No shots fired, no resistance. In the end, Saddam was caught 'like a rat in a hole'

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The Independent Online

After so many months of intrigue and bribery and lives lost in firefights during frantic searches, the end was surprisingly calm. The dishevelled figure with tangled beard, silhouetted by torchlight in the dust of the dark pit offered no resistance.

Saddam Hussein had been dug out of his six-foot-deep hideout, "caught like a rat in a hole", according to the exultant Americans. It was a forlorn end for Saddam, without any Fedayeen bodyguards to protect him and no rescue party, just two companions who ran away to be caught later.

Saddam did not use the Makarov pistol tucked into the his belt, or the two AK 47 Kalashnikov semi-automatic rifles he had. Nevertheless, he was searched for any cyanide capsules he may have had in his mouth or hidden in his matted hair before being flown away for interrogation. Last night there were reports that he had already been taken out of Iraq.

Saddam admitted who he was on giving himself up, but the Americans took saliva samples to confirm that they had indeed caught the man they had sought for so long. The capture was was heralded a great victory. A United States general had said in Baghdad just after the city fell: " We shall hunt him down wherever he goes, we shall be like the Romans with Hannibal."

In the end the Americans did not have to go far: 10 miles south-west of his home town of Tikrit, near one of his palaces.

The road to Saddam's lair had been a long and frustrating one for the US and its British allies. Soon after the official end of the war they had concluded that he was still in Iraq. They were also confident that he was in the Tikrit region with his people, Baijat clan of the Albu Nasir tribe.

A special US military team had had been set up, under Colonel James Hickey's command, purely with the aim of catching Saddam, the "High Value Target Number One" in the cumbersome military code. They carried out more than 400 raids and arrested 200 people, including 30 members of Saddam's family. During one search, on a farmhouse south of al-Awja, they found $8m (£4.6m) in cash and jewellry, worth $1m (£575m), belonging to his wife, Sajida.

There had been several near misses recently. But Saddam remained elusive, constantly on the move. Several times soldiers on raids were told that they had just missed him by a day, or mere hours.

Last week Col Hickey's team, which had been lavishly ladling out dollars from their base at Camp Raider, a guest house built by Saddam on a bluff overlooking the Tigris, received fresh information about a rough location where the former Iraqi president was expected to be.

Ten men from the Albu Nasir were arrested. But one of the "arrests" was believed to protect the identity of the informant. From him came more specific details, in particular that the location was at or near Ad-Dawr.

On Saturday morning Col Hickey told his superiors that he planned to carry out a raid that evening, being careful to say that it could prove to be yet another false lead. A force of 600 troops - an assortment of special forces, brigade reconnaissance and airborne - began the mission at 10.56am, with Col Hickey's Brigade Combat team given the task of capturing or killing a "High Value Target" without being told it might be the "number one".

Their focus was on two farmhouses, codenamed Wolverine 1 and Wolverine 2, just outside Ad-Dawr, backing on to a dense palm grove with the Tigris beyond. The area was surrounded and the troops moved in after keeping watch for almost seven hours.

They stormed into the farmhouses to discover they were empty. Between the two buildings there was a mud hut with a tin roof, which was also empty. But in the bedroom they found new clothing, t-shirts still in their wrappings, socks and sandals. The kitchen showed signs of recent cooking.

Just when it seemed that their quarry had escaped once again, a group of soldiers discovered what was described as a "spiderhole" in the compound in front of the hut.

Closer examination showed that the entrance was camouflaged by potted plants, earth and rugs. Removing them revealed a narrow, vertical tunnel leading down to a tiny room where a man "would have barely space to crawl". A shorter tunnel branched off from it. There was also a newly installed air duct to provide oxygen inside.

Saddam, 6ft 4ins tall, was lying on the ground; he crouched as his hunters gathered around. In the side tunnel were the two Kalashnikovs and about $750,000 in $100 bills. But there were no signs of any equipment for communications. On the dirt track between the farmhouses the soldiers had found a battered yellow Toyota taxi, and two boats were moored on the river. These, they concluded, were there for Saddam's getaway.

At a packed news conference in Tikrit, Maj-Gen Ray Odierno said: "There was no way he could fight back where he was. He was caught just like a rat.

"I think it's rather ironic that he was in a hole in the ground just across the river from one of these great palaces he had built. Over the last 10 days or so we have brought in about five to 10 members of these families who then were able to give us more information, and finally we got the ultimate information from one of these individuals.

"He could have been hiding in 100 different places, 1,000 different places like this all around Iraq, and it just takes finding the right person who will give you a good idea where he might be.

"The officers in charge of the operation knew they were on the trail of a big fish, but were not entirely sure they would find Saddam. We were going after an HVT (high-value target) possibly HVT number one. We thought it was Saddam."

On Saturday night, with the world still unaware of the capture, Saddam was secretly shown to a number of Americans and Iraqis in Baghdad. One of them was his former deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz, also in custody, who confirmed the identity of his former boss. Others were opponents who now hold power under American sponsorship.

Adel Abdel-Mahidi, a senior Shia official, said that, "he was unrepentant and defiant. When we told him 'if you go to the streets now, you will see the people celebrating', he answered: 'those are mobs'. When we asked about the mass graves, he replied, 'those are thieves'".

Lt-Gen Ricardo Sanchez, the US military commander in Iraq, described a less arrogant figure. Saddam, he said, was "co-operative and talkative. He was a tired man, a man resigned to his fate."

Maj-Gen Ray Odierno, of the United States Army, confirmed last night that Saddam was betrayed by "a member of a family close to him". The bounty placed by the Americans on his two sons, Uday and Qusay, was $25m (£14m). The price on the head of their father was the same, but the word on the street was that the increasingly desperate Americans were prepared to pay twice that.

In Baghdad and Basra there were celebrations in the streets last night. But there was also despair and vows of blood and retribution. Maj-Gen Odierno acknowledged that Saddam had not been directing the anti-American violence and said that the resistance would continue.

THE FALSE ALARMS HOW THE LONG HUNT FOR SADDAM WENT DOWN SOME BLIND ALLEYS

If there was any doubt about the main target of Operation Iraqi Freedom, it vanished at 5.48am on 19 March this year when four 2,000lb bunker-buster bombs and 40 cruise missiles rained down on three buildings in a presidential compound close to Baghdad University. The opening salvo of the invasion of Iraq was described by the Pentagon as a "decapitation raid" designed to kill Saddam Hussein before the war had even begun.

Ever since, the hunt for the Iraqi dictator has continued by means of overwhelming force and countless covert operations to pinpoint his location, running in parallel with the wider military project of defeating and dismantling his regime.

Despite claims from the Americans that the Iraqi leader had been at least badly injured by the opening assault - President George Bush said shortly afterwards that "Saddam at the very minimum was severely wounded" - the attack was a failure.

A second "decapitation" attempt also missed its target. On 7 April, two days before Baghdad fell, a restaurant in the upmarket district of Mansour was destroyed by a B1 bomber after intelligence led the Americans to believe Saddam and his two sons were inside.

Within hours of the symbolic toppling of a statue of Saddam in the heart of the capital on 9 April, American troops from Task Force 20, the elite unit set up to find Saddam, were in the ruins of the building collecting DNA samples to verify his death. Instead, it is likely that the dictator had already fled to his hometown of Tikrit.

Cahal Milmo

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