By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Monday, December 15, 2003
BAGHDAD, Dec. 14 -- Former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein was captured without a shot Saturday night by American soldiers who discovered him hiding in the dark of a tiny, underground burrow near his home town, U.S. military officials said on Sunday.
Hussein was detained outside Dawr, a hamlet along the Tigris River about 10 miles southeast of Tikrit, by soldiers of the U.S. Army's 4th Infantry Division, military officials said. He was spirited to Baghdad, officials said, where he was subjected to a medical examination and questioning that could lead eventually to a trial for crimes against humanity and genocide.
Within hours of his capture, however, the man who exercised absolute power in Iraq for almost three decades was confronted by several politicians he had tormented. In a 30-minute meeting at a detention facility at Baghdad International Airport, four of the country's new leaders grilled Hussein about his rule.
"He had no regret or remorse," said Mowaffak Rubaie, a member of Iraq's U.S.-appointed Governing Council. "He remains the street thug that he always was."
"He was unrepentant and defiant," said Adel Abdel-Mehdi, a senior Shiite Muslim politician. "He was not at all apologetic. He just made excuses for his crimes."
However, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the top military commander in Iraq, said Hussein "has been cooperative and is talkative." Sanchez, who observed Hussein in custody, described the 66-year-old former leader as "a tired man, a man resigned to his fate."
The capture of Hussein, who appeared bedraggled and exhausted after more than eight months on the run, accomplishes a long-sought goal of the Bush administration that U.S. commanders hope will weaken insurgents fighting occupation forces.
The U.S. military said it confirmed Hussein's identity with a DNA test. It also took the unusual step of displaying a two-minute video clip of the former president, who had grown a long beard, having his hair probed for lice and his mouth examined by a latex-gloved doctor. It was an ignominious end for a ruler who had cultivated an image of ruthless invincibility as he executed political rivals, invaded two neighboring nations and then eluded U.S. forces since the fall of Baghdad in April.
"Ladies and gentlemen, we got him," the U.S. administrator of Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, announced to cheering Iraqi journalists and American soldiers at a news conference here. "The tyrant is a prisoner."
The news prompted emotional celebrations across Baghdad, with some residents cheering and dancing in the streets and others crying with joy. Shouts of "God is great! Saddam has been captured!" echoed through several neighborhoods. In a traditional act of merriment, thousands of people fired automatic weapons into the air, sending many others scurrying for cover from stray bullets, which sparked at least three large explosions in the capital.
"Today is a historic day, a happy day, for the Iraqi people," said council member Adnan Pachachi, who served as Iraq's foreign minister before Hussein's Baath Party came to power 35 years ago. "We have been waiting for this day for a very long time."
Iraqi leaders said Hussein would be tried in public before a war crimes tribunal established last week by the Governing Council. But U.S. authorities have not yet determined when -- or whether -- to hand Hussein over to the Iraqis for a war crimes trial or what his legal status would be.
American military and civilian officials expressed optimism that Hussein's detention would reduce resistance attacks, which have claimed the lives of almost 200 U.S. troops and even more Iraqis since President Bush declared major combat over on May 1. In the latest attack, a suicide bomber detonated a car packed with explosives outside of a police station in the violence-wracked town of Khaldiya, west of Baghdad, killing at least 17 Iraqis and wounding 33 others. A U.S. soldier also died on Sunday while trying to disarm a roadside bomb south of Baghdad.
Military officials said attacks may spike over the next few days and weeks, but they predicted an eventual decline as Hussein loyalists realize that their former leader will not return to power. "This will change the landscape," a senior military official said. "This is a big blow for the terrorists and bitter-enders."
However, in towns across the Sunni Triangle -- a swath of central Iraq dominated by Sunni Muslims where resistance attacks have been most common -- residents have said insurgents in their communities are motivated more by religion and nationalism than by a sense of loyalty to Hussein.
Even in Baghdad's Adhimiya neighborhood, which is predominantly Sunni, dozens of gun-toting men took to the streets on Sunday evening vowing to keep fighting for Hussein. "With our blood, with our souls, we sacrifice ourselves for you, Saddam!" several shouted.
Senior U.S. officials in Baghdad said they believed such sentiments would be short-lived. "The capture of Saddam Hussein is a defining moment in the new Iraq," said Sanchez, the military commander. "I expect that the detention of Saddam Hussein will be regarded as the beginning of reconciliation for the people of Iraq and as a sign of Iraq's rebirth."
Bremer hailed the arrest as "a new opportunity for the members of the former regime, whether military or civilian, to end their bitter opposition." He urged Hussein loyalists to lay down their arms and "come forward in spirit of reconciliation and hope."
"This is a great day in Iraq's history," Bremer said in a message to Iraqis after announcing the arrest. "For decades, hundreds of thousands of you suffered at the hands of this cruel man. For decades, Saddam Hussein divided you citizens against each other. For decades, he threatened an attack on your neighbors. Those days are over forever."
In many ways, Hussein's final days were like his first. The hardscrabble village in which Hussein grew up, Auja, is less than 10 miles from where he was captured. He was the son of a landless peasant who died before he was born and was raised by an uncle, living among the same palm groves and farmland in which he recently hid from U.S. forces.
Last seen in public in the final days of the war, he vanished as his army collapsed and U.S. tanks rolled into Baghdad on April 9. He immediately became the military's principal quarry, designated "High Value Target No. 1."
Over the next eight months, even as he issued statements exhorting Iraqis to rise up against the U.S. occupation forces, Hussein managed to evade capture. He outlasted many younger compatriots and even his two sons, Uday and Qusay, who were killed in a gun battle with U.S. forces in July. Although a $25 million U.S. government reward for information leading to his capture led to a flurry of tips, none was accurate or timely enough to result in his capture.
Maj. Gen. Raymond Odierno, the 4th Infantry Division's commander, said he believed Hussein had 20 to 30 safe houses in central Iraq that he shuttled among, often spending no more than a few hours in each.
The 4th Infantry conducted dozens of raids aimed at finding Hussein, occasionally coming close, military officials said. Over the past 10 days, however, the division shifted its strategy, detaining and questioning "five to 10 members" of families "close to Saddam," Odierno said.
The division received intelligence about Hussein's whereabouts Saturday from a member of one such family. "Finally, we got the ultimate information," Odierno said.
The division commander dispatched about 600 troops to an area near Dawr, including several Special Forces soldiers. At 8 p.m., after surrounding the area, the soldiers raided two houses but came up empty.
Then, after interrogating a man apprehended in one of the houses, residents said, the troops converged on the hovel where Hussein was hiding, in a palm orchard near a small farm plot at the end of a dirt road. The soldiers, using night-vision scopes, found him sitting in an underground crawl space that was covered with a rug and a camouflaged Styrofoam lid, Odierno said.
Hussein, who was armed with a pistol, was "very disoriented" as soldiers brought him out of the hole. Odierno said he made no attempt to resist. "There was no way he could fight back, so he was just caught like a rat," the general said.
Two other Iraqis -- whose identities were not released but who were described by military officials as "low-level figures" -- were arrested in the raid. Soldiers at the scene found two AK-47 assault rifles and a green metal trunk filled with $750,000 in $100 bills.
The crawl space was next to a two-room mud hut that contained some clothes and a rudimentary kitchen, officials said. Odierno said he assumed Hussein had been there only a short time because new, unwrapped shirts were found in the bedroom.
Odierno noted that Hussein was apprehended just downstream from some of his most lavish palaces. "I think it's rather ironic that he was in a hole in the ground across the river from these great palaces that he built," he said.