Anatomy of Hussein's capture

The cellar floor didn't look quite right ...

By , Staff writer

... at least, not in one spot. Bricks and dirt were spread about in a studied way, as if someone were trying to conceal something beneath. So US troops taking part in the early evening "Red Dawn" sweep shoveled the debris away. They discovered a hole, which led to a modest hiding chamber, complete with ventilation fan. The chamber was quite small, considering that it held not just a man but in some ways decades of Iraqi national history.

Eight months after a giant statue of Saddam Hussein was pulled to the ground in Baghdad in a gesture of celebration, the US finally has Mr. Hussein for real. It was probably the most intensive manhunt in history, with thousands of troops, secret units, and intensive pressure from Washington. The US even fluttered $25 million in reward money at those who might be able to reveal the tyrant's whereabouts.

The result will be a trial of a man personally responsible for an intricate infrastructure of oppression. Perhaps only now can Iraqis begin to truly shed the dead weight of a regime which shaped their lives so much in its 24 years of power.

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"The capture of this man was crucial to the rise of a free Iraq," said Presdient Bush Sunday. "It marks the end of the road for him and for all who bullied and killed in his name."

For the troops that took part in the capture - a total of some 600, from the US 4th Infantry Division, and Special Forces - the raid was not exactly business as usual. They didn't know that Mr. Hussein was their target, exactly. But the operation was clearly a search for an HVT, in military parlance, "High Value Target."

They established a perimeter first, cordoning off an area of about 1.2 miles square in Ad Dawr, near Hussein's birthplace of Tikrit in northern Iraq. After surveillance they become suspicious of a small walled compound between a field and a sheep pen. There were two buildings there: a metal lean-to and a farmhouse, a hut really, just a two-room adobe structure not even nice enough to be described as "humble."

As they approached the compound, at about 8:30 p.m. local time on Saturday, two armed guards saw them. Undoubtedly hardened insurgents, aware of who was inside the compound, these men saw what was coming - and ran. They were quickly taken into custody.

Inside was a bedroom strewn with clothes that were newish, if not new. A box contained $750,000 in US $100 bills. There was also the suspicious debris, and a rug just outside the structure, which US troops removed. There was not a trapdoor, but a plug, a light styrofoam plank. They pulled it up, and there was HVT 1, Saddam Hussein himself, bearded and tired and looking more likely to ask for a quarter than order a strike of chemical weapons. "He was a little disoriented, obviously, as he came up," said Maj. Gen. Ray Odierno, 4th infantry division commander, on Sunday.

The hut was close to the Tigris. Across the river stood some of the ornate homes Hussein had constructed for himself, friends, and relatives in an area that had always been a stronghold of Baathist Party support. "He was in a hole in the ground across from these great palaces that he had built," said Gen. Odierno.

Having figured out who their captive might be, US troops wanted to get him out of there as fast as possible. Within 45 minutes the captive (described as "talkative") was on his way to higher headquarters.

US officials have long believed that Hussein had 20 to 30 hiding holes secreted throughout the "Sunni triangle" north of Baghdad, and that he moved between them regularly, perhaps as often as every three to four hours. Good intelligence was the key to finding him, given his constant movement. In recent weeks US intelligence has increasingly targeted people with family and tribal ties to Hussein, and ultimately got the information they needed from one of them. US troops had searched that area before without success. But perhaps Hussein hadn't been there. Within a day of receiving the new tip, they moved in and made their capture.

Hussein's personal fate has been a matter of crucial importance to the US military effort in Iraq since the opening moments of the war. A salvo of guided munitions launched on a residence where US intelligence believed Hussein might be hiding were, in fact, the first American shots fired. Subsequently several more air strikes were directed at possible Hussein locations. Frustrated Air Force officials at one point groused that while they might have missed the Iraqi leader they had at least turned the restaurant where they thought he was eating into a "McCrater's."

After the end of major operations, the necessity of grabbing the deposed dictator was, if anything, intensified. As long as he remained at large, the silent majority of Iraqis might find it hard to believe that he would not wait out the US and return. Whether he was involved in directing the insurgent resistance to the US or not, he was a symbol rallying their efforts.

On July 22, Hussein's sons, Qusay and Uday, were killed in a four-hour gun battle with US forces in the northern city of Mosul.

Pentagon officials were heartened not just by this success but also by the manner in which it came about: The owner of the house where the pair were hiding had grabbed $15 million in reward money and turned them in. Even as the Iraqi insurgency intensified, US officials thought it was only a matter of time before they located Hussein.

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