| A US soldier carries a portrait of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad. (AFP)
Baghdad, April 23 (Reuters): 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 realised he had to flee for his life.
Soon after, the house was turned to rubble by US 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 US soldiers took control of the city centre, Saddam’s hiding place was discovered. US planes dropped four 900 kg 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 realised 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-coloured 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. The US says it does not know if Saddam is alive or dead.
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 Baghad, 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 rumours, 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.