'Saddam' tape hails martyrdom of sons as top aides are arrested in US raids

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An audiotape of a voice resembling Saddam Hussein's was broadcast yesterday by the Dubai-based al-Arabiya satellite station.

The voice said Saddam's sons who died in a firefight with US soldiers last week were martyrs. "Even if Saddam Hussein had 100 children other than Uday and Qusay, Saddam Hussein would offer their lives in the same way," the voice said. "Thank God for what he destined for us, and honoured us with their martyrdom for his sake."

The broadcast came on the same day that US forces captured three of Saddam's close associates,raising hopes that the former dictator may be found, perhaps within days.

The prime catch was Adnan Abdullah Abid al-Musslit, one of Saddam's most trusted bodyguards. Mr Musslit had retired, but was called back into service.

The raids began at 4am when soldiers fired three shotgun blasts into the doorlocks of the house where the bodyguard was living with his family in an upmarket district of Tikrit, Saddam's stronghold.

Moments later, according to an Associated Press reporter on the scene, Mr Musslit was hauled from the house bleeding and barefoot. He was stripped to his underwear, searched, and dragged into an army Humvee. The soldiers found documents and other data which, they said, could pin down Saddam's whereabouts. "Every guy we get tightens the noose," said Lieutenant Colonel Steve Russell of the 4th Infantry Division, who led the raid. "Every photo and every document connects the dots."

Mr Musslit was one of three men detained who could lead the Americans to their most wanted fugitive, and whose capture or killing might, they hope, bring an end to the guerrilla resistance which has killed 50 US soldiers since 1 May, when President George Bush declared the war over.

Close to where Mr Musslit was seized, another US unit stormed a house where Daher Ziana, Saddam's former head of security in Tikrit, was hiding. Mr Ziana and three other men were taken away with their hands tied, and wearing blindfolds that soldiers had cut from white sheets.

A few streets away, a raid netted Rafa Idham Ibrahim al-Hassan, a brigadier general suspected of being a leader of Saddam's Fedayeen militia, believed responsible for many of the attacks on US troops.

American forces were "just hours behind Saddam", Richard Armitage, the deputy secretary of state, declared on Monday. Not every lead obtained is sound, however. On Sunday, Task Force 20, the commando team set up to hunt the top fugitives, attacked a house in Baghdad. No one was captured, and at least five Iraqis were killed in their cars.