BAGHDAD, Iraq – American forces captured a bearded Saddam Hussein as he hid in the cellar of a farmhouse near his hometown of Tikrit, ending one of the most intensive manhunts in history. The arrest, eight months after the fall of Baghdad, was carried out without a shot fired and was a huge victory for U.S. forces.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we got him,” U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer told a news conference. “The tyrant is a prisoner.”
Saddam was captured Saturday at 8:30 p.m. in a specially prepared “spider hole” in the cellar in the town of Adwar, 10 miles from Tikrit, Lt Col. Ricardo Sanchez said. The hole was six to eight feet deep, camouflaged with bricks and dirt and supplied with an air vent to allow long periods inside.
In the capital, radio stations played celebratory music, residents fired small arms in the air and others drove through the streets, shouting, “They got Saddam! They got Saddam!”
At the news conference announcing his capture, U.S. forces aired a video showing a bearded Saddam being examined by a doctor holding his mouth open with a tongue depressor, apparently to get a DNA sample. Saddam was showing touching his beard during the exam.
Then a video was shown of Saddam after he was shaved.
Iraqi journalists in the audience stood, pointed and shouted “Death to Saddam!” and “Down with Saddam!”
“The captive has been talkative and is being cooperative,” Sanchez said. Saddam was being held at an undisclosed location, and U.S. authorities have not yet determined whether to hand him over to the Iraqis for trial. Iraqi officials want him to stand trial before a war crimes tribunal created last week.
Ahmad Chalabi, a member of Iraq’s Governing Council, said Sunday that Saddam will be put on trial.
“Saddam will stand a public trial so that the Iraqi people will know his crimes,” said Chalabi told Al-Iraqiya, a Pentagon funded TV station.
Two other Iraqis were also arrested in the raid and two AK-47 assault rifles, a pistol and $750,000 in $100 bills were seized, Sanchez said.
Sanchez described Saddam’s demeanor during the arrest, saying he seemed “a tired man. Also I think a man resigned.”
Forces from the 4th Infantry Division along with Special Forces captured Saddam, the U.S. military said. There were no shots fired or injuries in the raid, called “Operation Red Dawn,” said Sanchez.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair welcomed Saddam’s capture.
“This is very good news for the people of Iraq. It removes the shadow that has been hanging over them for too long of the nightmare of a return to the Saddam regime,” he said in a statement released by his office.
In Baghdad, shop owners closed their doors, worried that all the shooting would make the streets unsafe.
“I’m very happy for the Iraqi people. Life is going to be safer now,” said 35-year-old Yehya Hassan, a resident of Baghdad. “Now we can start a new beginning.”
Earlier in the day, rumors of the capture sent people streaming into the streets of Kirkuk, a northern Iraqi city, firing guns in the air in celebration.
“We are celebrating like it’s a wedding,” said Kirkuk resident Mustapha Sheriff. “We are finally rid of that criminal.”
“This is the joy of a lifetime,” said Ali Al-Bashiri, another resident. “I am speaking on behalf of all the people that suffered under his rule.”
In Tikrit, U.S. soldiers from the 4th Infantry Division, the unit that is responsible for security in Saddam’s hometown, were smoking cigars after hearing the news of Saddam’s capture.
Despite the celebration throughout Baghdad, many residents were skeptical.
“I heard the news, but I’ll believe it when I see it,” said Mohaned al-Hasaji, 33. “They need to show us that they really have him.”
Ayet Bassem, 24, walked out of a shop with her 6-year-old son.
“Things will be better for my son,” she said. “Everyone says everything will be better when Saddam is caught. My son now has a future.”
“This success brings closure to the Iraqi people. We now have final resolution. Saddam Hussein will never return to a position of power from which he can punish, terrorize, intimidate and exploit the Iraqi people as the did for more than 35 years,” Sanchez said.
After invading Iraq on March 20 and setting up their headquarters in Saddam’s sprawling Republican Palace compound in Baghdad, U.S. troops launched a massive manhunt for the fugitive leader, placing a $25 million bounty on his head and sending thousands of soldiers to search for him.
Saddam’s sons Qusai and Odai — each with a $15 million bounty on their heads — were killed July 22 in a four-hour gunbattle with U.S. troops in a hideout in the northern city of Mosul. The bounties were paid out to the man who owned the house where they were killed, residents said.
A Governing Council member, Jalal Talabani, told Iran’s official news agency, IRNA, that Saddam’s detention will bring stability to Iraq.
“With the arrest of Saddam, the source financing terrorists has been destroyed and terrorist attacks will come to an end. Now we can establish a durable stability and security in Iraq,” Talabani was quoted as saying.