WASHINGTON – It took a U.S.-led invasion force of 200,000-plus troops nine months to scour Iraq’s nearly 170,000 square miles before capturing Saddam Hussein after one of the largest manhunts ever.
Now Moammar Gadhafi is on the run in Libya, but chasing after him is a much smaller and less well-equipped force of Libyan rebels. They’re trying to track down a fugitive who, like Saddam, is well-armed, well-funded and capable of winning popular support and sowing instability simply by evading his pursuers.
If the rebels fail to find Gadhafi quickly as they battle to take his hometown of Sirte, they could face more than just a protracted manhunt. His continued evasion could fuel a Gadhafi-led counterinsurgency that bolsters his mythic status and stymies attempts by the rebels’ fledgling government to bring stability and basic services to the country.
Though Gadhafi’s army is dissolving in the face of the NATO-backed onslaught, the rebels have roughly 680,000 square miles to cover, an area several times greater than Iraq.
Helping guide the rebels are fewer than 100 foreign intelligence and special operations operatives. They are backed by a limited number of reconnaissance drones from NATO members, assistance that’s independent of the alliance’s U.N.-authorized mission.
Both may draw down after the fighting stops.
Like Saddam, Gadhafi is thought to have access to millions of dollars stashed away over the years. He has loyalists who benefited from his long rule and who, like the Iraqi leader’s Baathist followers, believe they have nothing to gain and everything to fear from a new Libyan government.
“What we’ve learned is that finding one individual particularly in a tribal area is tough, despite all of the technology we have, with our ability to collect intelligence sources together,” said retired Lt. Col. John Nagl, who served in Iraq’s al-Anbar province in 2003.
“The good news is Libya has a long coastline and the population is clustered close to the shore,” said Nagl, who now heads the Washington-based Center for a New American Security. “The bad news is we have few, if any, Americans on the ground, and this is a society we don’t understand very well.”
Libyan rebel forces have begun searching loyalist compounds in Tripoli, the capital, room by room.
U.S. spy drones are snapping shots of the streets and the roads leaving the city, looking for the profile of an entourage of heavily guarded vehicles Gadhafi usually travels in.
Satellites and spy planes are gathering in transmissions, scanning phone and radio signals for a voiceprint that matches that of Gadhafi or his sons.
Teams of foreign military advisers will work with the rebels to find captured Libyan loyalists who are ready to trade information about Gadhafi’s whereabouts in exchange for leniency. CIA officers on the ground will touch base with sources who have kept them informed throughout the battle to oust Gadhafi.
But Gadhafi knows all of that. He learned as he watched the hunt for Saddam and, more recently, al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.
The hunt for Saddam provides a grim lesson.
The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq began March 20, 2003. Baghdad, the capital, fell on April 9. Saddam allegedly was spotted that day in the city, before vanishing and taunting U.S. forces from hiding spots across the country.
Special operations forces who helped chase Saddam say he’d done everything right. He stayed off cell or satellite phones. He changed his behavior patterns to avoid detection. He traveled in taxis and wore traditional tribal clothing.
Most of all, he took shelter in a place that no one would have expected from a dictator who once occupied multiple palaces.
Saddam was finally captured by a special operations team in a “spider hole,” dug under an outbuilding at a farm near his hometown of Tikrit, on Dec. 13, 2003.
The area where he was captured had been scoured by up to 4,000 troops.
“It was a whole brigade, multiple special operations teams, a huge reconnaissance and grassroots intelligence effort,” said retired Col. James Hickey, who oversaw the overall operation.
Hickey said his conventional forces worked closely with special operations teams that shared drone surveillance and information from hundreds of raids and arrests.
Hickey’s forces specifically went after the young men from five families known to be part of Saddam’s pre-invasion security apparatus.
“There were five families in Tikrit that were intimates with Saddam’s family that he trusted. A lot of those members were recruited into his inner circle of security,” Hickey said.
“So we focused on that and started picking up all their middle-aged males. Most of them talked and gave us information.”
The nine-month manhunt ended without a shot fired.
But in that time, a Sunni insurgency inspired by Saddam took hold, and plagued the country for the next five years. Remnants of it remain, threatening security still.