| Colonel James Hickey smiles during inspections at Ad-Dawr, near Tikrit. (AFP)
Ad-Dawr (Iraq), Dec. 15 (Reuters): “I’m Saddam Hussein,” the man with the scruffy beard said in English when US troops found him in a dirt hole. “I’m the President of Iraq and I’m willing to negotiate.”
“President Bush sends his regards,” they replied.
US officers who captured the 66-year-old former dictator in the hole next to a hut in Iraq on Saturday could not believe how easy it was when after eight months of hunting they took Saddam without either side firing a shot.
Major Brian Reed, operations officer for the first brigade of the 4th Infantry Division, recounted the story for reporters today at the site where Saddam was found.
The hole contained nothing but an electric strip light and a ventilation fan. The roof was supported by rough wooden beams.
“What we found surprised us,” said Colonel James Hickey, the commanding officer of the brigade involved in capturing Saddam.
“We didn’t think it would be so simple.”
The former President, who once could take his pick from an array of lavish palaces across Iraq, was pulled from a specially dug hole in the ground just big enough for a man of his average build to crouch in.
The army was led to Saddam’s hideaway — near a shepherd’s hut in an orange grove on the banks of the Tigris river — by information from a wealthy man from nearby Tikrit arrested in a raid on Saturday.
Hickey declined to identify the source, saying only that he was from an important family in the town and that he had “a large waist line”.
Although from Saddam’s hometown, the man was not from Saddam’s tribe, Hickey added.
It was at least the 10th time US troops in Tikrit had headed out on a mission hoping to capture the man they refer to variously as BL1 (black list one) or HVT1 (high-value target one), Hickey said. On finding nothing in the two farmhouses they were targeting, troops decided to check out the nearby hut.
“The orchard and palm grove looked like the best place. If there were an underground area, it would be there,” Hickey told reporters who were invited to view the site.
Special forces raided the hut, a simple two-room construction behind a fence made of dried palm leaves, while regular soldiers sealed off the area.
They caught one man trying to escape and another in the hut.
When they discovered the hole, Saddam immediately gave himself up by telling soldiers, in English, who he was.
“We were about to clear that UGF (under-ground facility) in a military sort of way,” Hickey said. “He was wise not to wait too long”.
US forces usually clear such holes with a hand grenade.
Saddam would have used his “spider hole” or “rat hole” — as soldiers referred to it — to hide in for short periods when US troops were in the area, Hickey said.
The hut consisted of one room with two beds and a fridge containing a can of lemonade, a packet of hot dogs, an opened box of Belgian chocolates and a tube of ointment.
Several new pairs of shoes lay in their boxes scattered around the floor.
Soldiers said it was unclear whether the food and other items belonged to Saddam.
The other room, open to the elements at one end, was a kitchen with a sink fed by water from a cistern on top of a chicken coop at the other end of a small yard.
Pinned to the outside wall of the hut was a cardboard box depicting biblical scenes such as the Last Supper and the Madonna and child with the English inscription “God bless our home”.
Inside the bedroom was a 2003 calendar in Arabic with a colourful depiction of Noah’s Ark.
Soldiers were surprised at the Christian decorations, at the very basic nature of Saddam’s final residence as a free man and, most of all, at the fact he gave up without a fight.
“My gunner said: ‘Is that it' No shooting'’” said Captain Desmond Bailey, a commander of troops that encircled Saddam.
“He’s the best gunner in the troop, so he was a bit disappointed.”