A super-secret U.S. intelligence operation, working in Baghdad for weeks before the war, provided the crucial targeting data for the attack on Saddam and his sons, launched in an effort to pre-empt a full-scale war, these sources said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The war had been scheduled to start Friday, March 21, U.S. officials told UPI. But -- after getting intelligence that a brief target opportunity presented itself to decapitate the Iraqi leadership -- President George W. Bush instead announced at 10:15 p.m. Wednesday, March 19 -- 6:15 a.m. March 20 Baghdad time -- that hostilities had begun.
Delta and Special Forces units in the country had help from three Iraqi agents recruited by the CIA some time after June 2000, when the first CIA paramilitary teams secretly entered Baghdad to do reconnaissance and recruitment.
Sources told UPI that Iraqi counterintelligence killed the three, shooting two and cutting out the tongue of a third, who bled to death. They said U.S. intelligence had learned this from their forces on the ground in Iraq.
The March 20 operation involved more than 300 Special Forces, who moved into the country to join Delta troops and CIA paramilitaries, these sources said.
One former long-time CIA operative said it was the Delta men, already in country, who made the breakthrough for the U.S. attack by infiltrating a key Baghdad telecommunications center and tapping a fiber optic telephone line.
It was this that enabled the U.S. clandestine team to locate Saddam and top leaders at Dora Farm, an Iraqi command and control complex and a legitimate war target, U.S. officials said.
Iraqi assets, recruited by the agency, played a key part in the operation by providing "priceless" information, relating to the phone system and details of Dora Farm, according to one former senior CIA official.
After CIA Director George Tenet conveyed the information to the White House, the administration quickly launched strikes by F-117A warplanes and ship-launched cruise missiles. The attack was thought to have wounded Saddam and is also believed to have killed his son Qusay, 37, who was being groomed as Saddam's successor, according to half a dozen former and serving U.S. officials. The strike hit at 5:36 a.m. Baghdad time March 20, after Bush's ultimatum to Saddam to leave Iraq or face war had expired.
A senior administration official told UPI that Saddam had suffered two burst eardrums in the attack, and "was bleeding from the nose and mouth." This source added that Saddam was so disoriented by concussion damage that he was in "a vegetative state" for hours after the strike.
Another administration official said that Saddam was "definitely alive" after the strike and appeared on Friday, March 21, wearing glasses because of concussive damage to the capillaries of his retinas.
Aerial photos showed that the three-building compound had suffered severe damage from 2,000-pound bunker buster bombs and some 40 cruise missiles, U.S. officials said.
Details of the timing and recruitment of the Iraqi CIA assets remain vague because "we want to protect our tradecraft," one U.S. intelligence official said.
"The agency has been working for months to hook up with Iraqi dissidents in country," an administration official said.
CIA paramilitary teams, working with Delta Forces, still are inside Iraq, attempting to kill 30 top Iraqi leaders, including Saddam's other son, Uday, who commands the Iraqi Fedayeen, several U.S. sources said. One administration official confirmed that U.S. intelligence has the names, addresses and cell phone numbers of the 30 targets.
At least a half a dozen U.S. officials interviewed by UPI said that they believe that Saddam is wounded but still alive. "The strategy is to goad him to appear so that we can kill him," one former senior agency covert operative said.
Saddam appears aware of this. On Tuesday, he did not appear for a scheduled TV address. Instead, a senior Iraqi official read a statement in his name.
But self-composed and defiant Saddam Hussein apparently made his first public appearance Friday since U.S. forces bombed his bunker March 20. Iraqi TV showed pictures of him walking the streets of a Baghdad neighborhood where a throng of jubilant and enthusiastic residents greeted him.
The appearance was the culmination of several efforts Friday by the Iraqi president to rally his people against coalition troops poised just outside the Iraqi capital. The date of his actual visit was not definitive, but some nearby buildings showed possible bomb damage. U.S. analysts noted the apparent lack of smoke that has hovered over most parts of Baghdad for days.
The television pictures showed a smiling Saddam in military uniform and black beret surrounded by people in what was said to be the al-Mansour area and a target of coalition bombardment.
"With soul, with blood, we redeem you Saddam," shouted dozens of bystanders. Women ululated while some of the men pushed through to kiss their leader's hand or cheeks. "May God protect you," shouted one man as more joined the crowd.
Saddam, his military men and armed bodyguards in a cluster around him, was then seen checking military reinforcements in the city and chatting with residents. Afterwards he stood to overlook the crowd and raised his fist to salute them.
The television then showed pictures from a driving car allegedly with Saddam aboard of many streets in Baghdad. Smoke clouds were seen in these pictures.
It was one of the very rare public appearances of Saddam. Mideast commentators called it an act of courage and a strong message to Iraqis and coalition alike that he was still alive, in control of the country and ready for confrontation.