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U.S. captures top Saddam confidant

Arrest regarded as significant in hunt for deposed leader

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BAGHDAD, Iraq — In what U.S. intelligence officials regarded as one of the most significant developments in the hunt for Saddam Hussein, military officials said Wednesday they had captured the Iraqi leader's closest confidant, Abid Hamid Mahmud al-Tikriti.

Mahmud, fourth on the list of the 55 most-wanted members of Saddam's government, was captured Monday. While no details were provided on the capture, officials said that Mahmud was expected to be held at a special facility near the Baghdad international airport, where military intelligence officers interrogate high-level detainees.

But officials warned that little has been learned from Mahmud in the early stages of his interrogation. They further cautioned that senior confederates of Saddam's have so far provided little useful information, either on the ousted Iraqi leader or on his weapons programs.

But if anyone knows the whereabouts of Saddam and his two sons, Odai and Qusai — if they are still alive — it is Mahmud, Saddam's former security adviser and secretary, intelligence officials and others said.

In Baghdad on Wednesday, an angry demonstration by former Iraqi army officers demanding back pay and pensions turned violent when an American soldier arriving on the scene in a convoy of military vehicles fired into the crowd. Two Iraqis were killed and two wounded, military officials and witnesses said.

Although witnesses said U.S. forces demonstrated considerable restraint throughout a trying, 2 1/2-hour standoff, the incident underscored their lack of the basic equipment for crowd control. Lt. Col. Richard Douglass, a 1st Armored Division officer in charge of the downtown district, acknowledged that his forces still lacked nonlethal forms of crowd control, like rubber bullets.

"We don't have much," he said, beyond lethal combat weapons.

In a separate incident, two American soldiers were shot and one of them killed in a drive-by shooting at a fuel station in south Baghdad that provides bottled cooking gas to civilians. The assailants fled the scene, military officials said. The unidentified soldier was the 12th killed in a series of small-scale attacks on coalition forces that began last month.

While much of the news from Iraq on Wednesday was grim, there was no mistaking administration officials' delight in the arrest of Mahmud, which the White House spokesman Ari Fleischer called a "significant capture." U.S. officials said Mahmud almost certainly knows the fate of Saddam and has information about Iraq's suspected arsenal of weapons of mass destruction.

And Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld on Wednesday played down the recent deadly attacks on Americans in Iraq, equating those losses with everyday violence in large U.S. cities.

Asked at Pentagon press conference about the Iraqi resistance, Rumsfeld described it as "small elements" of 10 to 20 people, not large military formations or networks of attackers. He said there "is a little debate" in the administration over whether there is any central control to the resistance, which officials say is coming from Saddam's former Baath Party, Fedayeen paramilitary, and other loyalists.

"In those regions where pockets of dead-enders are trying to reconstitute, Gen. (Tommy) Franks and his team are rooting them out," Rumsfeld said, referring to the U.S. commander in Iraq. "In short, the coalition is making good progress."

While the deaths of U.S. troops generate "a deep sorrow," Rumsfeld said, he believes the American people feel the sacrifices are worthwhile.

"They recognize the difficulty of the task," Rumsfeld said. "You got to remember that if Washington, D.C., were the size of Baghdad, we would be having something like 215 murders a month. There's going to be violence in a big city." Rumsfeld noted that Baghdad has nearly six million residents.

Contributing: Associated Press