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U.S. Aimed for Hussein as War Began

Bandar excused himself and left. The walk from the West Wing to his car outside seemed 1,000 miles. Cool air hit his face and he suddenly began to sweat, then there was a little shiver.

He had arranged a code to alert Crown Prince Abdullah if he learned early -- a reference to the Roda, an oasis outside Riyadh.


President Bush meets with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, left, and Vice President Cheney, center, outside the Oval Office shortly after authorizing Operation Iraqi Freedom. Bush said the day was emotional for him. "I prayed that our troops be safe, be protected by the Almighty, that there be minimal loss of life," he said. (Eric Draper -- AP)

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"Tonight the forecast is there will be heavy rain in the Roda," Bandar said from his car phone to Saudi Arabia.

"Oh, I see," the crown prince said. "I see. Are you sure?"

"I am very sure," he replied, adding that the Americans had great capabilities, satellites and so forth, to predict the weather.

"Tell me again."

Bandar repeated.

The crown prince took a deep breath. "May God decide what is good for all of us." Then he asked loudly, "Do you know how soon the storm is going to hit?"

"Sir," Bandar said, potentially blowing operational security if any foreign embassy or anyone else with the capability was listening in, "I don't know, but watch TV."

Preparing to Inform the Nation

In his interview last December, Bush recalled the moment. "It's been a very long day. I get upstairs, and I can't sleep. Because I've got about an hour and a half now." He didn't want to speak until the bombers were off their targets. "I was trying to take a little nap."

Once more, he called Rice. No news.

He tried to sleep or read or find something to do and couldn't so he called Rice again.

"Mr. President, we've just got a report from the person on the ground. A convoy has pulled into the complex."

"Is that convoy full of kids?" Bush asked. It hit him that there was no turning back now. The bombers were going in first, followed immediately by 36 cruise missiles. They had doubled the Tomahawk attack package. The Tomahawk cruise missiles, which had been launched to the Dora Farm target more than an hour earlier, had no self-destruct mechanism so they were going in no matter what.

"No," Rice replied, "he thinks that it looks like the kind of convoy that would bring Saddam Hussein."

About an hour later, the president came down to the Oval Office and did a read-through, then went to his study off the Oval Office.

Normally at the end of the day press secretary Ari Fleischer would put a "lid" on, telling the White House reporters that there would be no more news that night. But Fleischer knew that the extraordinarily long Oval Office meeting meant something, especially with all the running around by the principals and the presence of even a few unfamiliar faces. So he was going to be careful. Finally, Card took Fleischer into his corner office.

It's going to start tonight, Card said. These are the early stages. We have a target of opportunity and are sending a stealth fighter to go after it.

"Are we sending anything else in?"

"I told you everything you need to know," Card replied. The attack would be south of Baghdad. Iraqi antiaircraft batteries would soon be going off.

Rice, Card, Bartlett and Fleischer gathered around the TV in Rice's office. At 9:30 p.m. reports came that air raid sirens had gone off in Baghdad. Antiaircraft fire soon followed.

"Go out," Rice told Fleischer.

Fleischer was at the podium at 9:45: "The opening stages of the disarmament of the Iraqi regime have begun. The president will address the nation at 10:15."

Myers reported to Hadley that the F-117s had successfully dropped their bombs, but the pilots were not yet out of hostile territory. Hadley went to the study off the Oval Office where the president was getting his makeup, and relayed the report to Bush and Rice.

"Let's pray for the pilots," Bush said.

10:16 p.m.

The president appeared on television, the stock flags and family photos in the background. He said the "early stages" of the military campaign against Hussein had begun, without offering any details. "More than 35 countries are giving crucial support," he said. "A campaign on the harsh terrain of a nation as large as California could be longer and more difficult than some predict." It was a time of "grave danger" and "peril."

"Our forces will be coming home as soon as their work is done," he said. "This will not be a campaign of half-measures."

When he was done, he asked Rice how the speech had gone. One of the better ones, she told him.

Hadley called Myers, who reported about 11 p.m. that the pilots were out of hostile airspace and on the approach to land. Rice called the president.

"The pilots are out of harm's way," she said.

"Well, thank God for that."

A few minutes before midnight in Washington (8 a.m. Iraqi time), Tim sent a report saying that the principal ROCKSTAR reported that Hussein and his sons were at Dora Farm when the bombs and missiles hit, but he did not know their status. Tim did not want to report again until he was pretty sure they had gotten Hussein.

Before dawn in Washington (about noon in Iraq), he sent another cable. Again he had to report what the ROCKSTARS said, but he was uncertain because he was just getting snatches from ROCKSTARS fleeing the scene. Rokan, their source, had been killed by a cruise missile. One of Hussein's sons, it was unclear which, had come out shouting, "We've been betrayed" and shot another of the ROCKSTARS in the knee. The other son had emerged from the rubble bloody and disoriented but it wasn't clear whether it was his blood or someone else's. Hussein had been injured, according to a ROCKSTAR witness, and had to be dug out of the rubble. He was blue. He was gray. He was being given oxygen. He had been put on a stretcher and loaded into the back of an ambulance, which then did not move for half an hour before departing the farm across a bridge.

About 4:30 a.m. Tenet called the Situation Room and told the duty officer, "Tell the president we got the son of a bitch."

They didn't wake the president. And by the time Bush arrived at the Oval Office about 6:30 a.m. Thursday, March 20, they weren't so sure. It looked as though Hussein may have survived.

Epilogue

On March 24, 2003, five days after the start of the war, Tim made his way down to Dora Farm. It looked like the remnants of a flea market, people were still carting stuff away. There were craters and clearly the place had been attacked. He searched everywhere. There was no bunker or any hint of one. He found a subterranean pantry for food storage attached to the main house. Perhaps that was what his ROCKSTAR agents had been referring to. It was baffling and mysterious. Was it possible that manzul was neither a place of refuge nor a bunker, but a pantry?

Tim eventually tracked down some of the ROCKSTAR agents who had reported that night. Two said their wives had been captured by Hussein's agents and had their fingernails pulled out. Another maintained that his house had been bulldozed. There was some evidence to support these claims, but Tim was unsure.

Soon Tim was reassigned to CIA headquarters to work undercover on other issues. Saul and other superiors asked him and the team members to put down the sequence of events of the day and night of March 19 to 20, 2003. They wanted a very briefable, immaculate package. The more Tim searched his memory and the few documents, he realized that much was cloudy. Everyone had been stressed. The ROCKSTARS on the ground had not wanted to disappoint, and had obviously been worried about being captured or killed.

Tim made a series of efforts to write down in a meaningful way what had happened. He tried a version. Did he have 40 percent? Or 62 percent? Or 83 percent? he wondered. What percentage of the truth was available? What had slipped away? What had been untrue? He tried several more times. It wasn't black or white, and it certainly wasn't a straight line. Was he getting closer or further from the truth?

He never produced a definitive version. The biggest unanswered question was whether Saddam Hussein and his entourage had really been there that night.

Mark Malseed contributed to this report.


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