Two Saddam 'associates' captured in US raids

American forces captured two "important associates" of Saddam Hussein yesterday as a new tape recording said to have been made by the former Iraqi leader vowed to defeat the occupying forces.

The men were seized in co-ordinated raids involving 100 US soldiers on two houses in Saddam's hometown of Tikrit, north of Baghdad. The unidentified pair were asleep in the afternoon heat and no shots were fired.

"These are important associates of the former regime," said Lieutenant-Colonel Steve Russell, a spokesman for the US Army's 4th Infantry Division. "I think it does bring us closer [to capturing Saddam]. Every time we get these guys, we find additional information that helps us draw the noose ever closer."

The hunt for Saddam has gathered impetus since the killing of his two sons, Uday and Qusay, last week. Military sources in Mosul say US forces are focusing their hunt on a swath of Iraqi territory from the Tigris to the Syrian border, between Tikrit and Mosul. As part of their efforts to track Saddam, they have distributed electronically-generated images designed to show what the former leader may look like now.

The retouched pictures were released by US Central Command in Tampa, Florida yesterday. "Maybe he looks exactly like he did," Lieutenant-Colonel Ted Martin, the operations officer, said. "We explore every possibility."

On the tape recording, broadcast yesterday by the Arab satellite channel al-Jazeera, the speaker, purporting to be Saddam, urged resistance fighters to continue their fight against US soldiers, 51 of whom have been killed since President George Bush claimed "major hostilities" were over in May.

"God will support us, and one day the occupation army will falter and that victory is possible at any moment," said the recording, believed to have been made six days ago and the fourth broadcast in two weeks.

It said: "We feel bitterness about what has happened, but we are insistent on taking the responsibility to save our people and brothers, even those who have betrayed the nation and co-operated with the criminal invaders. We feel that not handling this case with caution would make those concerned feel guilty and fear the future and commit treason."

Saddam's daughters said yesterday that their father had been betrayed by supposedly loyal associates. Speaking in the Jordanian capital, Amman, where they have been granted protection, Raghad and Rana Hussein also spoke fondly of their father even though he ordered the deaths of their husbands in 1996.

"He was a very good father, loving, has a big heart," said Raghad, who said she last saw her father a week before the war started. She said her message to her father was: "I love you and I miss you." She said her father had been let down by those close to him. "With regret, those my father trusted, whom he had put his absolute confidence in and whom he had considered on his side ­ as I understood from the newspapers ­ betrayed him," she said.

The New York Times reported that if Saddam was captured alive he could be tried by a panel of Iraqi judges. It said the Bush administration had ruled out placing Saddam before the UN or any other international body.

"We're looking for an Iraqi-led process to deal with those abuses," one State Department official said. "It's important we bring ownership of these matters to the Iraqi people. It will be up to them. The Iraqis will play the undisputed leadership role."

Saddam would face charges of crimes against humanity, including attempted genocide against the Kurds and the Marsh Arabs of Iraq.

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