And some of them are dying in the search for Saddam Hussein - one of the biggest and most frustrating manhunts in history.
The Pentagon contends it's turned Saddam into a powerless fugitive, but concedes he has managed to avoid all efforts to catch or kill him, including two surgical bombing attacks during the war.
To walk the ground and assess the situation, 60 Minutes II went to Iraq earlier this month - going to three cities, several military bases and into the field with U.S. combat troops.
And it saw, firsthand, that Saddam remains a top American priority. Correspondent Dan Rather reports.
When Dan Rather joined them in the Iraqi desert, members of the Army’s 4th Infantry Division, or 4th ID, were gearing up for their fourth Saddam mission - a raid Lt. Col. Nate Sassman says is called Operation Black Flag.
“The goal is to go after high value target No. 1 and No. 6 – No. 1 being, of course, Saddam Hussein, and No. 6 being General Izad Aldhuri,” says Sassman. “But beyond that, we suspect 30 to 40 possible Fedayeen Saddam, or perhaps Iranian terrorists, that have come across the border that are working in and around the area.”
Sassman's unit is at Samarra East, a former Iraqi fighter base about an hour’s drive from Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit. It's now an American base. When we arrived, 800 soldiers were preparing for a raid the next morning on a nearby town the soldiers said was the birthplace of Saddam's mother.
“We might not get Saddam, but we get somebody that’s connected to him, and I still think that’s getting us one step closer to bringing him in,” says Sassman.
Orders for the mission come from 4th ID headquarters in Tikrit, where the Army has seized control of a baroque and bizarre complex of 50 palaces Saddam built for himself. The 35-square-mile complex has been called Graceland on the Tigris, but it's a dangerous place. There are plenty of Saddam loyalists in this area, and the road from Baghdad is under frequent attack. Just last week, three soldiers were killed and two were wounded in an ambush nearby.
Maj. Gen. Raymond Odierno said it's imperative to find Saddam, and he doesn’t think the deposed Iraqi leader can hide forever: “For him to continue to survive, he has to be 100 percent lucky and 100 percent accurate. If he makes any mistakes at all, I believe we have the intelligence collection, and we will react to that very quickly.”
With a $25 million reward on Saddam’s head, Odierno's soldiers have received hundreds of tips.
“I think at times he’s moving around, really every six to eight hours. And then there’s other times where he’ll get into a location and probably stay there for a bit longer period of time,” says Odierno, who believes Saddam is still alive and may be hiding in this area.
“This is where he has his base of support; this is where he has connections with tribal influences that have been here for a very, very long time - who understand the area."
While 60 Minutes II was in Iraq, the latest intelligence suggested that Saddam might be hiding in the mud huts of his mother's tribe in the Al Uzame River Valley.
Rather went along on the raid with the 4th ID, and when the units hit the ground, watched as soldiers seemed to get lost but then kept on going.
A lookout stood guard as the rest of his unit advanced toward the village. By breakfast time, it all seemed eerily peaceful. If anyone here knew the whereabouts of the Fedayeen or Saddam, they weren't letting on.
Col. Frederick Rudesheim had armored vehicles completely surround the village so no one could escape: “We don’t need anybody - and this is key - leaving. Anyone who tries to leave in the next 12 hours will be stopped.”
This area was one of the most dangerous parts of Iraq, so the team wasn't taking any chances.
It’s going well this morning, says Rudesheim: “We had an air assault that came in without a hitch into four separate locations simultaneously. We haven’t had any contact, no one has fired at us.”
An RPG, a rocket-propelled grenade, was the only weapon the soldiers found after searching all the houses. The man who had it hidden on a farm is being questioned. Three other men who tried to run away are also detained. And later, several more men were taken into custody. Rather was told tattoos on their hands indicated they might be Fedayeen Saddam, the dictator's most fanatical and loyal fighters.
When Rudesheim learned that a local sheikh knew Saddam, he decided to visit his house, several miles away down a dusty road. But the lead didn't go anywhere.
By the end of the day, the colonel and the 4th ID have precious little new information on the whereabouts of Saddam. In fact, since last spring, there’s been little progress anywhere in finding the former Iraqi president.
Rather spoke to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in one of the presidential palaces in Baghdad. Is there any prospect of getting Saddam? Any news on that front? “No,” says Rumsfeld. “He hasn’t been captured; he hasn’t been killed.”
Will they be able to meet the goals of their mission here if he isn't found dead or alive? "Sure," says Rumsfeld. "He clearly isn't functioning effectively. He's running. He's hiding, he just hasn't been caught or killed yet."
But Ahmad Chalabi, the current president of the Iraqi National Congress, disagrees. He believes that Saddam continues to fight the United States, even as he runs and hides: “It is very important that we should find Saddam as quickly as we can, to put him out of action.”
Chalabi says Saddam has the money and contacts to keep stirring up trouble as long as he's on the run. He doesn't have a lot of solid evidence, but he points out that when former Vice President Ramadan was captured this summer, he had letters and documents from Saddam - suggesting Saddam can still communicate with his supporters.
He believes there is a good chance that Saddam was involved in the bombing of the U.N. building in Baghdad: “The chances are very good that he was involved in both these operations. The timing was excellent, the method of detonation was very sophisticated. Saddam has people like that in his security service networks. They are experienced in planning terrorism and planning bombing by remote control.”
Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the top U.S. commander on the ground in Iraq, told 60 Minutes II that Saddam may be spreading money around to fund anti-American attacks. But he doubts he's capable of planning them.
“There were some signs that we received that messengers may be operating to provide, at a minimum, funding support to some of the efforts that are ongoing,” says Sanchez. “But nothing positive that indicates a cohesive, coherent command-and-control structure across the country.”
So why haven’t they found him? “It’s pretty difficult when people are willing to protect him,” says Sanchez.
And in Baghdad, it’s not hard to find people who say they’d be happy to protect their president. In fact, three men - a government driver, a swimming coach, and a former soldier (two of them members of Saddam’s militia) - all told Rather they’d be happy to hide Saddam in their houses.
Where is Saddam? Nearly everybody in Baghdad has an answer,and a story to tell.
One man swears he saw Saddam working as a taxi driver. Another says he’s dressed up as a beggar or a farmer, or that he’s hiding on a camel with the Bedouins in some remote desert. And more than a dozen people in the Adamiyah section said that in April, when American armor was piercing into the heart of the city, Saddam was right there, across from a mosque, and narrowly escaped as American forces closed in from three separate directions.
The last known pictures of Saddam in public are believed to have been taken on April 9. American troops were nowhere to be seen. But the very next day, the story goes, U.S. forces were closing in on the area and got to within 150 yards of Saddam before he escaped.
So the hunt for Saddam goes on, not just on the ground in Baghdad and Tikrit, but from the air, in the northern city of Mosul. The 101st Airborne Air Assault is based here, and scored a major coup this summer, helping Special Forces track down and kill Saddam’s two sons.
David Petraeus is the commanding general of the 101st team: “We have eyes over Mosul 24 hours a day, helicopters up all the time."
But, Petraeus acknowledges that Saddam could be anywhere: “I don’t know if he’s in the city, the country or where. One of the big questions, of course, is, what would be the profile of the place he’s staying at? You know, does it have three satellite dishes and daily delivery of Baghdad newspapers?”
Saddam could even be hiding, the general said, in the same neighborhood where the 101st killed his two sons. “We’ve had rumors that he’s here, we’ve actually gone after him a couple of times,” says Petraeus. “As I’ve mentioned, we’re doing operations almost every night to pick up one or another of these individuals. And of course most of them are dry holes.”
After a week in Iraq, it is apparent that Saddam haunts the generals and the soldiers who hunt him. They know he's always prided himself on surviving and he is unlikely to surrender.
"It's tough to find single people running around," says Rumsfeld. "Let me look at the FBI Most Wanted List. Some of those folks have been on there for 10, 15 years. It's hard. Department of Defense was organized, trained and equipped to fight armies, navies and air forces. And finding any one single human being is a very difficult task."