Ace in the hole
December 14, 2003
By Christopher Torchia
The Associated Press
BAGHDAD, Iraq – Cornered alone in a cramped hole near one of his sumptuous palaces, a weary, disheveled Saddam Hussein was seized by U.S. troops and displayed on television screens worldwide Sunday, a humiliating fate for one of history’s most brutal dictators.
The man who waged and lost two wars against the United States and its allies was armed with a pistol when captured in a Styrofoam-covered underground hide-out, but did not resist, the U.S. military said. In the broadcast images, he resembled a desperate fugitive, not an all-powerful president who had ordered his army to fight to the death.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we got him,” U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer told a news conference. “The tyrant is a prisoner.”
A U.S. official said late Sunday that Saddam had been moved to another country. The Dubai-based Arab TV station Al-Arabiya said he was taken to Qatar.
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“He was just caught like a rat,” said Maj. Gen. Raymond Odierno, whose 4th Infantry Division troops staged the raid. “When you’re in the bottom of a hole you can’t fight back.”
During the arrest of Saddam, U.S. troops discovered “descriptive written material of significant value,” another U.S. commander told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity. He declined to say whether the material related to the anti-coalition resistance.
Saddam, who could face trial before a new Iraqi tribunal for war crimes, was defiant when top Iraqi officials visited him in captivity hours later – people at the meeting said he refused to admit to human rights abuses.
Saddam will now “face the justice he denied to millions,” said President Bush, whose troops and intelligence agents had been searching in vain for Saddam since April. “In the history of Iraq, a dark and painful era is over.”
U.S. officials declined to specify Saddam’s whereabouts on Sunday, but made clear he faces intensive interrogation – foremost, what he knows about the ongoing insurgency against the U.S.-led occupation, and later about his regime’s unconventional weapons programs.
The raid by 600 soldiers and special forces took place Saturday night at a farm in Adwar, 10 miles from Saddam’s home town of Tikrit, less than three hours after the pivotal tip was received from an Iraqi.
The informant was a member of a family close to Saddam,” Odierno told reporters in Tikrit. “Finally we got the ultimate information from one of these individuals.”
After a helicopter took Saddam to Baghdad, U.S. officials brought in former regime officials, including deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz, to confirm Saddam’s identity, a U.S. official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Whether Saddam’s capture would curtail the insurgency was unclear. Bush cautioned that more anti-coalition attacks were expected, and Odierno said the lack of communications equipment in the hide-out indicated Saddam was not commanding the resistance.
Eager to prove to Iraqis that Saddam was in custody, the U.S. military showed video of the ousted leader, haggard and gray-bearded, as a military doctor examined him. In Baghdad, radio stations played jubilant music and some bus passengers shouted, “They got Saddam! They got Saddam!”
In northern Kirkuk, eight people were killed and 80 wounded by shots fired in the air during celebrations of the capture, said hospital official Shehab Ahmed.
“I’m very happy for the Iraqi people. Life is going to be safer now,” said Yehya Hassan, 35, of Baghdad. “Now we can start a new beginning.”
But some residents of Adwar recalled fondly how Saddam used to swim in the nearby Tigris River and bemoaned the capture of the leader who donated generously to area residents.
“This is bad news to all Iraqis,” said Ammar Zidan, 21. “Even if they captured Saddam Hussein, we are all Saddam Hussein. We want freedom and independence from the Americans.”
Saddam was captured almost five months after his sons, Qusai and Odai, were killed July 22 in a gunbattle with U.S. troops in the northern city of Mosul. Coalition officials hoped the sons’ deaths would weaken the Iraqi resistance; instead the guerrilla campaign escalated.
In the latest attack – before Saddam’s capture was announced – a suspected suicide bomber detonated explosives in a car outside a police station Sunday morning west of Baghdad, killing at least 17 and wounding 33, the U.S. military said. Also Sunday, a U.S. soldier died while trying to disarm a roadside bomb south of the capital – the 453rd soldier to die in Iraq.
Saddam was one of the world’s most-wanted fugitives, along with Osama bin Laden, the leader of the al-Qaida terrorist network who has not been caught despite a manhunt since November 2001.
The United States put a $25 million bounty for Saddam, as it did for bin Laden, but it was not known immediately if anyone has a claim to the money. Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, said he could not give any information on the reward.
U.S. troops found Saddam hiding in an underground crawl space at the walled compound, Odierno said. The entrance to the hide-out – covered with Styrofoam, rugs and dirt – was a few feet from small, mud-brick hut where Saddam had been staying.
Saddam was “very disoriented” as soldiers brought him out of the hole, Odierno said. A Pentagon diagram showed the hiding place as a 6-foot-deep vertical tunnel, with a shorter tunnel branching out horizontally from one side. A pipe to the concrete surface at ground level provided air.
Two other Iraqis – described as low-level regime figures – were arrested in the raid, and soldiers found two Kalashnikov rifles, a pistol and $750,000 in $100 bills.
Sanchez saw Saddam overnight and said the deposed leader “has been cooperative and is talkative.” He described Saddam as “a tired man, a man resigned to his fate.”
“He didn’t seem apologetic. He seemed defiant, trying to find excuses for the crimes in the same way he did in the past,” said Adel Abdel-Mahdi, a senior official of a Shiite Muslim political party who, along with other Iraqi leaders, visited Saddam in captivity.
“When we told him, ‘If you go to the streets now, you will see the people celebrating,”‘ Abdel-Mahdi said. “He answered, ‘Those are mobs.’ When we told him about the mass graves, he replied, ‘Those are thieves.”‘
U.S. intelligence and military officials launched an effort a few weeks ago to penetrate Saddam’s support network around Tikrit, a U.S. official said. Suspected members of the network were identified and targeted for capture or questioning.
Ahmad Chalabi, a member of Iraq’s Governing Council, said Saddam will face a public trial “so that the Iraqi people will know his crimes.”
However, U.S. authorities have not yet determined when – or whether – to hand Saddam over to the Iraqis for a war crimes trial or what his status would be. Amnesty International said Saddam should be given POW status and allowed visits by the international Red Cross.
After invading Iraq on March 20 and setting up their headquarters in a presidential palace compound in Baghdad, U.S. troops placed the reward on Saddam’s head and deployed thousands of soldiers to search for him.
His capture leaves 13 figures at large from a Most Wanted list of 55 regime officials. The highest ranking fugitive is Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, a close Saddam aide who U.S. officials say may be directly organizing resistance.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair hailed the capture, saying Saddam “has gone from power, he won’t be coming back.”
“Where his rule meant terror and division and brutality, let his capture bring about unity, reconciliation and peace between all the people of Iraq,” Blair said.
Stock markets rallied early Monday across the Asia-Pacific region as traders bet Saddam’s capture could mark a turning point in the conflict.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said the capture “offered an opportunity to give fresh impetus to the search for peace and stability in Iraq.”
In Sweden, former U.N. chief weapons inspector Hans Blix said he hoped information about the existence of purported weapons of mass destruction, or lack thereof, could be gleaned from Saddam.
“He ought to know quite a lot and be able to tell the story and we all want to get to the bottom of the barrel,” Blix said.