Thu, Jul 31, 2003 - Page 1 News List

Hunt for Saddam goes on as exiled Iraqis return home


US forces kept up the hunt for former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein yesterday as an Iraqi crowd gloated over an apparent roadside bomb attack that gutted a US truck.

"Destroy America! Destroy it!" yelled one man, as the crowd swung stones to smash the headlights of the military truck, smouldering on the western edge of Baghdad. Locals said the vehicle had hit a tripwire that set off explosives.

There was no word on casualties and the US military had no immediate comment.

Most Iraqis say they are glad Saddam has been removed, but many angrily demand the departure of US-led occupying forces.

Undeterred by postwar insecurity and economic paralysis, a first group of more than 200 Iraqis set foot in their homeland yesterday after 13 years of exile in Saudi Arabia.

"I feel like my soul has returned to my body," said Ali Salman, his eyes swimming with tears at the Umm Qasr border crossing in southern Iraq. "I can't believe I am actually home and that I will see my family again. I just can't believe it."

Like most of the 240 men, women and children who were repatriated by the UN refugee agency, Salman is a Shiite Muslim who fled to Saudi Arabia after a failed 1991 uprising.

Other returnees were former Iraqi soldiers who defected during the 1991 Gulf War.

They were among 5,200 refugees who had lived in physical comfort but psychological distress at the frontier Rafha camp in Saudi Arabia. Their hopes of returning home remained a remote dream until US-led forces ousted Saddam in April.

American troops searched for the former dictator in villages near his hometown of Tikrit after a new message purportedly from Saddam vowed vengeance for the killing of his feared sons.

An audiotape aired by Dubai-based Al Arabiya television said Uday and Qusay Hussein died as martyrs in a jihad, or holy war, that would defeat the occupiers in Iraq.

"If Saddam Hussein had 100 sons, he would have offered them on the same path which is the path of jihad," the message said.

Four other audio tapes said to have been recorded by Saddam have been broadcast in the last few weeks. US officials say the CIA has concluded that at least one of them was genuine.

In Falluja, a restive town in the heart of the "Sunni triangle" from where Saddam drew much of his support, many said the tape showed the deposed leader had not given up the fight.

"Saddam's sons were courageous," said one man, Hussein Muhsin. "His voice was unaffected by his sadness over their death. His speech shows steadfastness, confidence and faith."

Uday and Qusay died last week when US troops stormed their hideout in the city of Mosul. The brothers, along with two others believed to be Uday's bodyguard and Qusay's teenage son Mustafa, fought a last stand with assault rifles but were killed in an onslaught of missile and machinegun fire.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair said yesterday the noose was probably closing on Saddam after his sons' deaths and the arrest of three Saddam loyalists, including a top bodyguard.

"The most important thing is that he ceases to be an obstacle to progress," Blair told a news conference when asked if he wanted Saddam to be detained or killed.

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