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Colonel in Saddam raid stays focused on mission

Keeping troops motivated after big capture a new challenge

By Alphonso Van Marsh

U.S. Army Col. James Hickey
U.S. Army Col. James Hickey

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CNN's Alphonso Van Marsh looks at the U.S. colonel who helped capture Saddam.
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Saddam Hussein
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TIKRIT, Iraq (CNN) -- In the aftermath of Saddam Hussein's capture, the commander of the dramatic raid, U.S. Army Col. James Hickey, has become a reluctant media celebrity.

On a recent return to the farm near Tikrit where Saddam was found December 13, news photographers fawned over the 42-year-old leader of the 4th Infantry Division's 1st Brigade, a steely-eyed colonel from Chicago, Illinois.

"It's a little bit embarrassing," Hickey says of the attention.

Images of the military leader congratulating his troops and celebrating moments after the arrest were broadcast around the world.

"I collected [my troops] together," Hickey says. "I told the soldiers what we had done and the significance of what we had accomplished, not only in terms of the mission here, but also in Army history."

The Virginia Military Institute and Johns Hopkins University-educated colonel has a reputation for talking tough.

"I am a little old-fashioned in doing things in an Army way," Hickey says. "I'm a stickler for detail. I expect equipment and weapons to be maintained to a high standard, for soldiers to perform their duties in a soldierly manner, and I'm clear about communicating that to them."

Not only does he not mince words in English, but he also speaks Russian, French and German. Hickey's communication skills helped him learn to work with local leaders in Iraq. Much of his area of control, including Saddam's ancestral homeland of Tikrit, lies within Salah El Din province.

The Salah El Din provincial governor recently gave Hickey an Arabian falcon as a sign of respect. Hickey says the bird, named Sky Raider, has become somewhat of a mascot at his home base, Forward Operating Base Raider. "We have to exercise him every day and feed him at least a pigeon or dove a day -- he's quite a character," he says.

Some of Hickey's subordinates would say the same of their leader. Many U.S. troops in Tikrit tell a story about the colonel jumping out of his Humvee -- weapon drawn -- and running toward gunfire when under attack during a nighttime patrol.

"Given that particular situation, that was a prudent thing to do," Hickey says. "I tell my soldiers the best way to deal with an ambush is to attack into an ambush and to use your available firepower as quickly as you can. So I think it is important that I live by those words."

Some Iraqis complain of tactics

However, some of Hickey's other actions are drawing criticism.

News photographers return with Hickey to the site of Saddam Hussein's capture near Tikrit, Iraq.
News photographers return with Hickey to the site of Saddam Hussein's capture near Tikrit, Iraq.

For example, 1st Brigade troops have fenced off entire communities such as neighboring Al Awja, saying it's a tactic aimed at catching suspected Saddam loyalists.

Al Awja is the small town where Saddam was raised. Some residents prospered during Saddam's regime, and anti-American graffiti dots villa walls.

Inside, men are forced to carry English-language identity cards and to recognize travel restrictions and curfews. They say such demands are humiliating.

"We can't go to the hospital; it's not allowed," complains one Al Awja man. "Students can't go to school; it's not allowed. If someone comes to visit, they have to stay overnight because of a curfew. Why? What's the reason? We don't have a problem with the Americans."

Hickey: Attacks have declined

Hickey's so-called "show-of-force" attacks on empty buildings and U.S. military demolitions of the family homes of Saddam loyalists have brought comparisons to the way the Israeli military has dealt with the Palestinian uprising.

An Arabian falcon, given to Hickey by a local Iraqi leader out of respect, has become a mascot for U.S. troops.
An Arabian falcon, given to Hickey by a local Iraqi leader out of respect, has become a mascot for U.S. troops.

"I don't accept those comparisons because what we are doing here is targeted toward an enemy force that operates a certain way on the ground," Hickey says. "We use our force in a very discriminating way, focused on specific, legitimate military targets -- and we think it has worked."

Hickey says attacks against coalition forces since November have been down dramatically.

With Saddam in U.S. custody, Hickey faces a serious challenge: how to keep his troops motivated until their anticipated return home, possibly as soon as March. For these 4th Infantry Division troops, the highlight of their deployment -- catching the former Iraqi leader -- has come and gone.

"I appeal to their sense of duty to keep them motivated," Hickey says. "We need to do our level best to create [favorable] conditions for the American soldiers who will come behind us."

On Christmas Day, he began visiting his some 3,000 troops at 7.15 a.m., traveling to U.S. military bases in and around Tikrit for the next 10 hours. "It is important to see your troops on any given day," Hickey says. "But on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, I may not visit so much with an eye toward business ... but simply to say hello."

What message does he have for those opposed to the U-S-led coalition presence who have survived Hickey's tenure here? "I think the enemy needs to be extremely guarded in its approach to us," Hickey says.

And when asked if the United States will win the war in Iraq, Hickey turns stone cold. "We are and we shall," he says.

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