Video: Looking haggard

msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 12/15/2003 4:35:47 AM ET 2003-12-15T09:35:47

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 did not recognize the man hiding inside, with his ratty hair, his wild beard and the 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. No shots were ever fired.

'Caught like a rat'
"He was just caught like a rat," said Maj. Gen. Raymond Odierno, commander of the 4th 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 miles from Saddam's birthplace, 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.

People in the area are fierce in their support for Saddam. "Saddam Hussein raised us. He's our father," neighbor Sohayb Abdul-Rahman said Sunday.

So U.S. 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 U.S. intelligence agencies began to focus on Saddam's extended family, prisoners captured in raids and intelligence tips began to lead to increasingly precise information, a U.S. official in Washington said on condition of anonymity.

Gradually, CIA and military analysts narrowed their list of potential sites where Saddam could be hiding, the official said. Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, said U.S. 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.

Top-secret target
The soldiers waited for darkness Saturday, and at about 6 p.m., 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 did not.

"We were told that we would be looking for some really big fish — nothing more," a soldier who participated in the raid said on condition of anonymity.

At 8 p.m., the soldiers attacked their two objectives but came up empty. Troops spotted two men fleeing from another house nearby, the soldier said, about 200 yards from the original target. The men were arrested.

The troops cordoned off an area of 1½ square miles 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 6 to 8 feet 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 he did not move to use it. When asked about his identity, the former dictator confirmed that he was Saddam, Odierno said.

"He said: 'I'm Saddam Hussein, I'm the president of Iraq and I'm willing to negotiate'," Major Brian Reed, operations officer for the first brigade of the Fourth Infantry Division, told reporters at the site where Saddam was found on Saturday hiding in a hole at a hut. "The response from soldiers was: 'President Bush sends his regards'."

Soldiers searched the hut, which was made up of a bedroom and a kitchen. 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 U.S. currency in a suitcase.

"We didn't stay there long. It smelled really bad," the soldier said. "It looked more like a garage than a proper house."

Talkative but unrepentant
Within an hour — about 9:15 p.m. (1:15 p.m. ET) — a helicopter whisked Saddam away, heading south toward Baghdad, Odierno said. Odierno and Sanchez did not say where he was being held, but other U.S. military officials told NBC News that he was probably at Baghdad International Airport, where the United States holds other Iraqi detainees.

Sanchez, who saw Saddam in detention, described him as talkative and helpful but also as "a tired man, and also I think a man resigned to his fate."

A U.S. intelligence official who read the transcript of the initial interrogation report painted a different picture, however, saying Saddam had "not been very cooperative."

Saddam did not answer any initial questions directly, the official said. Paraphrasing Saddam's answers, the official told Time magazine that when asked "How are you?" Saddam replied, "I am sad because my people are in bondage."

When offered a glass of water, Saddam answered, "If I drink water, I will have to go to the bathroom, and how can I use the bathroom when my people are in bondage?"

"I would be surprised if he gave any info," the official told Time.

Members of the Iraqi Governing Council visited, as well, finding Saddam sitting on a bed in a white gown and a 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."

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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