Previous frustrated attempts to find Hussein

As the manhunt for Osama bin Laden had just entered its second year, the American and Iraqi publics might have been forgiven for being dubious about the possibilities of Hussein's speedy capture. After a thirty-eight week manhunt which was awash with the latest technology and weaponry, a soldier with a spade - backed by good human intelligence - was what did the job. In many ways the capture of Saddam Hussein was easier than the search for Osama bin Laden, so it wasn't just dumb luck at play. Bin Laden is, according to officials, most likely hiding along the poorly-policed fifteen hundred mile long border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. In contrast, Saddam was in a residential area where it was easier to search houses and question local residents. But this did not make the job easy.

Hussein is widely regarded as a "master of survival". He reportedly never stayed in the same place twice, and had a network of bunkers and tunnels around the country which could survive even nuclear overpressures. During the Gulf War he roamed the country, once staying in a tent in the middle of the desert, sometimes turning up unannounced at the houses of family members to stay a night. While no attempt had been made on his life in the Gulf War, Operation Iraqi Freedom opened with one - on March 20, 2003, a "decapitation strike" was launched on what President Bush called "targets of opportunity" in Baghdad. The Pentagon said 36 Tomahawk cruise missiles and two F-117-launched GBU-27 bombs were used in the strike, which took place at 5:30AM local time - about ninety minutes after Bush's deadline for Saddam, Uday and Qusay to leave the country. A man with the appearance of Saddam appeared on Iraqi TV at 21:00 local time, but at the time of writing it is unknown whether this was actually him or not - he wore glasses and read from notes, both of which were not usual in his TV appearances. But, despite reports that Hussein left the scene of one of the bombings in an ambulance, he was certainly still alive.

Hussein made another TV appearance on March 24, 2003 and referenced particular commanders and their locations. Geoff Hoon, UK Defence Minister, claimed that Hussein had made a number of tapes for use in different eventualities, and it was still uncertain whether the tapes had been recorded before or after the decapitation strike. Then, on April 4, 2003, Hussein appeared again on Iraqi TV and referenced an Apache helicopter which had been shot down with an antique musket. Intelligence analysts concluded that this latest video was probably made after the first night of bombings, and so it was probable Hussein was still alive. Three days later on April 7, another strike was launched on the Mansour district of Baghdad. A single B1-B bomber acted on specific intelligence and dropped four precision-guided JDAM 2,000 pound bombs, destroying the target building and others around it. A sixty foot crater was left and as the area of Baghdad targetted was not under coalition control, casualties were unknown. The strike had been launched just twelve minutes after the order was dispatched and forty five minutes after the intelligence arrived in CENTCOM, Qatar - but it was apparently also unsuccessful.

However, in the aftermath of the last raid, his fate was unapparent. MI6 told the CIA shortly afterwards that he had left the building just before the strike hit. Hussein had released a video on April 4 which showed him surrounded by a throng of supporters, and it is now certain that this video was shot in the same neighbourhood bombed by the U.S. on April 7. Residents of an area in Northern Baghdad, around the Adhamiya mosque, told New York Times correspondents that Hussein had visited them on April 9 to offer a farewell message. He vowed to fight alongside them in the "same trenches", but he conspicuously failed to wait to meet the U.S. troops that arrived several hours later. He was gone. Rumours as to where he had gone abounded - some said Syria (one rumour had him being helped by Russian diplomats), some said he had been allowed to leave by U.S. forces in return for the capitulation of Baghdad. Although U.S. officials played down the importance of finding the man (the end of his regime was more important, they said), one of the largest manhunts in history was about to begin.

The details of the manhunt were shrouded in secrecy for obvious reasons. CIA paramilitary forces and "black", i.e. unacknowledged, special operations forces were no doubt involved. U.S. forces tried to track him by concentrating on family and clan ties, and were taunted occasionally by video and audio tapes released which apparently were from Hussein. On July 22, U.S. forces killed Uday Hussein, Qusay Hussein and Qusay's 14 year-old son in a raid on a house in Mosul. Troops of the 101st Airborne Division and special forces surrounded the house, and elements of the latter attempted to apprehend the people within, but were fired on and withdrew. 100 American troops, Apache gunships and A-10 Warthogs fired upon the house, and after a three-hour battle neutralised the residents. Inside the house were four dead, including the brothers, and three wounded. But the U.S. was still no closer to the Ace of Spades.

The U.S. government maintained publically that Hussein was alive all the way through November and into early December. Although some officials were privately confident he had been killed, the line of the President was always that Hussein was still out there. Some people believed he was co-ordinating resistance against the U.S. occupation - Hussein had always run a tight ship with centralised command and control, and the quick capitulation of the regime even had some speculating he had purposefully dissapeared into the shadows to fight a guerilla war. The circumstances of his eventual capture would suggest otherwise.

Operation Red Dawn

On December 14, 2003, the Islamic Republic News Agency of Iran announced that Saddam Hussein was in U.S. custody, citing as its source Jalal Talabani, the leader of the Kurdish PUK party. The Iraqi Governing Council, the U.S. military and British Prime Minister Tony Blair confirmed the reports shortly, and Ambassador Paul Bremer gave a press conference - "We got him". Just what had happened the night before?

It all began three weeks before, when intelligence analysts and Special Operations forces decided to change tack in the search for Hussein. They decided not to focus in his inner circle of confidants and friends, but on more distant people still bound by clan and family ties to the deposed dictator. This approach led on Friday to the arrest of a man from Hussein's Tikriti clan in Baghdad, who gave an undisclosed hint as to Hussein's whereabouts. After photographic and infrared surveillance was carried out, the search was narrowed down to Dawr, a village ten miles southeast of Tikrit. Six hundred soldiers of the 4th infantry division were sent into the area after a HVT ("High Value Target"), but the commander of the division, Maj. Gen. Raymond Odierno, said few of his men knew that the target was "potentially HVT number one." The soldiers converged on Dawr under the command of Colonel James Hickey and began to search the area. Two specific buildings were targetted, Wolverine One and Wolverine Two, but both were empty. Colonel Hickey ordered the cordoning off of two square kilometers of ground and the soldiers began a step-by-step search to be sure nothing was missed.

They eventually came across an adobe hut which appeared empty. But inside, soldiers noted a prayer rug atop a patch of freshly-swept dirt. It's not clear why they decided to take a closer look, but one officer cited the use of ground-penetrating radar and others said soldiers were used to coming across hiding places like this. One general speculated that Hussein had prepared dozens of such locations around the country where he might hide, and moved every few hours. His "spider hole" was well-designed, and could be opened from the inside in case Hussein's guards were killed or captured. Soldiers lifted the hatch and peered inside. They then removed the only occupant, who had a pistol in his lap - he identified himself as Saddam Hussein. Found also in the area were two AK-47s, a taxicab of the sort believed to be used by Hussein for travel, $750,000 in $100 bills, a knife, a suitcase (contents unknown) and assorted items of clothing.

"Actionable intelligence" had been received at 10:50 local time in Iraq, said military officials. The capture took place at 20:30 local time, less than eleven hours later. America has been criticised in the War on Terror for her apparent ineptitude at human intelligence, and officials are keen to tout operations like this as a demonstration of a new type of warfare where agencies pool their resources and give the best help they can to the troops. The reputation of the agencies had been at an all-time low after their failure to anticipate September 11, their continuining inability to find WMD in Iraq, and their failure to capture either Hussein or Osama bin Laden. The nature of the War on Terror is that much of the work of the intelligence agencies will go on in the shadows, although the CIA have scored some public victories in the capture or killing of Al Qaeda. Senior officials attributed the capture of Hussein to human intelligence, not high-tech methods.

Upon his capture, Hussein was said to be resigned and quiet. It came as a surprise to many people that he did not fight back, as many Western analysts had predicted he would fight to the death rather than be captured. This was certainly the image he had cultivated for himself in Iraq, likening himself to Saladin the conqueror of Jerusalem and having many of his propaganda images show him in military garb or with weaponry. Asked why Hussein didn't fight back, General Odierno suppressed a smile and said - "He was in the bottom of a hole, so there was no way he could fight back." DNA identification later confirmed that the man captured was indeed the former President of Iraq. He was taken south in a helicopter to Baghdad, and then to an undisclosed location where he will remain for the "forseeable future". Donald Rumsfeld said his treatment would be in accordance with the Geneva Convention, and carried out "in a humane and professional way."

Hussein meets the Governing Council

Four members of the Iraqi Governing Council were flown to his place of detention for identification purposes. They were Ahmad Chalabi, head of the Iraqi National Congress, Mowaffak al-Rubaie, Governing Council member who had been in one of Hussein's torture chambers in 1979, Adnan Pachachi, Governing Council member and former foreign minister of Iraq in the pre-Hussein era, and Adel Abdel Mahdi, representative of the Shiite religious body, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. Ambassador L. Paul Bremer III and Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez were also in attendence, expecting the four Iraqis to just wish to view Hussein through a window and confirm his identity. Instead, they asked to speak with him.

The men asked Hussein about various atrocities committed during his 35 years in power, and he trotted out the answers he always gave Baghdad journalists. When asked about his use of chemical weapons against Halabja in 1988, he said the Iranians were to blame. When asked about the mass graves being uncovered all over Iraq (current estimates by the Coalition Provisional Authority put the total dead at 300,000, by human rights groups 500,000, and by some Iraqi political parties one million), he said they were "thieves, traitors and army deserters", the latter having run "away from the battlefields with Iran and from the battlefields of Kuwait." Kuwait, he said, was the rightful property of Iraq. When asked about the current wave of attacks against U.S. troops, international aid workers, civilian contractors and Iraqis, he "was trying to take credit for it" according to Mr. Chalabi, although he "didn't say it directly". It seems that the Council members understandably grew angry, with the situation detoriorating. From the New York Times -

Mr. Rubaie said: "One thing which is very important is that this man had with him underground when they arrested him two AK-47's and did not shoot one bullet. I told him, 'You keep on saying that you are a brave man and a proud Arab.' I said, 'When they arrested you why didn't you shoot one bullet? You are a coward.' "

"And he started to use very colorful language," he said. "Basically he used all his French."

"I was so angry because this guy has caused so much damage," Mr. Rubaie added. "He has ruined the whole country. He has ruined 25 million people."

"And I have to confess that the last word was for me," he continued. "I was the last to leave the room and I said, 'May God curse you. Tell me, when are you going to be accountable to God and the day of judgment? What are you going to tell him about Halabja and the mass graves, the Iran-Iraq war, thousands and thousands executed? What are you going to tell God?' He was exercising his French language."

Mr. Rubaie also later said he told Hussein that "The Iraqis will send you to Hell". The Council members noted that had the situation been reversed, Hussein would have put them in torture chambers and had them killed. They reported taking pleasure in the difference in their treatment of him.

Worldwide response

President Bush addressed the American nation on December 14. He said that Hussein would "face the justice he had denied to millions" and that his capture was "crucial to the rise of a free Iraq". He also said -

I also have a message for all Americans: The capture of Saddam Hussein does not mean the end of violence in Iraq. We still face terrorists who would rather go on killing the innocent than accept the rise of liberty in the heart of the Middle East. Such men are a direct threat to the American people, and they will be defeated.

His pessimism was vindicated as attacks continued, and there were clues that the media would ignore his warning. Reuters appeared surprised the next day that "Iraq Car Bombs Kill Seven Despite Saddam's Capture" (emphasis my own). President Bush continually states that the war on terror will be tough and hard, and military officials acknowledge there is still hard work to do in Iraq. Pundits are hailing this as alternatively "the beginning of the end" (Washington Post) or "the end of the beginning" (National Review Online), and some analysts are confident that the Iraqi resistance now lacks the figurehead it needs. Attacks will not continue, they say, but have lost much of their impetus. The myth factor in the rebellion has been lost - as one Baghdad resident told Jim Hoagland, "People are already saying the sons died like men and he gave up like a coward." When asked by one member of the Governing Council why he did not fight the American soldiers, Hussein gestured towards them and said "Would you fight them?"

Reaction in the Arab World has been confused. A Palestinian legislator, Mohammed Horani, told the Associated Press

"Saddam is a dictator and the Iraqi people suffered under him, but on the other hand, it was the (American) occupation that caught him. There will be a sense of confusion in the public."

Hussein was a hero to many Palestinians, because of the $25,000 cheques he handed out to the families of suicide bombers who killed Israelis. He had paid $35 million total since the uprising began in 2000. Many people in the Arab world viewed Hussein as a courageous leader for standing up to U.S. and Israeli "imperialism" and mourned the death of his regime for this reason. The most generally expressed view was that people were glad Hussein had gone, but wished it hadn't been the Americans getting rid of him. There was, understandably, elation in Kuwait. The shock delivered to the leaders of the Arab capitals was probably greater - for how quickly Hussein had fallen from grace, captured in a haggard state. Arab leaders usually stay in power until they die, even if they are unable to rule effectively.

In Iraq, elation spread through the major cities. Eight people were killed in Kirkuk due to bullets fired into the air in celebration, and dancing took place in the streets of Baghdad, where it is now estimated Hussein claimed 61,000 victims alone. An ethnic and religious split was apparent in the celebrations, with Shiite and Kurd dominated areas most prone to erupt into celebration. Two hundred men gathered outside Adhamiya, the Sunni-dominated mosque where Hussein was last seen in Baghdad, to chant "We will never give up Iraq and Saddam Hussein". Sunnis were the ruling class in Hussein's Iraq, despite the fact the country is Shiite-dominated. Some Iraqis said that Hussein had defended them against Israel and the U.S., and that things had been happier under him. The word on the street, however, was generally pro-U.S.

The future

Saddam Hussein will face trial. This may happen in Baghdad, which would be a huge boon for Iraqi democracy and for the Iraqi people. The power of Hussein facing a fair trial from the people he purported to defend but in fact viciously oppressed cannot be imagined; the power of the message sent to his fellow tyrants is unquestionable. In an unexpected development, Iran is preparing a war crimes complaint to put before an international court. The U.S. has constantly said it wants Hussein tried in Iraq for crimes against humanity and war crimes, although the death penalty is suspended in Iraq until July 1, 2004, when the new sovereign Iraqi government is expected to take over. Governing Council members have said the trial is likely to begin later, and it is highly likely the death penalty will exist in Iraq in the new era.

Saddam Hussein also has many questions to answer, and Iranian writer Amir Taheri has enumated several in an article on National Review Online. He should provide information on the fate of 13,000 Iraqis "disappeared" by the secret police. He must answer for the Anfal, the genocide carried out against the Marsh Arabs, and the reasons behind his endless foreign wars. He must explain how he managed to build up a foreign debt of $120 billion despite building virtually no infrastructure. He must account for the location of Kuwaiti POWs. He must answer Hans Blix's twenty-seven questions posed on 7 March, 2003 about his unaccounted-for weapons of mass destruction. He must tell us everything he can about the several dozen terrorist organisations he financed, trained and allowed to set up bases in Iraq.

Saddam Hussein was one of the most brutal dictators in the history of the world. He will face trial, and he will be punished for the atrocities he has inflicted on Iraqis, Israelis, Kuwaitis, Iranians and Kurds. The international community should now pull together and work towards building a free, stable and prosperous Iraq. Success is by no means guaranteed, but we have been given fresh impetus and a fresh opportunity.


Wikipedia, Washington Post, New York Times, BBC, National Review, The Guardian, Reuters, Associated Press, The Australian,,

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