MOSUL, Iraq (AP) Saddam Hussein's sons Odai and Qusai were believed killed in a massive firefight Tuesday when U.S. forces surrounded and then stormed a palatial villa in this northern Iraqi town, a senior American official said. Experts conducted DNA tests on the four bodies recovered from the charred and smoldering home.
If confirmed, the deaths of the sons could have a major impact on the Iraqi resistance, which has been mounting about a dozen attacks a day against U.S. occupation troops. The guerrillas are thought to be former military officers and Baath Party leaders loyal to Saddam and his family especially the sons, who played primary roles in the military and feared security services.
Heavy gunfire erupted across Baghdad about 10 p.m., and it was believed to have been in celebration of reports that Saddam's sons had been killed in Mosul.
The U.S. official, a senior figure in the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad who spoke on condition of anonymity, said investigators were "awaiting positive DNA testing" to confirm the identities.
The bodies were flown from Mosul to another location so they could be tested, Pentagon officials said. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said DNA tests were under way.
"I think they want to make very sure that these are the high-profile targets that we think they may be hopefully, Odai and Qusai," said Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss. Lott spoke after he and other Republican members of Congress lunched with Vice President Dick Cheney.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld briefed President Bush personally about the assault.
Both Odai and Qusai ranked second only to their father in the deposed regime, officials have said. They are Nos. 2 and 3 on the U.S. list of 55 top former Iraqi officials wanted by Washington. The United States has offered a $25 million reward for information leading to Saddam's capture and $15 million each for his sons.
Tuesday's raid triggered a gunbattle at the house in Mosul, where residents told an Associated Press Television News cameraman that American soldiers had come looking for Saddam's elder sons.
Fighting broke out after soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division surrounded the stone, columned villa, which belonged to one of Saddam's cousins, a key tribal leader in the region.
The building, in the al-Falah neighborhood, was left charred and smoldering, its high facade riddled with gaping holes from bullets and heavy weaponry. Kiowa helicopters roamed the sky.
Some Mosul civilians appeared to have been caught in the crossfire. It was not known how many people were injured, but several were taken to a hospital.
Officials gave conflicting reports on whether anyone was captured during the assault. The officials said they had no initial information that would suggest Saddam was present during the raid.
Asked about reports of that Saddam's sons had been killed, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said he was "not in a position to confirm anything."
Given a series of failed strikes against Iraqi leaders since the war began March 20, U.S. officials clearly did not want to make any public claims that later prove untrue.
On April 7, Rumsfeld announced the death of Ali Hassan al-Majid, Saddam's first cousin and one of his bloodiest henchman, and showed reporters video of laser-guided bombs obliterating a house in Basra, Iraq's second city, where a tipster had told coalition forces he was staying.
But last month, U.S. military officials said that interrogations of Iraqi prisoners indicated al-Majid, known as "Chemical Ali" for his use of mustard gas and other poisonous gases to kill thousands of northern Kurds during a 1988 rebellion, might be alive.
Twice during the war, information on Saddam's whereabouts was deemed solid enough that an airstrike was sent to kill him. But despite optimistic statements in the hours after each raid, U.S. officials now believe he is alive.
Qusai was probably intended as Saddam's successor, according to U.S. intelligence officials. He ran much of Iraq's security apparatus, controlling several militias, internal security services and the military forces of the once-vaunted Republican Guard.
He was described as quiet and level, particularly compared to Odai, Saddam's eldest son, who had a reputation for brutality and flamboyance. Odai controlled Saddam's Fedayeen, the paramilitary force that fought U.S. troops during the war; many of its survivors are thought to be part of the ongoing guerrilla campaign in Iraq.
Odai also controlled information and propaganda in Saddam's Iraq, and was chairman of the country's Olympic committee.
Saddam has a third, younger son, according to some reports, and three daughters. All kept a low profile in his regime.
Mosul, a town 240 miles northwest of Baghdad that housed Iraqi army bases, is outside the so-called "Sunni Triangle" in central Iraq home to much of the remaining support for Saddam, a Sunni Muslim who used his Baathist Party to oppress the country's Shiite majority.
The triangle is also a center of anti-American resistance: In the latest attack, Tuesday, a U.S. soldier was killed and another wounded in an ambush along a dangerous road north of Baghdad. His death brought to 153 the number of U.S. troops killed in action since the March 20 start of war, six more than during the 1991 Gulf War.
The U.S. Central Command said the attackers used rocket-propelled grenades and small arms in the assault staged along the road between Balad, 50 miles north of Baghdad, and Ramadi, 60 miles west of the capital. It gave no other details.
The U.S.-led coalition's military occupation of Iraq has been met by constant armed Iraqi resistance, resulting in almost daily deaths of American troops. Many recent assaults have been staged with remote-controlled roadside explosions.