Ad-Dawr, Iraq, Dec. 14 (Reuters): US troops captured Saddam Hussein hiding in a rat-infested hole near his home town of Tikrit in a dramatic success for Washington’s beleaguered occupation force in Iraq.
Grubby, bearded and “very disorientated”, the 66-year-old fallen dictator was dug out by troops from a cramped hiding pit during a raid on a farm at Ad-Dawr on Saturday night (11 pm IST), US Major-General Ray Odierno said in Tikrit.
“He was just caught like a rat,” Odierno said in one of the grandiose palaces nearby that had once belonged to the man known as the Lion of Tikrit.
Saddam, who had once appeared to almost believe his own declarations of invincibility and urged his troops to go down fighting the invaders, had a pistol but did not fire.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we got him,” US administrator Paul Bremer told a Baghdad news conference. “The tyrant is a prisoner.”
Cheering Iraqi journalists shouted “Death to Saddam!”
Gunfire crackled in celebration as Iraqis greeted a US military video showing their once feared leader, dishevelled and sporting a bushy black and grey beard, meekly undergoing a medical examination after eight months on the run.
He now faces a trial for his life before an Iraqi tribunal.
“It marks the end of the road for him,” said President George W. Bush.
In a televised address, he told the Iraqi people: “You will not have to fear the rule of Saddam Hussein ever again” — but he warned it would not mean an immediate end to violence.
As if to underline that, an explosion rocked central Baghdad minutes later. Police contested witness accounts of a car bomb, saying a truck carrying gas had blown up. Earlier, a car bomb killed at least 17 people at a police station west of Baghdad.
The US commander in Iraq, Lieutenant-General Ricardo Sanchez, said Saddam was “talkative”. He described him as “a tired man, a man resigned to his fate”. But he said Saddam was in “good health”.
Adnan Pachachi, a senior member of the US-backed Iraqi governing council who spoke to Saddam in custody, said: “He seemed rather tired and haggard but he was unrepentant and defiant at times... He tried to justify his crimes.”
Iraqi and US officials said some $750,000 in $100 bills was found near the “spider hole”, close to the Tigris riverbank. Saddam had probably not been there long, Odierno said. Two other men, two rifles and a white-and-orange taxi parked nearby were also seized in what US forces called Operation Red Dawn.
Governing council members said Saddam faces trial under a tribunal agreed with Washington only last week. He may risk the death penalty.
“We want Saddam to get what he deserves. I believe he will be sentenced to hundreds of death sentences,” said Amar al-Hakim, a leader of the powerful Shia party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.
The capture of Saddam, the “ace of spades” and number one on a US wanted list, was in stark contrast to the bloody end of his sons Uday and Qusay, who died with guns blazing in July.
Providing details of the capture, Sanchez said the troops acted after receiving “human intelligence” that Saddam was possibly at one of two locations. After searches of both locations failed to turn up Saddam, US forces began scouring other places in the area and came upon Saddam hiding in the “spider hole” camouflaged with bricks and dirt. The soldiers saw the hole, investigated and found him inside, Sanchez said.
“Saddam Hussein was found hiding at the bottom of the hole.”
The hiding place was found in “a small walled compound with a metal lean-to structure (and) a mud hut,” he added. The narrow hole was equipped with a crude ventilation system that included a small fan.
Saddam had wrapped new clothes in bags, suggesting he was not planning to stay there long.