Mosul, Iraq A sleek Mercedes-Benz stood in the underground garage along with a pool of blood. A panoply of rifles and pistols lay strewn in the comfortable three-story mansion.
In the end, it took almost all the firepower the Army could muster -- TOW missiles, Kiowa helicopter rockets and Mark-19 grenade launchers -- to punch through the fortress-like walls of the villa, reducing it to a smoking hulk. And only then did the troops find out how high the stakes had been: Their targets, they discovered, were Saddam Hussein's sons Odai and Qusai, second in power only to their father.
Two other Iraqis, not yet identified, also were killed, and four Americans suffered gunshot wounds. A government official told The Christian Science Monitor one of the slain Iraqis was Qusai's teenage son.
The desperate, six-hour gun battle was followed Wednesday by a tense calm in Mosul, where graffiti painted in red on earthen brick walls declares "Down with America" and "God, Country, Saddam." U.S. soldiers and Iraqi trainees armed with wooden baseball bats secured the gutted house behind a ring of concertina wire, as military investigators combed the premises.
The raid was a "turning point" in the campaign against Iraq's deposed regime, the commander of coalition forces in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, said Wednesday in Baghdad. President Bush said it would help convince Iraqis that Saddam's regime was finished for good.
But soldiers who participated in the raid said they didn't know what they were getting into when they headed out to the wealthy al-Falah neighborhood in the northern city of Mosul.
All Sgt. George Granter knew as he headed out on that blistering hot morning was that intelligence was reporting the house was occupied by Baath Party members.
"They heard high guys, but they didn't know how high," said Granter, of Merryville, Ind., an engineer with the 326 Battalion of the 101st Airborne Division, who took part in the battle.
The dramatic assault, triggered by a tip Monday from an informant that Odai and Qusai were in the house, began about 9 a.m. The action that played out on a wide boulevard lined with villas, shops and a mosque, began like countless others across occupied Iraq: with orders in Arabic to surrender.
"The intent is always to ask the people to come out voluntarily," said Col. Joe Anderson, commander of the 101st's 2nd Brigade.
The owner of the house, Sheik Nawaf al-Zaydan Muhhamad, walked out with his son Shalan, their hands on their heads and were whisked away by troops, neighbors said Wednesday.
The other occupants were less cooperative, so after 10 minutes troops tried to enter the building.
Using C-4 explosives, Task Force 20 members stormed through the iron front gate -- the only viable entrance to the walled compound, participants said. From there, some began clearing the first floor, while others climbed back stairs and crossed the roof for other entry points.
Inside, however, the Delta troops were unable to break through inner walls of reinforced concrete where Odai, Qusai and other defenders were holed up.
From the fortified middle floor of the three-floor building came Kalashnikov fire, raking the troops and wounding four of them. Eventually, the Delta troops pulled back and the 101st pummeled the structure with multiple barrages of TOW wire-guided missiles, fire from Mark 19 grenade launchers and Humvee-mounted .50-caliber machine guns.
Witnesses said beige and maroon tiles popped from the facade and dust flew from the concrete columns. Still, gunfire rattled back from the mansion.
"Things just went ballistic," said one participant. "Those guys put up a massive fight."
The Americans fell back to regroup and reinforcements were summoned.
Soldiers fanned out in the neighborhood and evacuated families from surrounding houses, said Maj. Greg Ebeling of the 101st's 926 Engineer Group.
By 10:45 a.m., reinforcements were arriving and the Americans began firing machine guns, grenades and rockets, Sanchez said. The area was surrounded so "there was no rush," the general said.
Meanwhile, on surrounding streets, a crowd estimated at several thousand Iraqi civilians gathered to watch the unfolding drama and refused to disperse. "They were eating, drinking, cheering -- these people are so ingrained to combat they don't have the good sense to get out of the way," said a soldier who witnessed the scene.
Then, above the crowd across the street from the villa, two snipers opened fire on U.S. forces from the second-story, corner window of a building with a pink facade, according to soldiers involved in the raid. When U.S. soldiers returned fire, the civilians there ran away, but later returned. One U.S. soldier, a driver for the assault team, was shot in the arm and through the chest and evacuated.
Choppers prove decisive
Just before noon, two Kiowa helicopters skimmed in over the rooftops and rockets streaked into the villa. More and more troops poured into the neighborhood, witnesses said, until about 200 were surrounding the house.
It was their fire from the ground that proved decisive: .50-caliber machine guns, grenade launchers, then TOW missiles that blew out windows, cratered walls and killed Saddam's sons and a bodyguard, Sanchez said.
At 1:21 p.m. soldiers again stormed the wrecked mansion. They rushed up the stairs and shot the final holdout, apparently Qusai's teenage son Mustafa.
On the floor where Saddam's sons had chosen to make their last stand lay clothes, bloodstained bedding, a Pepsi can and a box of Mars Bars.
"It began as gunfire and then it became a battle," said Nasser Hazim, who lives around the corner from the villa.
It was not until about 3 p.m. that U.S. commanders called a cease-fire and afterward Maj. Gen. David Petraeus, commander of the 101st Airborne Division, surveyed the scene.
Guns, body parts and a kilogram of mercury -- used as a trigger switch for homemade bombs -- were among the debris. The bodies were removed quickly and taken to the Baghdad International Airport base of U.S. forces to begin the process of identification.
The person who tipped off the Americans to the hide-out is in protective custody, his identity a secret, U.S. authorities said.
Sanchez said Wednesday in Baghdad that dental records, X-rays and four former senior members of the Hussein regime helped establish with certainty that Saddam's two sons were dead.
Despite the assertion, some residents of this northern Iraqi city of 2 million, home to many former high-ranking Iraqi military officers, said they weren't convinced the Hussein heirs were dead. Others mourned a young man they say was killed when a U.S. soldier opened fire on a small group of protesters during the assault, a claim American commanders dispute. Still others believe and welcome the news, saying Odai and Qusai's fate should stand as a warning to future Iraqi leaders.
For their part, U.S. soldiers voiced pride in a successful mission, but expressed concern the sons' demise could lead to revenge attacks on American troops. "I think it's a great thing that happened, but the consequences could go either way -- good or bad," said Spc. Tyler Springstead of the 101st Airborne Division.
"If they revolt, they revolt," said Pfc. Patrick Mullen, who stood guard all night and all day outside the charred and hollow villa. Some Iraqis may try to make martyrs of the sons, said another soldier.