How We Got Saddam

In a part of the world where pride and dignity mean everything, the images were clearly intended to shame. A nameless doctor or medical technician, wearing rubber gloves, was seen closely examining the man's hair, perhaps looking for vermin. Prodded with a tongue depressor, the man opened his mouth; the doctor peered at the pink flesh of his throat and scraped off a few cells for DNA identification. Then the world saw the man's face. Haggard, defeated, slightly disgusted and unquestionably Saddam Hussein, tyrant and terrorist, sadist and murderer, object of one of the greatest manhunts in history.

The commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, told reporters that Saddam had been found hiding in a mudhole. Gone were the fleets of Mercedeses, the battalions of secret police, the gold-encrusted palaces. Saddam did not put up a fight; he did not try to take his own life (though he had a pistol). He was "talkative" and "cooperative," resigned, cowering, meek and weak. The Glorious Leader, Direct Descendant of the Prophet, the Lion of Babylon, the Father of the Two Lion Cubs, the Anointed One, the Successor of Nebuchadnezzar, the Modern Saladin of Islam had been brought low, forced to bow down, whisked away to an "undisclosed location" to contemplate his fate while waiting to stand trial for his vast crimes against humanity.

"Ladies and Gentlemen, we got him!" declared a beaming, triumphant Paul Bremer, the American proconsul in Baghdad. In the Iraqi capital, a hush had fallen over the city. Rumors of Saddam's capture had been flying through the streets. Almost everyone, it seemed, had gathered around a TV set or radio to await the formal word. When Bremer spoke, at about 3:15 Sunday afternoon Baghdad time (7:15 a.m. in Washington), the city erupted in celebratory gunfire. Shop owners began closing up, fearing that the revelers might get carried away. (When Saddam's sons, Uday and Qusay, were captured and killed last summer, at least a half dozen people were killed by the rain of falling bullets.) Cameras caught American soldiers puffing on cigars.

The insurrection will go on, and more American soldiers and Iraqis will die. But the capture of Saddam was undoubtedly an enormous breakthrough in the liberation of Iraq. Many Iraqis could never quite believe that Saddam was gone, that he would not reappear like some bad dream. By showing the images of Saddam in captivity and not just captured but poked, prodded and shorn, the Americans were sending a clear message to the Iraqi people that their tormentor of decades was gone forever.

Now comes the Mother of All War Crimes Trials. The mountain of evidence of Saddam's grotesqueries--the gassing of whole villages, the torture of political prisoners, the wholesale slaughter of his enemies--will be presented and dissected. The trial could be a security nightmare, of course, a target for terrorists. Some U.S. intelligence officials on Sunday morning speculated to NEWSWEEK that the capture of Saddam might actually bring an increase in attacks on American troops and their Iraqi allies--a last real spasm of violence. But Saddam's arrest may also be a chance for reconciliation, a step toward bringing together a nation divided by sect and tribe and, for too long, by fear.

The hunt for Saddam had been a vexing preoccupation of the military and the Bush administration. His capture was a happy ending to a maddening and sometimes embarrassingly fruitless hunt for a marked man with a $25 million bounty on his head. When Saddam vanished as Baghdad fell, American intelligence officials were reasonably confident that he had not fled the country and guessed that he was holed up somewhere near his old hometown of Tikrit, north of the Iraqi capital. But where? Saddam was said to have a number of body doubles and to have undergone plastic surgery to radically alter his features. The rumor mill ground away. In June, a Baghdad newspaper reported that the former president had been sighted driving a Pajero taxi around Baghdad, while wearing a beard, glasses and an ankle-length traditional Arab robe.

Special Forces (Delta, Navy SEALs, CIA paramilitary) scoured the countryside. A supersecret military team known as Grey Fox sleuthed about, listening for telltale radio or telephone transmissions. But Saddam was not likely to use the phone, and the greatest hope was always that he would be betrayed by his countrymen. One by one, the Americans picked up the top Baathist leaders, ranked in order of importance and identified on playing cards by U.S. intelligence. After 249 days, 41 of the 55 were in custody, but there was no Ace of Spades.

The Americans received numerous tips from Iraqis interested in the $25 million reward, but none of them panned out. So the military began to squeeze. About six weeks ago, soldiers of the Fourth Infantry Division strung barbed wire around the small farm village of Awja, where Saddam had lived as a boy, about 5 to 10 kilometers south of Tikrit--and, as it turned out, some 5 kilometers from the farm where he was finally captured. The town was a Saddamite fishbowl. About 60 percent of the village's thousand or so men were arrested and questioned. "We had number 6's father, Saddam's first cousin, quite a cast of characters that are town elders," Lt. Col. Steve Russell of the Fourth I.D. told NEWSWEEK.

By the time Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld arrived in Baghdad in early December, top CENTCOM officials were beginning to feel that they were finally closing in. A top aide to Rumsfeld told NEWSWEEK that intelligence was working up the food chain toward Saddam, arresting and interrogating sources who were getting close to the fugitive himself. One top official told Rumsfeld that U.S. forces were "on the heels" of Saddam. British sources told NEWSWEEK that Saddam had been driving around in a battered old cab, a clue for aerial surveillance. The pace of raids seemed to quicken last week: a series of quick hits on hideouts that revealed what one commander called a "Fedayeen candy shop," Pepsi cans rigged with explosives and bombs rigged with doorbell ringers. And more traces of Saddam.

At about 10:50 a.m. Baghdad time on Saturday, Dec. 13, military intelligence got the tip it was looking for. Saddam was hiding at one of two farms in the little town of Ad Dawr, according to the tipster. (The choice of Ad Dawr showed a certain lack of imagination, or perhaps desperation, by Saddam. In 1959, when Saddam tried unsuccessfully to assassinate the prime minister of Iraq, Abdul Karim Qassim, Saddam had fled to the same village and hid on a family friend's farm, later swimming across the Tigris River to exile in Syria, one of the only times he ever left his country.)

Quickly, the Fourth I.D. mounted Operation Red Dawn: about 600 troopers--cavalry, engineers, artillery, Special Forces--to descend on the two farms, code-named Wolverine 1 and Wolverine 2. As evening fell, the soldiers surrounded the farms, cutting off all roads for about four or five kilometers around. Special Forces slipped in--and found nothing.

According to U.S. officials, the Americans had an informant working with them, a family member "close to Saddam." The tipster said, in effect, "He's there. Trust me. Keep looking." A more thorough search of every building and field commenced, and at 8:26 p.m., a soldier noticed a crack in the earth under a lean-to adjoining a mud hut on a small sheep farm. The last hiding spot of the Lion of Babylon, the Butcher of Baghdad and what the Pentagon referred to as "High Value Target Number One" was unprepossessing in the extreme. A single beat-up orange and white Iraqi taxi was parked next to the sheep pen. The crack revealed a hidden door. The soldiers carefully shoved aside some bricks and dirt and opened up a Styrofoam hatch covered with a rug.

Inside a six-foot-deep hole was a dirty, disheveled man with a matted beard. He was lying flat, in a crawl space six feet by eight feet. It was not clear how long he had been hiding there. The "spider hole," as General Sanchez later described, was equipped with a ventilation device to allow him to breathe. Protruding from the wall was a tube, a crude urinal.

"Don't shoot," the man said, according to a military source. "I am Saddam Hussein, the president of the Republic of Iraq." Saddam "said very little," according to Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of the Fourth I.D. "He did not make any statement while he was there."

Saddam was later described as resigned and submissive, bewildered and disoriented. He apparently bumped his head as he was pulled out of the hole. "Tired, he was a tired man, and also a man resigned to his fate," said General Sanchez. The capture was easy. Not a shot was fired; no one was hurt. American forces found a couple of AK-47s, a pistol--and $750,000 in hundred-dollar bills. Two men were arrested as they ran away--presumably the final remnants of Saddam's once ferocious corps of bodyguards. Saddam had been staying in a crude two-room adobe house, probably only one of 30 or so hideouts he used, constantly on the run, moving probably every three or four hours, according to American commanders. Soldiers found new clothes still in their wrappings.

The captive was hurried off by helicopter to "an undisclosed location"--actually, the detention center at the Baghdad Airport, where top detainees are held for interrogation. American commanders tried to temper their elation. Gen. John Abizaid, the CENTCOM commander of all forces in the region, called Rumsfeld with the good news.

It was Saturday afternoon in Washington. Rumsfeld called the president at Camp David at about 3:15 p.m.

"Mr. President, first reports are not always accurate," he began.

"This sounds like it's going to be good news," the president interrupted. Rumsfeld told George W. Bush that Abizaid had called, "very confident" that Saddam had been captured.

"Well, that is good news," said Bush.

Back in Baghdad, Saddam was stripped and examined, probably with a most thorough and invasive body search. He has a telltale tattoo on his hand and scars of old wounds. His beard was shaved off. His captors paraded him before some of his former aides now in detention. including his longtime aide Tariq Aziz. The old courtiers confirmed their former boss's identity.

Saddam's successors, the Iraqi Governing Council, were allowed to see and question Saddam. The former ruler was haggard but defiant. When one of the Governing Council members demanded to know why had killed so many people, Saddam spat back that his victims were all "thieves and Iranian spies." (The Shiite members of the delegation were particularly incensed by Saddam's mocking tone when the Iraqi ruler was asked if he had played a role in assassinating Shiite Ayatollahs Muhammad Sadeq al-Sadr, in 1999, and Mohamad Baqir al Hakim, killed by a truck bomb this year. "Sadr" means "chest" in Arabic, and Saddam made a pun about getting him off his chest.) Adnan Pachachi, a leading member of the Governing Council, was engaged in a shouting match with Saddam when Pachachi was interrupted for a congratulatory phone call from President Bush on Sunday morning in Iraq.

The president had been awakened at 5 a.m. by his national-security adviser, Condoleezza Rice. The conversation was matter-of-fact, say White House aides. Rice was simply informing the president that Saddam's identity had been confirmed. Bush quickly decided that he would address the nation around noontime. But he and his advisers agreed that the crowing should be kept to a minimum and that the main show should go on in Baghdad.

Bremer had meant to begin the 3 p.m. (7 a.m. ET) briefing in Baghdad with some dutifully dignified remarks, but when he heard the excited buzz among the Iraqi journalists assembled for a press conference in the Baghdad Convention Center, he couldn't resist, and happily blurted, "We got him!" White House aides say that Bush, watching TV back in the White House residence, was moved and delighted by the emotional, cheering reaction of the Iraqi journalists.

It is hard to know the impact of Saddam's capture on the insurgency. Saddam was probably not the real field commander. He was too busy running and hiding. Army intelligence sources tell NEWSWEEK that many of the diehards in the insurgency hate Saddam and will go on fighting until they are killed or captured. The military must still capture Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri, Saddam's redheaded No. 2 (he is said to resemble Krusty the Clown), who probably directs a significant portion of the Iraqi resistance. It is unclear if Saddam's capture will dry up the financing of the insurrection. Al Qaeda operatives are filtering into Iraq from Afghanistan and Europe. If the domestic Iraqi insurgency fades, acts of terror committed by foreign Islamists, many coming from Iran, could keep up the fight. A knowledgeable Arab specialist at the Pentagon suggested to NEWSWEEK that Saddam's capture might inspire Osama bin Laden and what's left of Al Qaeda to stage another 9/11-style attack, perhaps in the United States.

That is the bad news. For President Bush, of course, capturing Saddam was a tremendous political boon, a signal victory in a war that had not been going very well. The greatest beneficiary of Saddam's capture is the anti-Saddam Iraqis in the fledgling Iraq government. They have been given a huge morale boost, the equivalent, for the Iraqi people, of capturing Hitler. The cathartic purge will be immense, since Iraq's reign of terror was embodied by the man. Fence-straddlers may now throw in their lot with the new government. They will no longer be afraid to let down their guard and embrace the new order. That does not mean, of course, that they will stop quarreling and fighting with each other. American officials still very much fear a civil war between Sunni, Shiites and Kurds.

And the violence will go on. On Sunday, just hours before Saddam's capture was announced, a suicide bomber drove into a police station in Khaldiya, 50 miles west of Baghdad, killing 10 Iraqi policemen and wounding 20 other Iraqis. Three days earlier, another Iraqi suicide bomber north of Baghdad killed an American soldier on guard duty outside a base. Certainly, the region will not suddenly go calm. Unnoticed in the hubbub over Saddam's capture, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf was the target of a serious assassination attempt on the road near Islamabad. A bomb went off near the general's motorcade. Early speculation was that the man behind the attack was Osama bin Laden--who remains at large.

Before Saddam goes on trial, he will be interrogated. If willing, Saddam could answer endless questions: Where is the rest of his vast fortune? Where are his remaining holdout lieutenants? Where are the weapons of mass destruction, if they do in fact exist? If Saddam is hiding vials of germs somewhere--if he has flushed them out of the country, to be used by future terrorists--his secrets would be vital beyond reckoning. But Saddam's captors have very little leverage to make him talk. Saddam knows that his fate is sealed. It would be highly improbable for him to be able to cut some kind of plea bargain.

More likely, Saddam will stand trial in his homeland. Last Wednesday, the Iraqi Governing Council established a tribunal to prosecute Saddam and his senior henchmen. The tribunal will sit in a huge central Baghdad museum dedicated to Saddam memorabilia. IGC members said they would reinstate Iraq's death penalty, suspended during the American occupation. The scene could be a circus, and a dangerous one. Emotions will run high; whatever diehards remain might try to stage a "spectacular." It will be hard for the prosecutors to know where to begin. Saddam's victims over the decades number in the hundreds of thousands, if not the millions. But the trial could serve to provide some kind of closure on Iraq's long nightmare of oppression, as long as it does not merely become a forum for revenge.

The political value for George Bush will be measured by the minutes on the evening news. The details of torture and oppression will be nightly reminders of why Bush felt justified in invading Iraq. Saddam's capture sent the Democrats scrambling, warning that the celebrations were wonderful but could be short-lived.

Bush took to the airwaves shortly after noon to congratulate U.S. troops and to declare that "American forces will not relent until this war is won." He told the Iraqis that they could have the "dignity" they deserve--while cautioning that the violence was not over.

In the Green Zone in Baghdad, where American soldiers and diplomats stay behind barbed wire and guard posts, a group of GIs watched as night fell and tracers arced into the sky in jubilation over Saddam's capture. One soldier, Sgt. Jose Chavarin of the 130th Medical Company, was hit in the head by a falling bullet. It bounced off his helmet harmlessly. His commander, First Sgt. Michelle Fournier, told Chavarin that he now had a great war story to tell. "I am going to have the bullet cut and drilled so we can have good-luck necklaces made," she said.

A giddy moment. But then, as midnight approached, explosions were heard in downtown Baghdad. Witnesses reported a car bomb. Or was it just fuel canisters on a truck? In any event, the insurrection is not dead yet. The war goes on.

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