Even when he ruled Iraq, Saddam Hussein led a nomad's life. As President he was too paranoid to sleep in the massive, marble-lined palaces he erected all over Iraq as monuments to his power. According to close associates, he would stay instead in small houses on the edges of his various compounds, changing location every eight to 10 hours and keeping an assistant on duty around the clock to pack and unpack his suitcases. Saddam, his former secretary says, so admired the fortitude of the Bedouin tribes that wander the Iraqi wilderness that he often headed into the mountains--accompanied, of course, by caravans of aides, cooks and bodyguards--to bed down among them. "He lived very simply," says the secretary. "He didn't need much."
That can be a useful quality when you're running for your life. If Saddam's circumstances are anything like those of his sons Uday and Qusay, who died in a shoot-out with U.S. forces in Mosul two weeks ago, he is traveling with only the barest essentials: money and guns. U.S. officials figure that Saddam has probably dispensed with all his well-known bodyguards, who would be recognizable to the growing number of former regime courtiers who are showering U.S. forces with information about the whereabouts of their old boss. "He'll have people around him that no one knows," says a Pentagon official close to the search for Saddam.
And while the U.S. hunt for Saddam remained furious in the cities of Baghdad and Tikrit, American commanders told TIME they had picked up a rush of new intelligence that suggested Saddam was moving through the arid plains outside the northwestern city of Mosul, seeking sanctuary with Bedouin loyalists he hoped would defend him to the death. Locals have approached U.S. troops with so many unsubstantiated reports of Saddam's presence in the area that commanders refer to them as Elvis sightings. "He's out there in the desert," a powerful sheik in the town of Sinjar, 60 miles west of Mosul, told Lieut. Colonel Henry Arnold. "He's with the Bedouins."
Operating on intelligence more reliable than the sheik's tip, members of Task Force 20, the military's special-operations unit charged with nabbing high-value targets in Iraq, quietly descended on an airstrip near Mosul last Wednesday--backed by MC-130 combat Talon planes, modified humvees and so-called little-bird attack helicopters--to prepare for a potential assault. A battalion from the 101st Airborne Division, based in Sinjar, was on alert to seal off escape routes leading to the Syrian border. But that day Saddam was not to be found. "We shoot a lot of dry holes. It's the law of averages," says a Pentagon official. "But his number's going to come up."