When darkness fell, the Americans moved into position, 600 of them, from infantrymen to elite special forces. Their target: two houses in this rural village of orange, lemon and palm groves.
Someone big was inside, they were told.
But when they struck, they found nothing.
Then they spotted two men running away from a small walled compound in the trees. Inside, in front of a mud-brick hut, the troops pulled back a carpet on the ground, cleared away the dirt and revealed a styrofoam panel. Underneath, a hole led to a tiny chamber, just big enough for a single person to squeeze into.
At first they didn’t recognise the man hiding inside, with his ratty hair, wild beard and a pistol cradled in his lap. But when they asked who he was, the bewildered-looking man gave a shocking answer.
He said he was Saddam Hussein.
“He was just caught like a rat,” said Major General Raymond Odierno, commander of the Fourth Infantry Division, which led the hunt in the area for one of the world’s most wanted men and conducted the raid that caught him.
“When you’re in the bottom of a hole, you can’t fight back.”
The farm is near the town of Adwar, nestled among palm trees along the Tigris River just a few kolimetres from Saddam’s birthplace of Uja. One of the many palaces built by the dictator is just across the Tigris, and Saddam used to come here to swim. Adwar is the hometown of one of his most trusted aides, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri.
Saddam took refuge in the area in the 1960s before he came to power, conducting operations as an opposition party member against
the Iraqi government that he later overthrew.
People in the area are fierce in their support for Saddam.
“Saddam Hussein raised us. He’s our father,” neighbour Sohayb Abdul-Rahman said on Sunday.
So United States forces had been watching the area for months. Odierno said forces had patrolled the dirt road running alongside the shack, and searched the area repeatedly.
Over the past few weeks, as US intelligence agencies began to focus on Saddam’s extended family, prisoners captured in raids and intelligence tips began to lead to increasingly precise information, said a US official said in Washington, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Gradually, CIA and military analysts narrowed their list of potential sites where Saddam could be hiding, the official said.
Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, the top US military commander in Iraq, said US forces questioned “five to 10 members” of a branch of the extended family.
On Saturday, “we got the ultimate information from one of these individuals”, Odierno said.
The soldiers waited for darkness on Saturday, and at about 6pm, the forces launched what they called Operation Red Dawn, Sanchez said.
Commanders knew their target — “We thought it was Saddam,” Odierno said — but the soldiers didn’t.
“We were told that we would be looking for some really big fish — nothing more,” said one soldier who participated in the raid and spoke only on condition of anonymity.
At 8pm, the soldiers attacked their two objectives but came up empty. Troops spotted two men fleeing from another house nearby, the soldier said, not far from the original target. The men were arrested.
The troops cordoned off a 3,8 square kilometre area around the house and began a careful search, Odierno said.
What they found was a small walled compound with a metal lean-to and a mud hut, Sanchez said. Pulling back a rug, they dug down, finding a styrofoam panel that covered a tiny tunnel, Odierno said.
Sanchez called it a “spider-hole”.
“The spider-hole is about 2m to 2,5m deep and allows enough space for a person to lie down inside of it,” Sanchez said. He showed video images of an air duct and a ventilation fan.
Inside lay Saddam, wearing a long, salt-and-pepper beard and disheveled hair. He had a pistol on his lap, Odierno said, but didn’t move to use it. When asked about his identity, the former dictator confirmed he was Saddam, Odierno said.
Soldiers searched the hut, made up of two rooms — a bedroom and a kitchen. No one else was found. The soldier who participated in the raid described it as “just two rooms and a sink, there was one bed and one chair and some clothes and that’s about it”.
Soldiers seized two rifles, a pistol, a taxi and $750,000 in US currency in a suitcase. They also found new clothes in unopened wrappers, which Odierno suggested meant Saddam had not been there long.
“We didn’t stay there long. It smelled really bad,” the soldier said. “It looked more like a garage than a proper house.”
Within an hour a helicopter whisked Saddam away, heading south toward Baghdad, Odierno said. There, former deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz was one of the former regime officials who identified Saddam in custody, a US official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Safa Saber al-Douri, a grocery store owner in Adwar, said he had heard that US troops also arrested Qais al-Douri, the owner of the house where Saddam was captured, as well as Qais’s family. It was not clear if those detentions were before or after the raid.
Sanchez, who saw Saddam in detention, described him as talkative and cooperative, but also as “a tired man, and also I think a man resigned to his fate”.
Members of the Iraqi governing council visited as well, finding Saddam sitting on a bed in a white gown and dark jacket.
“He was subservient and broken,” council member Mouwafak al-Rabii said. “He was speaking as if he did not know what was going on around him.”
The council members peppered Saddam with questions about assassinations and massacres, asking him why he killed so many people. But al-Rabii said Saddam was unrepentant.
“Saddam appeared in his true face, using bad language and insults,” he said. “Saddam looked like a thug or the leader of a mafia.” — Sapa-AP