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Monday, March 1

Saddam allies appear ready to abandon fight

By William Cole | The Honolulu Advertiser

HELWE WOSTA, Iraq - The dozens of former high-ranking Baath Party officials, including three generals and several colonels in Saddam Hussein's army, came to this tomato-and-watermelon-farming village to see one man: U.S. Army Lt. Col. Scott Leith.

A rogue's gallery that included murderers and thugs during Saddam's rule, they met with the American battalion commander over mutton and rice.

In doing so, they also sought peace: Partyless and jobless, they told Leith they want to carry the fight against Americans no more.

Tired of being hunted house to house, village to village first by the 4th Infantry Division and more recently Leith's 1st Battalion, 27th Infantry Wolfhounds, more than 20 high-echelon Baath Party officials and many more midranking members from southwest of Kirkuk said Friday they want to end their opposition.

"Several of them that were there spoke to one person, who spoke directly to Saddam," Leith said after the meeting, hosted by a local sheik.

Earlier, Leith, 40, told about 150 of the Sunni Arabs the Baath Party was gone for good, Saddam was a coward, and a new day had come to Iraq.

To reinforce the point, the Hawaii-based soldiers showed up heavily armed, and two Apache attack helicopters flew over mud huts, sheep and gaping Iraqis.

Leith said he was "guardedly enthusiastic" about the Baath members' decision to give up the fight. What coalition commanders will do with them still has to be determined.

"If this is true, these are people with an awful lot of information, and an awful lot of pull," Leith said. "So if they work with the coalition, certainly we can bring peace here quicker."

The day was another in an odyssey that Leith likens to living out an adventure novel. Several hundred villagers and children showed up to get a glimpse of the American soldiers, with the 6-foot-4 Leith leading the way.

He has met with three of the four tribal leaders in the 87-mile east-to- west swath he is responsible for, including the nearly 100,000-population city of Al Huwijah about 40 miles southwest of Kirkuk.

The sheik who hosted Friday's meeting, Mahmoud Azam Turk, is part of the Al Jabori tribe, which extends from Iran through northern Iraq and into Syria.

"The outgoing commander told me they see the commander of the region ... almost as sheiks of the area," Leith said. "It's kind of counter to our culture where I would normally defer to the age and social position of these gentlemen. But I can't. I must come forward with the might of the United States and the coalition."

Sitting cross-legged on a teal-colored carpeted floor in a room whose four walls were lined with sheiks and former Baath Party members, Leith did just that.

"We come asking for nothing. We are not asking for money, we are not asking for resources. We ask for one thing - and that is your work to make this a peaceful and stable environment," Leith told the crowd. "People should not be dying in your fields. That is my responsibility and that is your responsibility."

In this Sunni Arab section of Iraq, where anti-American feelings still run strong, a few left the meeting room when Leith disparaged Saddam. U.S. soldiers took photos of those who attended, and wrote down their names at the meeting that included Special Forces.

Jasim Yunis Hamed, 30, a member of the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps, said the sheik Mahmoud has the power to keep the peace in his region. "He can control anything," Jasim said. "All the people here - he told them to stop anything bad. He can do this."

The overture from the former Baath members is a step in the right direction, said Maj. Jeff Butler, the 1-27 operations officer. "They are wanted because they are high Baath Party members who went into hiding," Butler said. "Some are known to be financiers of terrorist actions against coalition forces."