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U.S. troops work to protect informants | (KRT) HUSAYBAH, Iraq First Sgt. Daniel Hendrex and his team were scouring a two-story home for the man who wanted to kill one of their best informants.

A few days earlier, the informant - Jassem Hussin, 14 - had led them to a weapons cache and provided information to jail his own father, a key figure in a guerrilla cell that had been attacking U.S. troops.

A special forces soldier had blown Jassem's cover while interrogating Jassem's father and a friend. Now, one of his father's associates, Madlull Eptaim Mutlag, was threatening to kill Jassem's mother if Jassem didn't turn himself in to be killed as an informant.

It was time for the soldiers of Dragon Company, 1st Squadron, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment to help Jassem - and themselves. If one of their informants were killed, it would be harder to recruit more.

Before the dawn raid, Jassem warned Hendrex that Mutlag was so fanatical that he might have explosives strapped around his waist.

They needn't have worried. When the soldiers burst into Mutlag's house at around 6:20 a.m. they found five sleepy-eyed women, two crying babies and a teenage boy sitting on bedspreads on the floor.

Hendrex, 33, of Norman, Okla., asked through his translator where Mutlag was.

"We have no relations with him," one of the women, his sister, answered in a scared voice. "We haven't seen him in eight months."

Hendrex fixed steely eyes on her: "We know for a fact he's come out of this house in the past two months."

Moments later, Sgt. Chris Bandel, 28, of Spokane, Wash., walked over excited. In his search, he'd found a box containing a passport-sized color photo of a middle-aged man with short hair and a trim moustache.

Hendrex asked the sister if it was Mutlag. She nodded.

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Hendrex took the photo out to a waiting Humvee, where Jassem sat in the back seat, wearing U.S. military desert camouflage and a black ski mask.

Hendrex asked him if this was Mutlag. Jassem nodded.

The soldiers' frustration turned to muted glee. It was the first photograph they'd seen of their target. In the slow, patient game of intelligence-gathering they'd hit a home run. They now could plaster the area with his photo and offer a bounty for his capture.

Hendrex then asked Jassem whether he wanted to see his mother, who lived nearby, and give her some money so she could get out of town until the Americans caught Mutlag.

Jassem shook his head. Instead, he asked Hendrex to talk to his mother and give her $40. Jassem said he would pay him back at the base.

Later, the military translator explained that Jassem didn't want his mother to see him in a U.S. military uniform. She didn't know that her own son had had her husband arrested.

Hendrex walked across a field to Jassem's house, and knocked on the door. Fatima, Jassem's mother, came out. Two of her six children tugged at her skirt.

Hendrex asked her if she had seen Mutlag.

"I saw him two days ago," she replied.

Did he threaten or hurt you?

She nodded. Then she said with a burst of anger: "If I find him, I'll kill him with my own hands."

Fatima thought it was Mutlag who'd informed on her husband. She said she didn't feel safe in the house and wanted to go to live with relatives in Syria. But neither she nor her children had passports.

Hendrex gave her $200 and suggested she get passports somehow or move to another city until they found Mutlag. She nodded.

When he asked if she knew where Jassem was, she said she didn't.

Hendrex reassured her: "He's OK."

As the soldiers were leaving, Fatima said Mutlag had been at home when they'd come by a few days earlier. He'd fled as soon as he heard the Humvees.

"Damn," said Hendrex.

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© 2003, Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services