 22nd Infantry and Delta were in relentless, methodical, pursuit.

The Delta team captured Abid Mahmoud, the “Ace of Diamonds,” in June. He was Saddam’s presidential secretary, and one of the “Four Aces” in the “deck of cards.” The other three Aces were Saddam and his two sons. Delta caught him in northern Tikrit, a raid in which Russell’s soldiers assisted. He was the biggest catch of the war up to that time.

As a result of that raid, we got some tips about a possible safe house for Saddam himself, We were tipped off that he might be in a spot below a bluff known as the Hadooshi Farm. It was a fish hatchery with an elaborate orchard. We decided to act very quickly in hopes we would just go out there and get him. We conducted the raid, which began in the evening and extended into morning, but we didn’t find Saddam. I often wonder if he had been there hiding.

Although we didn’t get him then, there was extensive evidence that he had been there. We found several large (maybe two foot by two foot) fireproof bank boxes. One had the Saddam family photo albums — birthday pictures, days at the beach — and Mrs. Hussein’s personal papers, including her ID card and passport. The other boxes? One was a gold colored rectangular box with over 500 pieces of jewelry, valued at more than $2 million. The jewels were astounding, elaborate gold and enormous gems.

The other boxes had $8,500,000 in crisp American currency — still wrapped in Chase Manhattan wrappers, plus another $750,000 in foreign currency. These discoveries brought a lot of attention, national and international, and soon the press descended. While the street fights intensified, each raid led to others in our pursuit. We worked even closer with the Delta Team from that point on in a symbiotic relationship.

The Army focused primarily on the Musslit family. In July, Russell’s men caught Adnan Abdullah Abid al-Musslit, Saddam’s number one personal bodyguard that served him over 20 years. One by one, Russell’s men and the Delta team determinedly netted others, taking about 60 percent of the key family players into custody by December. Rudman, a Musslit brother thought to have replaced Abid Mahmood as Saddam’s daily chief, was himself caught in a raid but he died, apparently from coronary. This was incredibly frustrating to Col. Russell and the others, since Rudman likely knew Saddam’s location.

What we discovered as we learned more, however, was that Mohammed al-Musslit, Rudman’s brother, was probably the single most important figure in Saddam’s entourage. In Saddam’s last public appearance in 2003, in the big public square, if you examine the footage closely there is a guy who gets on the back of the car with a pistol in his hand, guarding Saddam. That’s Mohammed al-Musslit. If we ever caught him, we felt he would know Saddam’s location.

Well, Mohammed al-Musslit was caught in Baghdad in a raid directed at another individual. During the interrogations, someone identified al-Musslit. Within 24 hours he was sent to Tikrit. The Delta team asked him questions and he started talking about a location. His morale was low. We’d been pursuing him for months. He had seen his brothers and colleagues caught or killed. He had been on the run and was unkempt and exhausted.

A few days prior to the al-Musslit capture, a teenage boy walked up to a checkpoint and said he knew where some important people were hiding.

He said “are hiding” not “were hiding.”

Col. Hickey then ordered Russell’s men to raid a desert farm that was, as it turned out, the same farm where Saddam hid during his 1959 escape after leading a coup attempt. As Iraqi forces closed in on that farm, he swam the Tigris and escaped on a horse.

We learned sometime later that this very likely was the very same farm where Saddam was hidden in 1959. A couple of days later, Col. Hickey called us early in the morning of December13 and said: “They got the fat man last night.” This was the code name we used for Mohamed al-Musslit. I was stunned. The Colonel said, “I want you to have all your forces available.” This could be it, I thought.

Saddam, according to the information provided, was on a farm near the village of Adwar on the bank of the Tigris River. From the farm’s riverbank one could see the Hadooshi farm and Saddam’s mansion in Ouja. Colonel Hickey put up a giant cordon on both banks of the Tigris. The commanding officers decided to raid two farms with two small teams, even though the thinking was that the northern location was more likely. The southern farm was a few hundred yards of orchard to the south, both on the edge of some big wheat fields.

Col. Hickey would cordon off the entire area and the two farms would be hit by small detachments, simultaneously. The first would be taken by G Troop 10th Cavalry, Col. Hickey’s brigade recon troop, of which 30 to 40 of the 65 members would conduct the raid. Delta elements, recomposed and now called Task Force 121, would take the Southern farm. At about 8 PM, the cordon would form a big noose and the two teams would go in. My own troops were on the West Bank as part of the cordon with the 299th Engineers. At 8 PM, all forces were set, and the detachments seized both farms. Two men tried to run to the Northern farm, but were snagged by Capt. Des Bailey‘s G Troop. We didn’t realize it at the time, but it was Saddam’s cook and brother. Inner circle bodyguards. For the next half hour the search was on.

The two detachments met after 20 minutes, without having found Saddam. It looked to them like another dry hole. But Captain Bailey said to the Task Force 121 commander, “let’s check it one more time.” Al-Musslit had been brought along for the raid. The Delta soldiers took him to the southern farm where the two men tried to flee from and had been brought back. Al-Musslit did not want to be seen or heard and neither did the cook and driver as they gestured to one another.

Mohammed al-Muslit motioned with his leg towards a floor mat—a white cotton rug—on a patio area. Four or five Delta soldiers pulled back the mat and saw some ropes and handles surrounded by loose earth. They pulled the handles, found a big Styrofoam square in a brickwork area and pulled open the lid with a flashbang grenade (meant to stun, not kill) ready to go.

When they looked in they saw two hands at the bottom — the bottom was a small space — like a grave — and when they saw the hands they decided to reach down and grab whoever it was. Out he came, and began rambling, “I am Saddam Hussein, the duly elected president of Iraq, and I am willing to negotiate.”

Samir, the translator (an American citizen) translated and one of the Delta guys said, “Well, President Bush sends his regards.”

They began to check him for physical marks. Saddam had a 3 dot tattoo at the crook between the left forefinger and thumb, and a sunburst tattoo on back of his right hand. Sure enough, it was him. He got arrogant and tried to shove the soldiers away as they checked him. They straightened him out — which is how he got the busted mouth and eyebrow. He became benign, they put a bag over his head and immediately got him out of there.

The first indication that made Col. Russell believe that the operation had succeeded in capturing Saddam was when he heard the Delta team commander radio to Col. Hickey “we may have something.”

Col Hickey then called me on a digital commander’s satellite phone — point to point, no chance of being intercepted — and said “Cesar Romero,” a code name we used. Earlier in the summer, there were pictures of what Saddam might look like in disguise, and one of the get-ups looked amazingly like Cesar Romero. The name stuck. Before I could say anything, he said, “not a word.” Tell none of your soldiers what has just happened. The President has to be notified.” I said, “Roger sir. I understand.”

Col. Russell, along with a handful of Col. Hickey’s other commanders and staff, were among maybe 50 people to know what actually happened that night. Everyone kept it quiet until the President was notified. The rest is history.

But history did not end with the capture of Saddam Hussein. The war effort itself — the victory for democracy and American security for which Col. Russell and his colleagues had risked their lives— was imperiled. He declined a promotion to full Colonel, turned down a Queen’s University fellowship in Kingston, Canada for the war college, and retired from his Army career—leaving the battlefields on which he had fought for 20 years to devote himself to winning the war in another capacity.

Understanding the insurgency first hand, and not content simply to write the memoirs and engage in public speaking, where he is much in demand, Steve Russell determined to help raise American awareness of how it was possible to win an honorable victory in Iraq at a time when the nation at large wanted to quit. He formed a group called Vets For Victory (www.Vets4Victory.com) and began to tour America actively to bring forward his own witness of the situation in Iraq and how the soldiers could turn around a badly deteriorating situation and restore the possibility of victory for American and coalition forces if the nation backed them up.

At the nadir of the war, very few stepped forward to push for the counterinsurgency strategy. Arguing for victory in Iraq was vastly unpopular, widely considered close to political suicide. It took discernment and courage to take that stand. John McCain, operating within the corridors of power, was one who did. Steve Russell, operating at the grass roots, was another. As combat veterans, both understood, in a way that ordinary elected officials and civilians who have never seen combat never could, how wars are won. President Bush adopted the counterinsurgency strategy implemented by Generals Petraeus and Odierno, while groups such as Russell’s strongly advocated support at home. The tide of battle turned in favor of victory and a free and democratic Iraq, which will someday allow America to withdraw with honor intact and victory abroad.

And yet, notwithstanding his distinguished career and outstanding achievements, this story, perhaps, is mere overture. Last year, Steve Russell conducted a dark-horse campaign for the Oklahoma Senate— and, beating out four politically experienced primary candidates—won and then proceeded to win the general election. Russell understands fighting—and winning—on the political battlefield, as well as on the streets of Tikrit.

He is a conservative, a devout Christian, a devoted husband and father, a true patriot, a champion of veterans and their families, and a true man of the people. He does not, like most Senators, come from the privileged class and affluent background. He is in solidarity with working people and is viewed warily by some of the Oklahoma political establishment as a maverick Republican who does not reflexively do the bidding of Big Business or feel the need to defer automatically to the political apparatus.

Whatever the Establishment thinks of him, many in Oklahoma, and across America, view Steve Russell as one of the brightest rising stars in the Republican Party. His service to our nation has been—and continues to be—a blessing.

 
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