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How to attack a dictator, part II

By Mark Thompson and Timothy J. Burger/Washington

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This is the big one," crackled the voice in the headsets of the four crew members.

They were flying at nearly 30,000 ft. above western Iraq in a B-1B Lancer shortly before 3 p.m. last Monday. The message, from the controller aboard a nearby AWACs command plane, sent a thrill through the B-1 as Captain Sloan Hollis redirected the black, needle-nose plane toward Baghdad at 500 m.p.h. for an afternoon rendezvous with Saddam Hussein.

The B-1, which had just refueled in midair, had been out on another mission, but then came a scintillating tip. For the previous few weeks, Baghdad's tony Mansur district, home to many of the Iraqi regime's elite, had been "crawling" with U.S. special forces and Iraqi informants working for the CIA, according to a U.S. official.

On Monday afternoon, a non-American source reported to U.S. intelligence that he or she had seen Saddam and his entourage enter a compound--near the popular al-Saa restaurant--that was a known gathering place for Iraqi intelligence officials.

The U.S. was still not sure that Saddam had survived a March 19 bombing aimed at killing him, but the thinking, says an intelligence official, was "just in case he didn't die before, let's have him die again."

After the AWACs radioed the B-1 the location of its new target, aircraft commander Captain Chris Wachter and his crew set about triple-checking the coordinates with the controller. "We want to make sure that we're able to be very precise with our weapons, much like, say, a sniper rifle where it's one shot, one kill," says Wachter.

There was silence in the cockpit as crew members handled their assigned tasks. "When we got the word that it was a priority leadership target, you get kind of an adrenaline rush," says Lieut. Colonel Fred Swan, senior weapons-system officer on the plane. "But then you fall back to your original training that says, 'Hey, let's get the job done.'"

The B-1, nicknamed "Seek and Destroy," had to get within striking range, past Iraqi air defenses that remained potent. F-16 fighter jets and an EA-6B jamming plane made sure that no Iraqi missiles would get a good shot at the Baghdad-bound B-1. The crew never saw their target; the cloud cover below stretched for miles. But satellites were the real eyes of the mission.

For this strike, U.S. Central Command called for two 2,000-lb. smart bombs known as JDAMs, then doubled the order. A JDAM, once loaded with coordinates, is guided to its kill by global-positioning-system satellites that put it within feet of its target point. As the B-1 approached the target, its computers calculated the release point and dropped two penetrating JDAMs, which detonated a split second after hitting the ground, enough time to drive deeply into any underground bunkers.

A pair of standard JDAMs followed three seconds later. Just 45 minutes had elapsed from the Saddam sighting to the bombing. During that time, Saddam was not seen leaving the premises, though U.S. officials acknowledge he could have departed via an underground tunnel.

The attack unleashed an 8500F fireball and a shock wave that sliced the flesh, collapsed the lungs, exploded the sinuses and burst the arteries of anyone in its path. Neighbors say at least 14 bodies have been pulled from the crater left by the explosion. A senior American official says the U.S. has made an initial survey of the site but has not yet gone through it "stone by stone."

Determining if Saddam died in the rubble may take a while; the U.S. isn't known to have any of his DNA to verify his demise. It could try to identify his remains by comparing DNA samples from the blast with those of relatives willing to relinquish some saliva or hair--or with some plucked from their shower drains.

--With reporting by Michael Weisskopf/Doha

Copyright © 2003 Time Inc.

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