The Associated Press
BAGHDAD, Iraq – Without firing a shot, American forces captured a bearded and haggard-looking Saddam Hussein in a dirt cellar under a farmhouse near his hometown of Tikrit, ending one of the most intensive manhunts in history. The arrest was a huge victory for U.S. forces battling an insurgency by the ousted dictator’s followers.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we got him,” U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer told a news conference Sunday, eight months after American troops swept into Baghdad and toppled Saddam’s regime.
“The tyrant is a prisoner.”
In the capital, radio stations played celebratory music, residents fired small arms in the air in celebration and passengers on buses and trucks shouted, “They got Saddam! They got Saddam!”
Washington hopes Saddam’s capture will help break the organized Iraq resistance that has killed more than 190 American soldiers since President Bush declared major combat over on May 1 and has set back efforts at reconstruction. U.S. commanders have said that while in hiding Saddam played some role in the guerrilla campaign blamed on his followers.
In the latest attack, a suspected suicide bomber detonated explosives in a car outside a police station Sunday morning west of Baghdad, killing at least 17 people and wounding 33 more, the U.S. military said.
Saddam was captured at 8:30 p.m. Saturday in a walled farm compound in Adwar, a town 10 miles from Tikrit, said Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq. The cellar was little more than a specially prepared “spider hole” with just enough space to lie down. Bricks and dirt camouflaged the entrance.
A Pentagon diagram showed the hiding place as a 6-foot-deep vertical tunnel, with a shorter tunnel branching out horizontally from one side. A pipe to the concrete surface at ground level provided air, according to a Pentagon diagram. The hole was inside a small walled compound with a room in one corner and a lean-to attached to the room. The hole was roughly in the middle of the compound.
A U.S. defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Saddam admitted his identity when captured.
Sanchez, who saw Saddam overnight, said the deposed leader “has been cooperative and is talkative.” He described Saddam as “a tired man, a man resigned to his fate.”
Eager to give Iraqis evidence that the elusive former dictator had indeed been captured, Sanchez played a video at the news conference showing the 66-year-old Saddam in custody.
Saddam, with a thick, graying beard and bushy, disheveled hair, was seen as doctor examined him, holding his mouth open with a tongue depressor, apparently to get a DNA sample. Saddam touched his beard during the exam. Then the video showed a picture of Saddam after he was shaved, juxtaposed for comparison with an old photo of the Iraqi leader while in power.
Iraqi journalists in the audience stood, pointed and shouted “Death to Saddam!” and “Down with Saddam!”
Though the raid occurred Saturday afternoon American time, U.S. officials went to great length to keep it quiet until medical tests and DNA testing confirmed Saddam’s identity.
Saddam was being held at an undisclosed location, and U.S. authorities have not yet determined whether to hand him over to the Iraqis for trial, Sanchez said. Iraqi officials want him to stand trial before a war crimes tribunal created last week.
“This success brings closure to the Iraqi people,” Sanchez said.
“Saddam Hussein will never return to a position of power from which he can punish, terrorize, intimidate and exploit the Iraqi people as the did for more than 35 years.”
Ahmad Chalabi, a member of Iraq’s Governing Council, said Sunday that Saddam will be put on trial.
“Saddam will stand a public trial so that the Iraqi people will know his crimes,” said Chalabi told Al-Iraqiya, a Pentagon-funded TV station.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair hailed the capture, saying the deposed leader “has gone from power, he won’t be coming back.”
“Where his rule meant terror and division and brutality, let his capture bring about unity, reconciliation and peace between all the people of Iraq,” Blair said in brief comments at his 10 Downing St. office.
In Tikrit, U.S. soldiers lit up cigars after hearing the news of Saddam’s capture.
Some 600 troops from the 4th Infantry Division along with Special Forces captured Saddam, the U.S. military said. There were no shots fired or injuries in the raid, called “Operation Red Dawn,” Sanchez said.
Two men “affiliated with Saddam Hussein” were detained with him, and soldiers confiscated two Kalashnikov rifles, a pistol, a taxi and $750,000 in $100 bills, Sanchez said. The two men were “fairly insignificant” regime figures, a U.S. defense official said.
Celebratory gunfire erupted in the capital, and shop owners closed their doors, fearful that the shooting would make the streets unsafe.
“I’m very happy for the Iraqi people. Life is going to be safer now,” said 35-year-old Yehya Hassan, a resident of Baghdad. “Now we can start a new beginning.”
Earlier in the day, rumors of the capture sent people streaming into the streets of Kirkuk, a northern Iraqi city, firing guns in the air in celebration.
“We are celebrating like it’s a wedding,” said Kirkuk resident Mustapha Sheriff. “We are finally rid of that criminal.”
“This is the joy of a lifetime,” said Ali Al-Bashiri, another resident. “I am speaking on behalf of all the people that suffered under his rule.”
Despite the celebration throughout Baghdad, many residents were skeptical.
“I heard the news, but I’ll believe it when I see it,” said Mohaned al-Hasaji, 33. “They need to show us that they really have him.”
Ayet Bassem, 24, walked out of a shop with her 6-year-old son.
“Things will be better for my son,” she said. “Everyone says everything will be better when Saddam is caught. My son now has a future.”
After invading Iraq on March 20 and setting up their headquarters in Saddam’s sprawling Republican Palace compound in Baghdad, U.S. troops launched a massive manhunt for the fugitive leader, placing a $25 million bounty on his head and sending thousands of soldiers to search for him.
Saddam was one of the most-wanted fugitives in the world, along with Osama bin Laden, the leader of the al-Qaida terrorist network who hasn’t been caught despite a manhunt since November 2001, when the Taliban regime was overthrown in Afghanistan.
Saddam proved elusive during the war, when at least two dramatic military strikes came up empty in their efforts to assassinate him. Since then, he has appeared in both video and audio tapes. U.S. officials named him No. 1 on their list of 55 most-wanted Iraqis, the Ace of Spades in a special deck of most-wanted cards.
U.S. forces had indicated they did not think Saddam would be captured alive.
Saddam’s sons Qusai and Odai _ each with a $15 million bounty on their heads _ were killed July 22 in a four-hour gunbattle with U.S. troops in a hideout in the northern city of Mosul. The bounties were paid out to the man who owned the house where they were killed, residents said.
Adnan Pachachi, member of Iraq’s U.S.-appointed Governing Council, said Saddam’s capture will bring stability to Iraq.
“The state of fear, intelligence and oppression is gone forever,” Pachachi said. “The Iraqi people are very happy and we look forward to a future of national reconciliation between Iraqis in order to build the new and free Iraq, an Iraq of equality.”