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."
It was also a huge victory for the U.S.-led coalition. Faced with little more than six months to build up and Iraqi government and security force to which the occupational force intends to hand over power on July 1, Hussein's unknown whereabouts had served as evidence for many Iraqis that President Bush's May 1 declaration of victory after the springtime offensive was premature at best.
His capture "brings closure to the Iraqi people," said Sanchez. "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 in command of all 150,000-plus troops from 30 nations said Hussein 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.
While Sanchez cast Hussein as resigned but unemotional, one of four Iraqi government officials brought to view the jailed dictator, apparently here in Baghdad, described him as "unrepentant and sarcastic." Mouwafaz Al-Rubaie, a Shiite Muslim and prominent businessman on the Iraqi Governing Council, said the interim leadership delegation spent about half an hour with the captive.
"He is an unbelievable psychopath," said Al-Rubaie, who claimed Hussein was found tucked into a small recess of the dirt hide-out "with rats and mice."
Adel Abdul-Mehdi, another senior Shiite Muslim political official, said he told Hussein Iraqis were celebrating in the streets at the word he was arrested. "Those are mobs," Abdul-Mehdi quoted an indifferent Hussein as saying. It appeared to have been a taunt, as word had not yet spread of Hussein's arrest when the Iraqi leaders saw him late Saturday.
The operation — and its dramatic success — were 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 Hussein's capture since the April 12 fall of Baghdad, many Iraqis remained skeptical until they saw his beleaguered image in the military video shown repeatedly on television.
"I assure you he is arrested. There is no doubt," said Adnan Pachachi, another Governing Council member who visited Hussein 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."
Fatigue and humiliation were visible on Hussein's face. His eyes were hung with puffy bags and he made no effort to evade eye contact with the military camera that filmed his examination.
Another council member, Ahmad Chalabi, told journalists Hussein would be put on trial once the newly created tribunal begins its work, likely after the planned July 1 dissolution of the occupational administration.
Iraqi officials made clear Wednesday, when they announced the tribunal, that restoration of the death penalty as a sentencing option would be made once Iraq recovers its sovereignty. Coalition officials suspended capital punishment shortly after the April 12 fall of Baghdad to make any necessary assessments and improvements of the judicial system that had been bent to Hussein's will for decades.
"A heavy nightmare has been lifted from the Iraqi's," Chalabi said. "The situation will now improve in Iraq. The Iraqi people will sigh deeply."
In New York, the rights group Amnesty International USA said it welcomed the arrest of Hussein but urged his jailers to grant him prisoner-of-war status and allow a visit to the captive by the International Committee of the Red Cross, said media director Alistair Hodgett.
Most Iraqis' first reaction was disbelief, then jubilation. As word spread around Baghdad that the elusive Hussein had been captured, a cacophony of honking horns and staccato bursts of machine-gun fire could be heard throughout the capital.
The coalition press conference was carried live on the occupational 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 today that Hussein, 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 Hussein's wife tipped coalition forces to his hiding place.
Hussein 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 venues in the village of Adwar.
Saddam's two sons, Uday and Qusay, were killed in a raid in the northern city of Mosul on July 22. Thirty-eight other top Baathists from the coalition's 55 most-wanted list have been captured, including former Foreign Minister Tariq Azziz and the military zealot known as "Chemical Ali" for his gassing of Kurds in 1988.
Contributing were Times Staff Writers James Gerstenzang from Washington and Daryl Strickland from Los Angeles.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times