TIKRIT, Iraq — U.S. soldiers tracked a scruffy and haggard Saddam Hussein to a dirt hole at a farmhouse near his hometown, capturing the elusive dictator without firing a shot and unleashing euphoria Sunday among Iraqis and the U.S.-led forces who have hunted him for more than eight months.
The arrest of the president who bent this country to his will for three decades set off cascades of celebratory gunfire throughout Baghdad, the capital, and delivered the coalition its most significant victory at a time when the fruitless hunt for weapons of mass destruction and an evermore tenacious insurgency had eroded support in the U.S. public for the mission.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we got him!” a clearly tired but jubilant U.S. civilian administrator L. Paul Bremer proclaimed almost 19 hours after a special operations team of 600 soldiers from the Army’s 4th Infantry Division cornered the coalition’s most-wanted man.
In Washington, President Bush hailed the end of what he called a “dark and painful era” of Iraqi history and pledged to this country’s people: “You will not have to fear the rule of Saddam Hussein ever again.”
The culmination of Operation Red Dawn found Saddam in what the coalition’s U.S. commander, Lt. Gen. Ricardo
Sanchez, described as a “spider hole” camouflaged with dirt and bricks. Two unidentified guards, some small arms and $750,000 were found in a nearby hut. Saddam was arrested at 8:30 p.m. local time Saturday, then examined and interrogated before being jailed at an undisclosed coalition location.
Saddam put up no resistance and was “talkative and being cooperative,” Sanchez said, though he declined to give details of what the former dictator was telling them. He described Saddam as “a tired man, a man resigned to his fate.”
Coalition officials acknowledged that Saddam’s capture is unlikely to end the ambushes and assassinations waged by his loyalists and foreign infiltrators who have brought their proclaimed holy war against the United States to Iraq. In fact, one of the deadliest insurgent attacks in recent days came 12 hours after Saddam’s capture when a car bomb detonated at an Iraqi police station in the tense town of Khaldiyah, killing at least 17 Iraqis and wounding dozens of others.
But his arrest was certain to alleviate Iraqi fears that the holdouts, whom Bremer has long dismissed as “bitter-enders,” could ever defeat the occupation force and return Saddam to power.
“A significant blow has been dealt to former regime elements to prevent coalition progress in Iraq,” Maj. Gen. Ray Odierno, whose 4th Infantry Division conducted the massive sweep, said at a news conference at division headquarters in Tikrit. It appeared unlikely that Saddam was directing insurgent actions from his hide-out, the general said, because no communications devices were found at the site.
Odierno described as ironic the fact that Saddam was found in a crude dirt cell so close to the lavish palaces he built just across the Tigris River. U.S. and other intelligence operatives had long speculated he outfitted sophisticated underground compounds in which he could survive for years.
Iraqi government figures vowed to prosecute the captive leader for war crimes, and citizens taking to the street in emotional demonstrations demanded his execution.
At a Baghdad news conference mobbed by coalition employees, troops and Iraqi and foreign journalists, Sanchez showed a videotape of the bearded Saddam being examined by a medic. Visible only from the shoulders up, Saddam was shown passively allowing the doctor to peer into his mouth with a light and tongue depressor and picking through his matted hair and beard as if searching for lice.
Iraqi journalists, many overcome with emotion at the sight of the captive who once repressed them, shouted praise to Allah and “Death to Saddam!”
The video clip also showed the hole in which Saddam, 66, was discovered in the village of Adwar, about 10 miles south of Tikrit. From an opening about 2 feet square, a few crude dirt steps could be seen descending the depth of one story to a ventilated cell just long enough for a man to lie down.
Asked what Saddam was doing when he was encountered, Sanchez replied, “Hiding.”
Coalition officials warned that the insurgents are still dangerous, while expressing hope that Saddam’s capture eventually would demoralize Baath Party loyalists. “The tyrant is a prisoner,” Bremer declared, saying it was a “great day in Iraq’s history.”
It was also a huge victory for the coalition. As U.S.-led authorities struggle to build up an Iraqi government and security force to which the coalition can hand over power July 1, the failure to capture Saddam had served as evidence for many Iraqis that Bush’s May 1 declaration of victory after the springtime offensive was at best premature.
His capture “brings closure to the Iraqi people,” Sanchez said. “Saddam Hussein will never return to a position of power from which he can punish, terrorize, intimidate and exploit the Iraqi people as he did for more than 35 years.”
The three-star general, who commands troops from 30 nations in Iraq, said Saddam was cooperating with the interrogation. He declined to say, however, whether the coalition had asked him to address loyalists with an appeal to cease offensives, or if the deposed leader had suggested such a course himself.
The operation — and its dramatic conclusion — was kept secret for 19 hours so coalition forces could conduct health and identity checks, including DNA analysis, said members of Iraq’s Governing Council.
Having weathered so many false alarms about Saddam’s capture since the April 9 fall of Baghdad, many Iraqis remained skeptical until they saw his weary image in the military video shown repeatedly on TV. The coalition also presented a still photograph of Saddam after he had been shaved and ran it alongside a file photo from Saddam’s days in office to show it had the right person.
“I assure you he is arrested. There is no doubt,” said Adnan Pachachi, another Governing Council member who visited Saddam in detention. He said the former leader’s capture was a joyous breakthrough that will “allow us to continue our march to build Iraq and to regain its independence and sovereignty.”
Another council member, Ahmad Chalabi, told journalists Saddam would be put on trial for war crimes once a newly created special tribunal begins its work, likely after the planned July 1 dissolution of the occupation administration.
Iraqi officials made clear Wednesday, when they announced the formation of the tribunal, that the death penalty would be restored as a sentencing option once Iraq recovers its sovereignty. Coalition officials suspended capital punishment shortly after the fall of Baghdad to reassess a judicial system that had been perverted by Saddam’s regime.
Most Iraqis’ first reaction was disbelief, then jubilation. As word spread around Baghdad that Saddam had been captured, a cacophony of honking horns and staccato bursts of machine-gun fire could be heard throughout the capital, already snarled with traffic because of security impositions and lines of cars waiting to buy gas that has been in short supply lately.
The coalition’s Baghdad news conference was carried live on the occupation administration’s Iraqi Media Network. Both widely viewed Arabic-language networks, Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, also carried live feeds of the event attended by Bremer, Sanchez and Pachachi.
Rumors had begun circulating in Baghdad early Sunday that the U.S. government’s most hunted adversary after terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden had been captured or killed. Among the rumors, which Sanchez dismissed as just that, was a report that Saddam’s wife had tipped coalition forces to his hide-out. Odierno, however, confirmed the operation was aided by someone from a family “close to him.”
Saddam had a $25 million bounty on his head, but Sanchez declined to say whether the information leading to his capture came from an Iraqi tip. He would say only that “human intelligence” received at 10:50 a.m. Saturday spurred the 4th Infantry Division’s 1st Combat Task Force to scramble a special operations team to close in on two sites in Adwar. Saddam’s two sons, Odai and Qusai, were killed in a raid in the northern city of Mosul on July 22. Thirty-eight other top Baath Party members from the coalition’s 55-most-wanted list have been captured, including former Foreign Minister Tarik Aziz and Ali Hassan Majid, the military zealot known as “Chemical Ali” for his gassing of Kurds in 1988.