BAGHDAD—American soldiers tracked a scruffy and haggard Saddam Hussein to a dirt hole at a farmhouse near his hometown of Tikrit, capturing the elusive dictator without firing a shot and unleashing euphoria today among Iraqis and the U.S.-led forces who have struggled to end his tyranny.
Hussein's capture set off cascades of celebratory gunfire throughout this capital city and delivered the coalition its most significant victory in a war much maligned as a Vietnam-like quagmire.
Eight months after the end of major combat, the fruitless hunt for Hussein and his alleged weapons of mass destruction had been eroding support in the American public for the mission.
"Ladies and gentlemen, we got him!" a clearly tired but jubilant U.S. civilian governor L. Paul Bremer III proclaimed today almost 19 hours after a special operations team of 600 soldiers from the 4th Infantry Division cornered the coalition's most-wanted man.
Speaking from the White House today, President Bush said the "dark and painful era" of Iraqi history is over, and that Saddam Hussein "will face the justice he denied to others."
In a direct message to the Iraqi people, he said: "You will not have to fear the rule of Saddam Hussein ever again."
The culmination of Operation Red Dawn found Hussein, two unidentified loyalists, some small arms and $750,000 in cash in what the coalition's U.S. commander, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, described as a "spider hole" camouflaged with dirt and bricks. He was arrested at 8:30 p.m. local time Saturday, then examined and interrogated before being jailed at an undisclosed coalition location.
Hussein put up no resistance and was "talkative and being cooperative," Sanchez said, though he declined to give details of what the coalition's most prized detainee among nearly 10,000 was telling them. He described Hussein as "a tired man, a man resigned to his fate."
At a press conference mobbed by coalition employees, troops and Iraqi and foreign journalists, Sanchez showed a videotape of the bearded and weary Hussein being examined by a medic. Visible only from the shoulders up, Hussein was shown resignedly allowing the doctor to peer into his throat 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, shouted praise to Allah and "Death to Saddam!"
The video clip also showed the hole in which Hussein, 66, was discovered on the grounds of a farmhouse in the village of Adwar, about 10 miles south of Tikrit. From an opening about two-feet-square, a few crude dirt steps descended to a ventilated cell just long enough for a man to lie down.
Asked what Hussein was doing when he was found Sanchez replied: "Hiding."
In London, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, informed of the capture in a telephone call from Washington, said of Hussein: "He's gone from power. He won't be coming back."
Coalition officials conceded Hussein'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 occurred 12 hours after Hussein'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 the capture of Hussein was expected to alleviate Iraqi fears that the holdouts, who Bremer has long dismissed as "bitter-enders," could ever defeat the occupation force and return Hussein 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 directed the massive sweep, said at a press conference at division headquarters here.
In Baghdad, coalition officials warned the insurgents were still dangerous, while expressing hope that Hussein's capture would eventually demoralize what remains of a resistance.
"The tyrant is a prisoner," Bremer declared, saying it was a "great day in Iraq's history."