- The Washington Times - Monday, December 15, 2003

The world’s most intense military manhunt began on the Iraq war’s first night, March 19, when two American stealth fighters dropped four bombs on a compound in south Baghdad thought to hold Saddam Hussein.

The hunt ended Saturday night at a farmhouse on the Tigris River. Saddam, a brutal leader who had built scores of ornate palaces for himself and his family, was found huddled in a hole 8 feet deep, its entrance hidden by bricks, plastic foam and a rug.

There were no gold plumbing fixtures. The only amenities were a metal air vent and an exhaust fan. The bearded ex-dictator chose not to use his sidearm on his American captors — or on himself. The man whose Ba’athist regime murdered more than 400,000 countrymen surrendered without a fight.

The story of the hunt for Saddam, 66, is a mix of false leads, a shift in how the U.S.-led coalition collected intelligence, and at least two failed bombing raids.

More details of how Saddam eluded America’s best technological eyes and ears will emerge as the man himself is debriefed on his fugitive life.

But U.S. officials believe that when Baghdad fell April 9, he moved by car to the friendly confines of Tikrit, his birthplace and tribal homeland. Family and close friends immediately came to his aid. They identified a series of up to 20 safe houses along a 100-mile swath from Tikrit to Mosul. Saddam would hide for a few hours or a day in one home before being loaded into a vehicle and moved again.

He grew a long, salt-and-pepper beard and wore peasant clothing. Military officials say he likely rode in the trunks of cars and taxis, or in the back of trucks. Soldiers found a taxi at the farmhouse Saturday. He eschewed his usual protective entourage for just a few trusted aides armed with AK-47s.

Officials say there is little evidence he was actively directing the insurgency. He spent most of his time evading capture, faintly hoping the Americans would go home and he could return to power.

Gen. Raymond Odierno, who commands the U.S. 4th Infantry Division based in Tikrit, told reporters in the summer he believed his soldiers were tightening the noose around Saddam. In October, he expressed optimism the tips would pan out.

“We continue to get humint [human intelligence] reports on him being near here,” Gen. Odierno said. “We continue to hope that we will get the human intelligence. And we believe one day that, in fact, it will be accurate and we’ll be able to bring him into custody.”

In recent weeks, the coalition beefed up the cadre of CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency officers focusing on Saddam. The Bush administration had increasingly come to the conclusion that months of attacks on U.S. soldiers would worsen unless Saddam was captured or killed.

Analysts began identifying more of Saddam’s extensive tribal and blood family and arrested them. Within that pool, the thinking went, there must be informants who knew Saddam’s whereabouts. The pool of witnesses began providing information on past hiding places and identified other family members. Raids were launched on rural farmhouses, but none uncovered Saddam.

But Gen. Odierno, who oversees the rebellious Tikrit-Baghdad corridor, was getting a better fix on Saddam’s narrowing universe. More Iraqis were helping pinpoint people close to Saddam.

“It’s been increasingly better localization,” a senior defense official said yesterday. “[Gen. Odiernos] intel was getting better and better. He had a lot more Iraqis involved, and that led to interrogating people with even better information. It was a spiral of better information.”

Finally, Gen. Odierno hit pay dirt. A newly detained Iraqi knew where Saddam might be at that very moment. He said to check out a farm just south of Tikrit, in the village of Adwar.

The coalition received the information at 10:50 a.m., Iraqi time. Within seven hours, the general launched a 600-soldier operation, a mix of infantry, attack helicopters and commandos.

“For the last several months, a combination of human-intelligence tips, exceptional intelligence, analytical efforts and detainee interrogations narrowed down the activities of Saddam Hussein,” said Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the top coalition commander. “This effort led us to conduct this raid last night on this rural farmhouse, where we apprehended Saddam.”

After the mission, Gen. John Abizaid, chief of U.S. Central Command, telephoned Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld at the Pentagon on Saturday afternoon, Washington time. Gen. Abizaid said it looked like Saddam was finally captured.

Mr. Rumsfeld was at first restrained.

“Let’s make sure we know what we know,” he said. The military confirmed the prize hours later.

Nine months earlier, at the war’s onset, such an operation was not envisioned because the CIA believed it had pinpointed Saddam’s location at a family compound in Baghdad. CIA Director George J. Tenet went to the White House with startling information: A spy on the ground had seen Saddam, and perhaps his two sons, enter the family compound know as Dora Farms.

The supersecret Delta Force had operatives inside Baghdad. Whether the spy was an American “D-Boy” or an Iraqi is not clear. But Mr. Bush would later refer to him as a brave individual.

Mr. Bush approved an attack, thus beginning the Iraq war a day earlier than planned. The White House talked to now-retired Gen. Tommy Franks, and then to the Combined Air Operations Center in Saudi Arabia, where Air Force Gen. T. Michael Moseley controlled all air operations.

Gen. Moseley launched the two F-117 Night Hawk stealth fighters. The pair, backed by a barrage of Navy-fired Tomahawk cruise missiles, penetrated Baghdad’s thick air defenses to drop four 2,000-pound “bunker buster” bombs. A spy on the ground spotted a wounded man on a stretcher believed to be Saddam.

But Washington later learned Saddam had either escaped or never been at Dora Farms. Eyewitness sightings in April put him at various locations in and around Baghdad, as U.S. troops marched toward Baghdad and jets bombed his palaces and military.

The next promising eyewitness sighting came April 7. Someone saw him in the neighborhood of Mansour, where he had reportedly visited a popular restaurant. The source saw what appeared to be Saddam entering a nearby building for a meeting with his intelligence service.

This time, Gen. Moseley summoned two B-1B bombers already in the sky. He diverted them to Baghdad, where they dropped four satellite-guided bombs on the supposed meeting place.

Two days later, Baghdad fell. Communications chatter picked up by the U.S. National Security Agency indicated Saddam was in fact dead. Pentagon officials telephoned CIA headquarters and heard analysts tell them, “We got ‘em.”

But local Iraqis said they saw Saddam alive. Some said he even paraded out of town in full view April 9 as U.S. Marines only blocks away entered downtown Baghdad and toppled a tall bronze statute of the dictator.

The CIA eventually came to the conclusion Saddam had survived — again.

The game then turned to tightening the noose, town by town. In July, U.S. forces further isolated Saddam by finding and killing his ruthless sons Uday and Qusai in Mosul.

His capture Saturday ends a 30-year reign of Ba’ath party terror.

Saddam was born April 28, 1937, in the village of al Auja, just outside Tikrit. His father died shortly thereafter, and young Saddam was raised in poverty by various family members.

As a young man, after being turned down for admission to Iraq’s main military academy, he joined the socialist Ba’ath party. The radicals’ goal was to one day seize Baghdad and usher in pan-Arab socialism. Saddam participated in a failed assassination attempt of Prime Minister Abdul Karim Qassim, who had ousted King Faisal II.

Saddam then spent three years in exile in Egypt and Syria. When Ba’athists finally killed Qassim, Saddam returned in 1963 to assume a top leadership post.

Saddam, educated in the biographies of Stalin, systematically eliminated political rivals and assumed the presidency in 1979. It only took him a year to launch a war. He invaded Iran, touching off an eight-year conflict in which he used chemical weapons to kill thousands of Iranians. He also unleashed chemical weapons on Kurdish Iraqis in the north.

In 1991, he miscalculated again by invading Kuwait. The short-lived occupation was reversed by U.S.-led forces, which imposed a series of geographic and trade barriers that limited Saddam’s reach. Still, his security forces remained intact. They killed thousands of southern Shi’ites to put down a postwar rebellion.

Saddam once dreamed of creating the region’s most powerful nation, armed with nuclear weapons and a million-man army that would dominate Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Iran.

He now awaits weeks of interrogation, and then a war-crimes trial in which he will face execution.

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