Hiding in hole, dictator taken without a shot

Bush tells Iraqis days of living in fear over

DEC. 15, 2003

BY CHRISTINE SPOLAR/Tribune foreign correspondent

BAGHDAD - U.S. troops scouring a remote Iraqi farm plucked deposed dictator Saddam Hussein from a hole in the ground where he was hiding, ending an eight-month hunt for a tyrant who implored his people to fight to the death but who surrendered without a struggle.

The capture Saturday night in the town of Ad Dawr, 10 miles south of Tikrit, marked a major victory for the U.S.-led efforts in Iraq.

"Ladies and gentlemen, we got him," said U.S. administrator Paul Bremer, giving official confirmation Sunday at a Baghdad news conference. "The tyrant is a prisoner."

In Washington, President Bush said the Iraqi's capture "marks the end of the road for him and for all who bullied and killed in his name." He vowed Hussein would "face the justice he denied to millions."

"This afternoon I have a message for the Iraqi people," Bush said. "You will not have to fear the rule of Saddam Hussein ever again."

American officials did not specify who would try Hussein. But Iraqi leaders said they wanted him to stand public trial before a special Iraqi war crimes tribunal established last week.

Hussein, 66, was whisked away for interrogation at an undisclosed location, where he also met with members of the new Iraqi Governing Council. Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez said investigators described Hussein as talkative and cooperative, raising hopes that the former dictator could lead the military to the core of the resistance convulsing major cities in Iraq.

But Sanchez emphasized that the arrest would not signal an end to the attacks that have grown more aggressive and sophisticated since November. Hours after the dictator's capture, but before any official confirmation, a bomb killed at least 17 people at a police station in Khaldiyah, west of Baghdad.

Bush echoed Sanchez.

"We still face terrorists who would rather go on killing the innocent than accept the rise of liberty," the president warned.

The capture was kept under wraps for many hours. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told Bush on Saturday afternoon that Hussein might be in U.S. hands. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice confirmed the news early Sunday morning.

Soon afterward, Bremer met reporters in the Iraqi capital. The news conference featured a 1 1/2-minute video of Hussein with a tangled gray beard, unkempt black hair and a look of bewilderment.

Examining Hussein

Hussein, who as president would not even shake hands without extensive security precautions, meekly allowed an investigator wearing latex gloves to scour his scalp as though looking for lice or lesions. Then he opened his mouth wide as he was swabbed with a tongue depressor in what appeared to be DNA sampling.

As the images flashed on television screens, Baghdad erupted with gunfire, shots pumped into the air by Iraqis celebrating a new day. Iraqi reporters at Bremer's news conference cheered and applauded. In some neighborhoods, people were seen dancing along sidewalks as jubilant music played on radios.

"They got Saddam! They got Saddam!" bus passengers shouted.

The capture was hailed by leaders of nations around the world, including some that had strongly criticized the U.S. invasion of Iraq on assertions that Hussein harbored weapons of mass destruction.

French President Jacques Chirac called the capture "a major event that should strongly contribute to democracy and stability in Iraq." German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder congratulated Bush "with much happiness."

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Bush's staunchest ally in the war effort, hailed Hussein's capture and said he hoped it would bring "unity, reconciliation and peace between all the people in Iraq."

"Saddam has gone from power," Blair said. "He won't be coming back. That the Iraqi people now know, and it is they who will decide his fate."

Identifying Hussein

Some members of the Iraqi Governing Council, a handpicked U.S. advisory board, said in a separate news conference that they identified Hussein for U.S. forces after his arrest and attempted to wrest an apology from him.

But they said Hussein remained unrepentant about the hundreds of thousands of people who disappeared or were killed during his despotic rule.

"He was sarcastic and mocking of the Iraqi people," said Adnan Pachachi, a longtime exile who returned to Baghdad after the regime tumbled April 9. "When we asked him about the men he killed, he said they were thieves."

Ahmad Chalabi, head of the Iraqi National Congress, said: "He did not deny any of the crimes he was confronted with having done. He tried to justify them.

"He was not remorseful at all," Chalabi added. "It was clear he was a complete narcissist who was incapable of showing remorse or sympathy to other human beings."

U.S. troops found Hussein in farm country that had been searched by land and air for months.

Tikrit, the area's largest city, is Hussein's hometown, and he rewarded his relatives and local tribes for their loyalty.

He apparently relied on those friends to help build a network of crude hiding places that helped him skirt troops, said Maj. Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of the 4th Infantry Division, which captured Hussein.

Military officials said troops had embarked on at least 60 raids similar to the one that was ultimately successful--code-named Operation Red Dawn.

Odierno estimated that over the months, Hussein dug himself into about 30 hiding places--dirt shafts covered by brush, carpet or bricks.

When soldiers found Hussein on Saturday, Odierno said, "he was in the bottom of a hole. So he was just caught like a rat" not far from one of his opulent palaces.

U.S. officials had offered $25 million to anyone who offered information leading to Hussein's arrest. Though he went into hiding March 20--the night he survived a salvo of U.S. missiles that opened the war--Hussein still was considered a vigorous enemy who encouraged and abetted the deadly insurgency in Iraq.

Odierno indicated Sunday night that the tip leading to Hussein's arrest came from a family or tribe member who had been rounded up in a series of raids launched in the last 10 days.

One person finally offered "vital information" that sent troops into Ad Dawr, Odierno said.

Officials described Hussein's lair--essentially a hut--as part of a walled compound at a farm. Near the hut was a 6-foot shaft dug into the ground with a shorter tunnel branching out from it. A pipe attached to the shaft allowed air into the hiding place.

The military launched the raid within 24 hours of receiving the tip, officials said. Soldiers were aware that they were searching for what the coalition termed a "high-value target," Odierno said, but few realized the search was for Hussein.

Soldiers searched one other site near the property before finding Hussein. Odierno said two guards ran from the farm as the troops approached and were later captured.

Holding gun when found

Hussein was alone, clutching a pistol, when soldiers discovered the hidden shaft under a layer of Styrofoam and carpet. Odierno said he believed Hussein had been there a matter of hours.

Odierno described Hussein as "very disoriented" at the time of his capture. Sanchez said he found him to be "a tired man. . . . I think, a man resigned."

Hussein never fired a shot during his capture, the military said. He was found to have two Kalashnikov automatic rifles in the nearby hut and $750,000 in cash. New clothes, still wrapped, were strewn across the room.

Hussein was one of the most wanted fugitives in the world. The March 20 missile strike near Baghdad in which the U.S. tried to kill him and his sons was followed by the broader assault against Iraq from the air and ground.

In less than three weeks, U.S. troops rolled into Baghdad, toppling a large statue of Hussein and scattering his Baath Party regime.

Deaths of two sons

Coalition forces tracked down and killed his murderous progeny, Udai and Qusai, in the northern city of Mosul in July.

Attempts to kill or capture Hussein always fell short, however, and the hunt for the dictator became a vexing priority for the Americans.

Hussein goaded the U.S. coalition regularly with audiotapes that were released to Arab media.

But during Saturday's raid, investigators retrieved no electronic equipment or cell phones, Odierno said, leaving him to conclude that Hussein was an isolated man.

"I don't believe he was coordinating the effort," Odierno said.

Yet officials remain concerned about attacks against soldiers and Iraqis who cooperated with the coalition. While the deaths of Hussein's two sons prompted an increase in tips about fugitives, they also were followed by a sharp rise in the guerrilla campaign against coalition forces.

National correspondent Bob Kemper and Tribune news services contributed to this report.