WASHINGTON - Within hours of a tip by an Iraqi on Saturday, hundreds of American soldiers and members of a U.S. Special Operations team converged under cover of darkness on two modest farms southeast of Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, military officials in Baghdad said.
Supported by helicopters and armored vehicles, 600 soldiers from the Raider Brigade of the 4th Infantry Division and a team of American commandos known as Task Force 121 - formed this fall to track down Hussein and terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden - scoured the houses on the two farms near the town of Adwar, about 10 miles from Tikrit.
They found nothing, much as they had on many other raids undertaken in the eight months since the fall of Baghdad in hopes of finding the deposed Iraqi leader.
Cordoning off both areas - code-named Wolverine One and Wolverine Two - the soldiers prepared for a more extensive search around 8:30 p.m. Saturday. They fanned out from a mud hut and a sheep pen at one site and found a suspicious trap door covered with dirt in the yard.
After brushing off the dirt and opening the door, the soldiers peered into an 8-foot-deep hole. Hiding below was a bearded man with disheveled hair, covered with a carpet and plastic foam.
He "was very much bewildered," Maj. Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of the 4th Infantry Division, told reporters in Tikrit yesterday.
"He acknowledged he was Saddam Hussein very early on," said a defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Hussein carried a pistol but offered no resistance. He was taken south by helicopter about an hour after being pulled from his hiding place, said Odierno, whose soldiers are responsible for the region north and west of Baghdad.
"He was just caught like a rat," Odierno said. "When you're in the bottom of a hole, you can't fight back."
A videotape made by the U.S. military showed a hole resembling a well, which was reinforced with brick and had two air vents. Another general called it a "spider-hole."
Hussein was captured as a result of information from a member of a family "close to him," Odierno said. The general said soldiers had questioned "five to 10 members" of families "close to Saddam" in the past 10 days.
"Finally, we got the ultimate information from one of these individuals," he said.
Odierno said the area had been searched previously.
"We have been down this road before," he said. "That doesn't mean he's been there the whole time."
The general remarked on Hussein being seized near the Tigris River, across from one of his former palaces.
"I think it's rather ironic that he was in a hole in the ground across the river from these great palaces that he's built where he robbed all the money from the Iraqi people," Odierno said.
Soldiers participating in the raid, called Operation Red Dawn, did not know who the target was until he was captured, the general said. They found no telephones or other communication equipment at Hussein's hide-out.
The general said that tended to confirm his suspicions that Hussein has not been leading insurgent efforts against the U.S.-led forces in Iraq.
"I believe he was there more for moral support," Odierno said. "I don't believe he was coordinating the effort, because I don't believe there's any national coordination."
No more entourage
On the absence of a security force, Odierno said, "I think the pressure had become so tight on him he knew he couldn't travel in large entourages, so he didn't really have any men with him."
The Associated Press quoted a soldier who took part in the raid as describing the hut as "just two rooms and a sink."
"There was one bed and one chair and some clothes, and that's about it," he said.
Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the U.S. ground commander in Iraq, told reporters in Baghdad that he would not disclose Hussein's words after being captured. Sanchez said he was there when Hussein was brought in Saturday for identification.
Two other Iraqis were taken prisoner at the farm compound, but their identities were not revealed. A defense official and Falah Nakib, deputy governor of the province that includes Tikrit, said one of the men was a Hussein bodyguard. Nakib, in a phone interview from Samarra, said he was told that the second Iraqi was one of Hussein's physicians.
"People say it's his bodyguard and personal doctor. That's something I've been told," Nakib said.
Sanchez said he did not have a positive identification on the other two men.
At one point, Nakib's phone conversation was drowned out by bursts from automatic weapons.
"People are celebrating," Nakib said of the noise. "They are happy that he has been captured."
Besides Hussein's pistol, two AK-47 assault rifles were recovered on the property, officials said. About $750,000 in $100 bills and a yellow and white taxi also were found, Sanchez said.
The general said he didn't know how long Hussein had been there.