• U.S.

Saddam’s Capture

13 minute read
Nancy Gibbs

Even before he is brought to trial, there was justice in the news that Saddam Hussein had survived by being buried alive. Like a pharaoh in his tomb, he had surrounded himself with symbols of his lost power–two AK-47s, a pistol, $750,000 in $100 bills. The Butcher of Baghdad was nestled underground with pictures of Ben Franklin. The hunt for Saddam that began with a hellfire of bombs eight months ago ended without a shot being fired. It was soldiers from the Raider Brigade of the Army’s 4th Infantry Division who dug him out of the 8ft.-deep spider hole; the palace monster of monuments and torture chambers had been reduced to the life of a bug. His captors picked through his shaggy hair, the raccoon beard. They scraped his throat, checked his teeth. “Merry Christmas,” said the soldiers to one another, and they lit cigars and took pictures and smiled.

It was a relief to see him made small enough to handcuff because the phantom had become too big, and you can’t bring peace to a haunted house. Bribes and threats and rockets and satellites had failed to find him, even with the world’s mightiest army conducting the manhunt. The President had stopped talking about him, as if he were superstitious or trying to change the subject. People bought Saddam golf balls, Saddam pinatas, voodoo dolls, to satisfy the need to hit back and not feel helpless every time he taunted his hunters with a new videotape to rally his followers, every time we heard of a new ambush conducted in his name.

With his capture, we exhale, after a long, deep breath we have held for a year. We can measure the meaning of his capture by the measures we have taken–old alliances and long traditions discarded to go to war to take him out and, in the name of democracy, a war that was opposed by vast majorities in most democracies on earth. Hundreds of soldiers killed, hundreds more wounded, $4 billion a month spent and billions more to come, a country broken in pieces that we will be helping rebuild for years to come. And so what is the gift this capture has bought? Perhaps a true taste of freedom from fear for 25 million people who could never quite have faith that the tyranny was over while the tyrant was still loose. It was an antidote to the contempt expressed by Arab and European commentators who poked the American tiger: See, you can’t even catch Saddam. “This is very good news for the people of Iraq,” British Prime Minister Tony Blair said on Sunday. “It removes the shadow that has been hanging over them for too long of the nightmare of a return to the Saddam regime. This fear is now removed.” Other implications of Saddam’s capture are less clear. Will it encourage Bush to reach out to other European allies to help in the policing and reconstruction of Iraq, or will he be encouraged to stick to his current course? And how will this victory affect Bush’s re-election campaign in 2004–and, perhaps more to the point, the campaigns of the Democratic candidates, including front runner Howard Dean, who want to replace him?

It was a team of 600 soldiers from the 4th Infantry Division and U.S. special forces that acted on the tip that Saddam was hiding in a little town called al-Dawr, 15 miles from his hometown of Tikrit. These soldiers had been scouring the area for months in the belief that he would stay close to home, where loyalty among those who most benefited from his rule still ran deep. U.S. intelligence sources tell TIME that over the past month they were getting better leads. “In the last three to four weeks, our forces have been able to capture people we’ve been hunting all summer,” said Lieut. Colonel Steven Russell, the commander of the 4th’s 122 Infantry Regiment. “This was the inner circle, and we were taking pieces out of it.” Last week they could tell they were getting closer and closer. “Four days ago, an individual was captured that led to the capture of the man we believed was Saddam’s right-hand man,” Russell told TIME. “He was captured two days ago. Information he had led to information that led to the capture of Saddam Hussein.”

But the pressure was also intense. Just the week before, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was in the region pressing the officers about why this was taking so long. Sitting in front of walls lined with maps and flat video screens, Rumsfeld marveled at the elusiveness of the quarry. “I’m dumbfounded when I think about it,” he told Army Major General Raymond Odierno, commander of the 4th Infantry. “The chances of us using that kind of money to find somebody–to figure out how to invest some time and develop a network and produce the information that would do it–I mean, that ought to be doable.”

But it was not until 8 o’clock on Saturday night, with the launch of Operation Red Dawn, that they finally began to close in on the prize. The hunters spread out across two locations, labeled Wolverine One and Wolverine Two. Locals in al-Dawr say the house is owned by Qais al-Nameq, who was a personal attendant of Saddam who returned a few years ago. His two sons were arrested along with Saddam. These residents say al-Nameq was arrested and the second location the Americans searched was his farm. At first, the searches of a rural farmhouse, however, turned up little that was suspicious. But after all these years of deception, all these months of hunting, given Saddam’s reputation for tunnels and safe rooms and secrets, the soldiers knew to scrape the paint off the walls in the event he was hiding behind them. So they cordoned off the area and took out their tweezers, searching every corner. On the premises there was a small, walled compound with a mud hut and a metal lean-to. There they found the entrance to the hole, camouflaged with dirt and bricks, with just enough space to lie down, a fan and an air vent. It appears he had been shuttled around in an orange-and-white taxi. U.S. ground-forces commander in Iraq Lieut. General Ricardo Sanchez said Saddam put up no fight, was talkative, cooperating. Says a top White House aide: “He was very forthcoming about who he was.”

President George W. Bush first got word from Rumsfeld on Saturday afternoon in a call to Camp David. “We think we may have him,” Rumsfeld announced, and the President said to keep him informed. The President had already planned to return to the White House early to avoid a snowstorm descending on the mid-Atlantic coast that could have prevented his attending a special Christmas show taping the next day. Bush called Adnan Pachachi, the acting president of the Iraqi governing council, to congratulate him; as they were trying to get him on the cell phone Pachachi was with Bremer at Saddam’s holding location. He couldn’t take the phone immediately because he was berating the fallen dictator.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we got him,” Ambassador L. Paul Bremer, tears in his eyes, told the news conference, which erupted in cheers. “Iraq’s future, your future, has never been more full of hope. The tyrant is a prisoner.” From the first moment the American video of Saddam in custody began rolling, Iraqi journalists stood and screamed. Some yelled, “Kill him! Kill Saddam.” The people of Baghdad caught the spirit of hope and pain, firing bullets into the sky and throwing candy, lighting firecrackers in the street. “They got Saddam!” “The devil is gone.” It was like a wedding day, or perhaps more a birthday. “We will be friends with the Americans because of this,” said a delighted Syed Hassan al Naji, the Baghdad commander of gadfly cleric Moqtada Sadr’s militia, the Army of Mehdi. In his white turban and long robes, Al-Naji beamed with pleasure in his neighbor’s house in Sadr City as the news came out over the Arabic news channels. “This is a great day.”

Hashim Kamal al Naami, a 78-year-old political exile living in Ukraine started crying when he heard that the rumors of Saddam’s capture were confirmed. “I can’t believe it,” he said over a satellite phone to his son in Baghdad. A lawyer and retired staff brigadier for the Iraqi Army who was openly critical of Saddam’s regime, al-Naami finally concluded that it is now safe to return, after more than a decade of living abroad. “There’s no need for me to stay away anymore,” he said over the phone. While he was speaking, his Iraqi friends were planning a celebration in the Yalta town hall for the hundreds of Iraqi political exiles who live in the area. “It’s not only the living Iraqis that are celebrating,” he said. “Even the dead Iraqis are celebrating in their graveyards.”

There was no celebration in Tikrit, Saddam’s home town, and elsewhere former regime members were sullen and glum, looking for further proof, refusing to believe even when word came that the confirmation went beyond the local authorities, beyond the CIA and the Pentagon, down to the level of his scars and his cells, a DNA test. According to Senator Pat Roberts, head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, the U.S. had some of Saddam’s senior aides driven to Tikrit to view him and confirm it was him. A shopkeeper there named Basim al-Tikriti said, “I am shocked. I cannot move my body. I feel like I am frozen.”

Does this mean that the attacks on U.S. soldiers every day, the roadside bombs and downtown ambushes and mortars fired at headquarters would die away? There never was good evidence that Saddam was controlling the insurgency, and the circumstances in which he was found–hiding in a hole, accompanied by an entourage of only two–suggest he was too isolated to play any central role. However, his arrest could still profoundly rattle the resistance. The Pentagon estimated that nine of 10 insurgents were former regime loyalists. To the extent they were driven by a rational agenda–restoring the old regime to power–it is now deprived of its end goal. The insurgents are, for the most part, Baathists, and throughout his rule Saddam was the party and the party was Saddam.”I think it will let the wind out of the sails,” says Russell. “And if not, these people who continue to support him are completely stupid.”

There are practical reasons to think Saddam’s capture may help quell the resistance. For one thing, even if Saddam’s leadership was not central to the insurgency, his money likely was. Many of the resistance fighters the U.S. has picked up were essentially mercenaries, former criminals or jobless men who were paid to strike U.S. forces. His arrest increases the chance that Iraqis will feel safe to turn in other insurgents, as happened after the siege that ended in the deaths of Uday and and Qusay.

There remains, however, the resistance fighters who have no loyalty to Saddam but fight for other, larger causes. They will likely be affected in different ways: the jihadis are not known to have yet established in Iraq their own infrastructure for fighting. Rather, they are thought to have joined up with Baathists, who can provide them the intelligence, the money, the munitions and the vehicles to deliver them in their attacks. To the extent the Baathists are hurt, they may be hurt too.

At the same time, no one is expecting the conflict to end abruptly, especially the military commanders who work out of one of Saddam’s ornate palaces overlooking the Tigris River in Tikrit. “We expect a spike in enemy activity,” says Captain Mitch Carlisle. “We’re more focused on alert than ever. We’re not letting our guard down at all.”

The news meant that the man George Bush vowed to hunt down was now at his mercy, and so he has choices to make. He could declare victory and go home, but nothing in his reflexes or rhetoric suggests that, having placed Saddam in a cage, he is inclined to leave his other promises unfulfilled. And so the latest in the series of tests of a President’s instincts and motives comes to this: Does he trust the people he says he went to war to free to do the right thing? If a sense of justice is the necessary rock on which democracies stand, how can anyone other than his countrymen have a greater right to put him on trial? But how would that work, who leads the prosecution, who defends him, and what laws apply? “There’s an Iraqi catharsis that has to take place,” says one senior State Department official, “The nation has to see it on their TVs and they have to feel like they did it.”

That the Americans captured Saddam alive spares Bush the problem he faced after Saddam’s sons were killed last summer: even after camera crews were allowed to film the dead bodies of Uday and Qusay, many Iraqis remained unconvinced it was them. Given the depraved legacies of the sons, it was like trying to convince the Iraqis that the devil had been killed. This time, the devil is in custody, walking, talking, clearly himself. “I imagine he was almost relieved,” a Pentagon official said. “I mean, he lost his power, his country, his sons–and he lost his freedom in a lot of ways before we got him.”

It’s equally significant that the devil, at least so far, isn’t spitting fire. Had Saddam been taken in a pressed shirt, well-groomed, standing tall, spouting defiance, the Americans would have a new problem on their hands. A dignified Saddam being manhandled by imperialist troops could well have become a rallying figure not just for former Baathists, but for Arab nationalists in Iraq and outside it. Whatever posture Saddam takes in whatever tribunal he appears in, he will likely never live down that image of him scruffy, defeated, opening his mouth for the doctor like a good boy. “It’s like he’s a goat,” one Iraqi delighted, watching the images of Saddam being searched on TV.

With Saddam at last captured one mystery is solved, but others now simmer. What happened to his weapons, his money, his remaining allies? What were his plans? Will all the Iraqis who have never learned what happened to their brother, their uncle, their neighbor now get the maps to the rest of the mass graves? Will they find a way toward reconciliation, Sunni and Shi’a, Arab and Kurd, as every hopeful official set as a necessary step on a path towards true peace? The world waits for a new chapter and history prepares, once again, to turn on a dime. –With reporting by Brian Bennett/Baghdad, Michael Ware/al-Dawr, Phil Zabriskie/Tikrit and John F. Dickerson and Mark Thompson and Douglas Waller/Washington

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com