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Few Clues to Saddam's Fate at Suspected Safe House
Saddam Hussein was hiding from relentless American air raids in a villa in Baghdad's upscale Mansur district when he received a phone call, residents say, and realized he had to flee for his life.
Soon after the house was turned to rubble by U.S. bombs.
Locals in Mansur, where wealthy Iraqis enjoy the quiet life in large villas with tea gardens, say Saddam and his sons Uday and Qusay used a mansion in the area as a safe house during the final days of the war, thinking it would be the last place the Americans would look as they hunted for him.
But on April 7, two days before U.S. soldiers took control of the city center, Saddam's hiding place was discovered. U.S. planes dropped four 2,000-pound bombs on houses in Mansur after intelligence suggested Saddam was there.
"He was there with his sons and then he received a phone call. Saddam realized the Americans would track him from the call so he escaped just in time," said Hassan Mehdi. "The house had five phone lines. It must have been Saddam's."
Saddam was sighted in northern Baghdad two days later. Locals in Mansur say they also saw Qusay alive after the bombing. But with Iraqis obsessed about the fate of Saddam, many are searching for clues in the bombed complex in Mansur.
Some Iraqis say Saddam and his sons were seen entering the houses during the war. Others insist that they belonged to a widow and her children who were killed in the attack.
The only thing that everyone agrees on is the existence of safe houses in Mansur, in west Baghdad. Rows of sand-colored villas near foreign embassies make ideal hiding places.
The procedure is simple.
"All you have to do is send somebody to rent the house in your name. Then they give you the key and nobody knows you are staying in the house," said a landlord involved in the business.
HUNT ON FOR SADDAM
The United States says it does not know if Saddam is alive or dead. British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon said on Wednesday he believed Saddam was probably still hiding in Iraq.
"In the end we don't know, but it is still our best judgment that he is (in Iraq)," Hoon told reporters on a visit to southern Iraq. "As each day goes by, as we continue to search those places he may be hiding, we have to keep an open mind, but it is still my best judgment."
Iraqis often tell tales about Saddam's survival skills. During the 1991 Gulf War he stayed in a farmer's house in the Ghazaliya district of Baghdad, Iraqis said. He later turned the house into a huge mosque named The Mother of all Battles Mosque.
Some believe Saddam could still make a sudden return.
"We are dizzy. We heard about Saddam morning, day and night before," said Muhammad, an Iraqi man.
"It's his birthday on April 28. Maybe he will appear. Maybe he will use chemical weapons."
Iraqis say they cannot bury the past while Saddam's fate remains a mystery.
There are few clues in Mansur but plenty of rumors, and everyone has a theory about what happened.
Inside one of the bombed homes a table lay overturned, perhaps a sign, Iraqis say, that Saddam and his sons were holding a strategy meeting minutes before the bombs landed.
Pieces of stale bread were littered across the floor next to a cigarette carton. The lack of furniture suggested nobody was living permanently in the home.
Some people said the house belonged to a Shi'ite Muslim woman. Many say Saddam and his sons were seen fleeing the area. But neighbors say they did not see Saddam at the house.
Outside the Abu Hanifah mosque in northern Baghdad, people say they saw Saddam pass by in a car one day before U.S. troops took control of the city center. He was wearing an olive-green uniform and a beret.
"His bodyguards were dressed in civilian clothes and were carrying rocket-propelled grenades. Then next day he appeared again and drove toward the bridge," said one local, Abdullah.
"But Saddam noticed there was fighting on the other side, and he turned back."