American forces secured a major breakthrough yesterday when they killed Saddam Hussein's two fugitive sons during a fierce, four-hour gun battle in the north of the country.
Their deaths raised hopes in Washington that the capture of Saddam himself could follow.
The bodies of Uday, 39, and Qusay Hussein, 37, were recovered from a charred and smoking building in the city of Mosul after US forces launched an early-morning raid, acting on a tip-off received the night before. Two other bodies believed to be that of Qusay's 14-year-old son and Uday's bodyguard were also recovered from the palatial villa.
"We are certain that Uday and Qusay were killed today," Lt General Ricardo Sanchez, commander of the US forces in Iraq, said at a news conference in Baghdad. "They died in a fierce gun battle. They resisted the detention and the efforts of the coalition forces to go in there and apprehend them, and they were killed in the ensuing gunfight and the attacks that we conducted on the residence."
Gunfire erupted across Baghdad last night, apparently in celebration as the news of the brothers' deaths quickly spread. President George Bush was briefed about the secret operation by the Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
Local people told reporters that Uday and Qusay were rumoured to have been staying at the house, a villa owned by Mohamed el-Zidani, a tribal ally of the Hussein clan. There was no suggestion that Saddam himself was present.
The American troops used helicopter gunships, rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and machine guns before storming the building. Major Trey Cate, of the 101st Airborne Division, said five Iraqis had been killed, including four "high-value individuals", and five injured. Four US soldiers were injured. The death of the brothers is the biggest boost to American and Britain forces since the overthrow of the Saddam regime three months ago. Since then troops have been experiencing increasingly bitter guerrilla resistance to the occupation with American losses mounting by the day to more than total for the 1991 Gulf War.
General Sanchez said that he would reveal detailed evidence recovered from the scene today in an effort to convince the Iraqi population that the two feared sons of Saddam were dead. He said that the identification was not from DNA, but from "multiple sources".
The assault on the columned villa of concrete, with a large garden, followed information from an Iraqi informer, according to the US military.
Washington had offered a bounty of $15m (£9.3m) each for the two brothers and $25m for Saddam. The source should be eligible for the cash. One report last night suggested that she may have been a female relative of the villa's owner.
Uday Hussein was the most high profile and notorious member of the Iraqi ruling elite after his father. But even his father saw him as too loose a canon, and it was his younger brother, Qusay, who was seen as the heir apparent.
Around 200 special forces troops from the US army's Task Force 20, supported by the 101st Airborne Division took part in the mission.
Witnesses spoke of a prolonged exchange of fire. Yahya Khan said: "I heard the sound of bombing in the neighbourhood, with huge numbers of American troops closing in on the area. A few seconds later, the helicopters came, and a heavy gun shooting and bombing started. They were hitting the house of Nawwaf Al-Zaydan, who was the head of Saddam's secret guards. The ruins of the house were still burning when I went up to the roof. One man said four Americans have been killed."
In London, the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, said last night: "Uday and Qusay Hussein shared their father's responsibility for the many years of suffering by the Iraqi people.
"The news that Saddam's sons are no longer a threat to the security of Iraq will be a reassurance to the Iraqi people."
American and British forces had twice previously tried to kill Saddam and his two sons. The first attempt came on 20 March, just before the war started.
It was targeted against a presidential palace in Baghdad where the family were believed to have been staying.
Just days before the American forces entered the Iraqi capital, 16 civilians were killed when US missiles were fired at the Mansur district. Saddam was supposed to have been holding a meeting with the sons and members of his military high command there.
Mosul, north-west of Baghdad, is outside the so-called "Sunni Triangle" in central Iraq home to much of the remaining support for Saddam. The city has a large Kurdish population, and the Kurdish militias, KDP and PUK, have maintained a presence.
However, Mosul has also been the scene of anti-American protests, and 18 demonstrators were shot dead in the city in the days after US forces moved in.
The region has also provided a significant number of members in the Baath party hierarchy over the years, and Saddam and his family used to take their holidays there.
Attacks against American troops continued yesterday. In the latest incident a soldier was killed and another wounded in an ambush along a road north of Baghdad. His death brought to 153 the number of US troops killed in action since the war started on 20 March six more than during the 1991 Gulf War. American forces have so far captured 34 of the 55 Iraqis on a most-wanted list of members of Saddam's former regime.Reuse content