The men who shot Uday Hussein

First inside account of a 1996 ambush that signaled active Iraqi resistance.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

"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.

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"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."

Sharif was tapped for a key role. Mr. Hamza asked him to take control of the group's Baghdad cells, and he moved to the capital in mid-1996 to take over operations there.

It was not long, Sharif says, before he heard of Uday's regular Thursday night trawls for pretty girls in Mansour, an upscale part of town where he was notorious for forcing young women to accompany him back to one of his palaces.

The news intrigued him. "It seemed like a golden opportunity," he says, so for the next two months Sharif strolled the crowded streets of Mansour each Thursday evening, the night before the Muslim weekend, to see what he could see.

Sure enough, every Thursday round about seven, Uday would curb crawl along Mansour's main drag, sometimes with bodyguards in a motorcade, sometimes not.

Keeping his eyes open and making friends with some of the neighborhood shopkeepers, Sharif figured out which of the street peddlers were regime informers, which traffic policemen were really secret-police officers, which buildings housed government offices, and which of the regular passers-by wandering up and down the sidewalk were actually security men.

"I didn't tell anyone about my plan until I was 100 percent sure it was possible," he says. "I had to be absolutely right about all the details so as to be credible in the eyes of my leaders."

Eventually he was sure enough to travel south, slip into the marshes, and present his findings to the movement's leadership. They were convinced. He had the go-ahead.

The next steps, he says, were to select the three men who would make up the hit-squad under his leadership ("they had to be especially competent"), rent a safe-house in Baghdad, buy a getaway car, and smuggle guns and grenades up from the marshes into the capital for the assassination attempt.

Persuading his recruits to take part in the operation was not hard, according to Sharif, despite the fact that they knew it was suicidal.

"Everybody in Iraq hated Uday," he says. "The team members were very happy: they said they felt lucky to have been chosen for such an operation."

One, known by his code name Abu Zahrar, would drive the getaway car.

Sharif, who went by the name Abu Ahmed, would cover the gunmen. Abu Sadeq and Abu Sajad would do the actual shooting.

A member of another cell rented an apartment in one of Baghdad's Shiite neighborhoods, another bought a car, and men from the marshes came up with the weapons. "We know our country well," says Mr. Hamza. "We knew which dirt roads led around the checkpoints on the highway."

On the appointed day, seven o'clock found the hit-men eating ice cream on the sidewalk outside one of Mansour's best known ice-cream parlors, keeping their eyes skinned for their target. Half an hour passed. Another half hour.

No Uday. After waiting a little longer, the adrenaline draining from their veins, the would-be assassins went home.

The following Thursday, the same thing happened. And the next Thursday. And the next. Sharif began to suspect that his plan had been uncovered, but nobody came to arrest them. Perhaps, he concluded, Uday was busy in his capacity as Iraq's sports czar with an international soccer competition in which the Iraqi team was competing.

After five weeks of waiting impatiently at his marshy headquarters for news, Hamza sent an envoy to Baghdad with a coded message calling off the operation. Such a long delay carried with it the risk of exposure. Sharif begged for one more chance. His request was granted.

And so were his wishes. Just after 7 p.m. on the following Thursday, Sharif spotted "a very unusual car" that could only belong to the flamboyant Uday, cruising towards him under the streetlamps. He had no apparent escort vehicles.

"He had so many security people on the streets, I think he felt safe," Sharif suggests.

Abu Sadeq leaned into the team's car and pulled out the sports bag in which he had concealed two AK-47s, two spare magazines, and six grenades. Abu Zahrar jumped into the car and drove it a few yards into the shadows. Sharif, armed with a hidden pistol, accompanied the two shooters to the spot he had chosen.

As Uday drove by slowly they were shocked to realize he was alone: his bodyguard must have got out to search for women up the street. Abu Sadeq and Abu Sajad pulled their weapons from the bag and opened up from just a few yards away.

The windshield and passenger window shattered. Uday slumped to his right.

The gunmen emptied their magazines, dropped their weapons, and ran for their getaway car. Sharif followed. The three men leaped in, roared off, and disappeared. The whole incident had taken less than a minute. Nobody had shot back at them. Nobody followed them.

Elated, they reached their safe house, where they slept the night. The next morning they took the bus to Nasariyah, and a connecting bus to Suq-ash-Shuyukh, on the edge of the marshes. By nightfall they were back in the safety of their base. Sharif did not leave the marshes until the US-led invasion last March.

"We never imagined it would be so easy," Sharif says with a smile. "We thought we had been sent to our deaths."

In the marshes over the next few days, Hamza, the leader of 15 Shaaban, listened to Voice of America radio and other international stations and chuckled as Iraq pundits speculated about an attempted coup. "Lots of other parties claimed the attack, but we didn't," he recalls. "We wanted the regime to think it came from its own ranks."

Eventually, however, Saddam found out the truth. A member of 15 Shaaban who knew about the plot was arrested in Jordan in connection with another affair and handed over to the Iraqi secret police, Hamza says. Under torture, he broke. By August 1998, 18 months after the assassination attempt, Saddam's security men had arrested Abu Sajad and published details of the other members of the team.

The government's revenge was vicious. Sharif's seven brothers and his father were rounded up: his mother was told later to collect their bodies from the Baghdad morgue. Abu Sadeq's father and three of his brothers were executed. Abu Sajad and his father suffered the same fate. Security men bulldozed all of the families' houses and confiscated all their property.

Last December, an Iraqi hit-squad tracked down Abu Sadeq, in exile in Iran, and killed him.

Hamza's wife was arrested: she gave birth to a son in jail, and it was six years before the two were released to house arrest. None of the families evicted from their houses have been given new homes, none have yet been offered any compensation by the new authorities, Sharif says bitterly.

Still, he insists, the operation was worth the price his comrades and their families paid. "When you weigh up the pros and cons, the advantages are bigger," he argues. "It is not easy for a man to sacrifice his family: nobody would do it unless it was for a noble cause. But I think my family was ready for that sacrifice. I inherited my sense of sacrifice from them. It was the way I was brought up."

Hamza agrees. "The sacrifices we made and the blood our members spilled made people demand the end of the regime," he says. "Maybe it will be because of those sacrifices that in future people will demand that our Governing Council stays on the right path. It's because we made sacrifices that we can demand elections." Hamza adds that he is bitter about what he says is an over-representation of former exiles on the Governing Council.

Sharif says he was satisfied when he heard the news that US troops had killed Uday, along with his younger brother Qusay, in a July 22 shootout in Mosul.

"Anyone would prefer to finish a job if it is the right job to do," he reflects. "I wish it had been me who had done it. But no matter who killed him, such a vicious man did not deserve to live."

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