The men who shot Uday Hussein
First inside account of a 1996 ambush that signaled active Iraqi resistance.
As Salman Sharif gave the order to open fire, he was certain he was going to die himself. You did not try to assassinate Uday Hussein, the former Iraqi president's elder son and heir-apparent, at point blank range and expect to get away with it.Skip to next paragraph
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"We knew we had a 1 percent chance of returning alive," Mr. Sharif says today, sitting crosslegged on a carpet-strewn floor as, for the first time, he recounts to a foreign newspaper the daring attack he led. "Strict security made this kind of operation almost impossible."
But after months of careful planning, the four man hit squad drawn from a shadowy resistance group was determined to go ahead. As Uday Hussein drove his golden Porsche slowly up a busy street in one of Baghdad's smartest districts, just after dark on Dec. 12 1996, two gunmen responded to Sharif's command with a hail of bullets from their AK-47 rifles.
"We were sure we had killed him," Sharif recalls. "We fired 50 rounds into that car."
In fact, he discovered later, Uday had been hit 17 times but survived. He was crippled for the rest of his life, and - according to popular belief - rendered impotent (a special kind of justice, Sharif said, because of the elder Hussein son's reputation for brutal womanizing), but he lived.
Still, the unprecedented assassination attempt on a member of the ruling Baath Party's inner circle sent an important message. "We showed that the Islamic resistance could reach any target at any time," Sharif says. "And we refuted before the whole world the regime's claim that there was no resistance inside Iraq."
Mr. Sharif, who was 27 at the time he mounted the operation that sent shockwaves through the Iraqi leadership, looks an unlikely freedom fighter. Studious and methodical, peering intently through a large pair of spectacles, he resembled a provincial primary school teacher more than a guerrilla hit-man. But Sharif's tale offers a rare window into how the Iraqi resistance movement operated during Hussein's reign.
as a religious Shiite Muslim he hated the government which repressed his coreligionists so fiercely and assented readily when a student friend in his scruffy home town of Shatra, in Southern Iraq, recruited him into an armed resistance group.
For two years he kept up his studies at a technical college and spent his spare time organizing clandestine cells. Then, when a Shiite revolt broke out in the wake of the 1991 Gulf War, he and his comrades joined the fighting, seizing their hometown and holding off Iraqi troops for three weeks.
Eventually they were overwhelmed and Sharif was arrested in a mass sweep of detentions. But he was released after 18 days for lack of evidence, he says, and fled to the safety of the marshes near Basra, where some of his fellow resistance fighters had formed the "15 Shaaban" movement, named for the day in the Muslim calendar that the Shiite uprising had begun.
Constantly harassed by Iraqi Army assaults, moving by canoe through the thick reeds from one hut to another, Sharif lived in what he calls "sub-human conditions" for the next five years, running one of his movement's secret base camps built of dry reeds.
"It was very tough in the marshes," he remembers. "Most opposition groups fled abroad, but we wanted to feel what the people felt, to be close to their suffering."
Then, in 1996, the 15 Shaaban movement upped the ante. Instead of trying to kill only regional Baath party leaders and local officials in occasional sorties from their hidden camps, the group decided to aim at the heart of the regime, targeting its highest leaders.
The idea, explains Hussein Hamza, leader of the former resistance movement that has transformed itself into an Islamic political party, was "to weaken the regime, to undermine its foundations and to create a state of chaos. And we wanted to encourage people to rise up against the government."