Firing three rounds to break the door lock, US infantrymen burst into a darkened Tikrit house and after a brief scuffle seized one of Saddam Hussein's top personal bodyguards in a pre-dawn raid Tuesday. US commanders say the operation takes them one step closer to catching the fugitive Iraqi leader.
In all, the stealthy raid into Mr. Hussein's inner circle swept up at least six Iraqi men - three of Hussein's close associates and three other suspects - as they slept in a section of Tikrit nicknamed "RPG Alley" by US soldiers after a recent spate of rocket-propelled grenade attacks. Blindfolded and restrained by plastic wrist cuffs, the captives sat cross-legged as soldiers rifled through confiscated documents and photo albums.
As Apache attack helicopters departed and calls from mosques for morning prayer wafted through the eerily quiet neighborhood, soldiers of the 4th Infantry Division loaded the detainees into trucks and drove them to a nearby military compound for interrogation.
The successful strike demonstrates how intelligence work, coupled with aggressive military tactics, is whittling away at Hussein loyalists who are both attacking US troops and, possibly, offering refuge to the former Iraqi strongman in his home region of Tikrit, US commanders say.
"I believe this is a desperate, losing enemy and they're down to their last act in Tikrit," says Lt. Col. Steven Russell, commander of the division's 1st Battalion, 22nd Infantry Regiment, which executed the raid. "They are getting angry and careless and we are killing them," he said, adding that "the Iraqi people are coming out in droves to help us further destroy this regime."
Tips from local Iraqi citizens helped lead to Tuesday's capture of longtime personal bodyguard Adnan Abdullah Abid al-Musslit, one more link in a dragnet that US authorities are confident will eventually lead to Hussein himself.
An intense hunt for Hussein is under way in and around Tikrit, a Tigris River city 100 miles north of Baghdad that is home to many of the ousted leader's extended family members, bodyguards, and trusted associates, including high-ranking officials of the now-banned Baath Party.
"We're hopeful that [Musslit] will provide us with something that leads us to the leader because of his close association with Saddam," says Colonel Russell, reviewing the raid from his headquarters at one of Hussein's former palatial residences on a bluff overlooking the Tigris.
US commanders believe that capturing or killing Hussein is vital to quelling the guerrilla-style campaign against coalition forces as well as convincing Iraqis that the former dictator will not return to power.
Still, attacks against US troops have spiked, killing 11 soldiers in the week since Hussein's sons, Uday and Qusay, were killed in a barrage of missile and rocket fire in the northern city of Mosul.
Events culminating in Tuesday's raid, witnessed by this reporter, highlight what US commanders say are strong links between some of Hussein's most ardent loyalists and the well-armed militias that are carrying out lethal attacks on American soldiers in Tikrit and across central Iraq.
Over the past 10 days in Tikrit, four-man cells of paramilitary fighters known as Saddam Fedayeen have launched a string of attacks on US soldiers using RPGs, explosive devices, and small arms.
Wearing black clothing - including black veils - and operating at night, some of the men's hands bear the three-dot tattoo of the Fedayeen.
US commanders were especially struck by the fact that many of the Fedayeen fighters they are apprehending or killing have close family ties to Hussein associates or bodyguards.
On July 23, for example, a team of Fedayeen in black garb riding in a white pickup truck loaded with munitions fired RPGs at US soldiers in Bradley Fighting Vehicles in Tikrit. US troops returned fire, killing all four assailants. Local Iraqis helped identify one of the dead as the nephew of Mr. Musslit, and those details helped lead, in turn, to Musslit's capture in Tikrit early Tuesday.
"Those closely associated with Saddam appear to be very desperate - they are sacrificing their own 20-year-olds," Russell said in the aftermath of the raid.
Tuesday's raid began at about 4 a.m., as a platoon of 1-22 scouts in Humvees with their lights blacked out converged on three target houses in downtown Tikrit. Squads of infantrymen in trucks and Bradleys then quickly dismounted, and crouched alongside the outer walls.
At the first house, soldiers shot open the metal grill at the front door, rushed inside, and found Musslit, smelling strongly of liquor, on an upper floor. He struggled, but troops subdued him and dragged him down the stairs. Stripped to his underclothes and with blood seeping onto his blindfold, he was loaded into the back of a truck.
Later, US soldiers identified Musslit in old photographs standing next to Hussein with a group of bodyguards, as well as attending Uday's 20th birthday party in an ornate room with a huge layer cake and embroidered tablecloth.
Moreover, military intelligence from Iraqi sources stated that Musslit had been recalled to active duty as a bodyguard as the US-led invasion of Iraq approached Baghdad.
At a second house, around the corner from the first, a five-ton US Army truck rammed through the courtyard gate and soldiers filed in, moving room to room to detain at least four more Iraqi men who offered no resistance, says Spc. Chris Rosales, one of the nearly 100 soldiers in three infantry platoons who conducted the raid.
One of those detained men, wearing a long gray tunic, was said to be Brig. Gen. Daher Ziana, the security chief for Tikrit and Hussein's sprawling palaces here. Photographs showed General Ziana in meetings with Hussein, and among the unusual documents found at the house was a "Saddam's privilege card" that apparently conferred special benefits on the holder.
At a third house on the same block, soldiers captured Rafa Idham Ibrahim Al Hassan, a Fedayeen leader believed responsible for a car bombing last month in Tikrit.
Mr. Hassan may also be related to Hussein's half-brother, who is No. 37 on the wanted list, military officials said.
In recent days, Iraqis in Tikrit and nearby cities in the heart of central Iraq's "Sunni Triangle," where armed attacks against US forces have been concentrated, have pointed out scores of hidden weapons caches, including 44 antitank mines.
One junior-ranking Hussein family bodyguard also turned himself in, according to Col. James Hickey, commander of the 4th Infantry Division's 1st Brigade. "Local officials are going out of their way to offer things to us," he said.
"We've unraveled a big ball of yarn in Tikrit and I think we're at the end of it," Colonel Hickey said.