The keen eyes of U.S. soldier catch Hussein

Bit of rubber in the dirt leads to discovery of hole and his surrender

The Capture Of Saddam Hussein

December 16, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

ADWAR, Iraq - A piece of a fabric-backed rubber mat protruding from the dirt caught the eye of an American Special Forces soldier as he searched the courtyard of a rundown farm in northern Iraq on Saturday.

The U.S. military had been combing the Adwar area as part of a nine-day hunt in an area around Tikrit, after questioning a prominent figure from a tribal family known to be close to Saddam Hussein.

But it was this small detail - the edge of the rubber mat - that ultimately betrayed Hussein's hiding place and ended the search for the former Iraqi leader more than eight months after his ouster from power. The U.S. military has refused to disclose where Hussein is now being held.

American forces flew journalists to the dilapidated farmhouse just outside the town of Adwar yesterday to give them a description of how the events leading to Hussein's capture had unfolded.

The single-story farmhouse made of concrete blocks is edged by a courtyard and encircled by a fence of tree branches and palm fronds. Branches on orange trees hung low with fruit. Chickens and a single cow were kept in the yard, and dates and sausage were strung outside, apparently to cure.

In the first sweep through the area, the soldiers found nothing, according to a narrative provided by military officials. Then they combed it again. That was when one of them noticed the rubber. Only a sliver was evident under the dirt where he was standing. But the soldier thought it was strange.

He and some comrades yanked at the mat, and it came up to reveal a plastic foam slab with handles. They pulled on them, and the plug came loose from a shaft leading into the ground. The soldiers were prepared to throw a grenade into the gloomy depths when two hands suddenly appeared.

The soldiers reached down and pulled out a man, disheveled, bearded and apparently disoriented from the cramped underground confines where he had been hiding.

"I am Saddam Hussein, president of Iraq," the man told his captors in halting English. "I am willing to negotiate."

A Special Forces soldier replied, "President Bush sends his regards."

Visitors yesterday could see that the shaft went down about eight feet into a coffinlike space made of concrete, its roof supported by wooden beams. At one end is a ventilator fan, and a steel pipe supplied ventilation near the floor. A small neon bulb provided some light. The space was just large enough for a man about 6 feet tall to lie down.

The U.S. military said Hussein had had an assault rifle and a pistol with him, but the only items visible inside yesterday were a plastic bag and some Q-tips.

The search missions for Iraqi officials wanted by the United States in Iraq involve what the military calls high-value targets. The code name for Saturday's mission was HVT-1.

After Hussein was taken into custody, a Special Forces soldier radioed Col. James Hickey, 43, who is in charge of the 1st Brigade of the 4th Infantry Division and the Special Operations forces who formed the core of the raid.

"We believe we have HVT-1," said the soldier, adding a moment later that he believed him to be the fugitive Iraqi leader.

Hickey then radioed superiors with the news. But he said there were no celebrations on the spot.

"This was business," he told reporters.

The colonel said the team followed standard procedure, which calls for people taken into custody to be manacled with plastic cuffs and put into loose hoods before they are taken away.

The farmhouse where Hussein was found is nestled along the reed banks of the Tigris River. As journalists flew in yesterday by helicopter, farmers and their children waved from the ground.

Military officials said two men at the farmhouse were also taken into custody, but they were not immediately identified.

The interior of the farmhouse was spare, with two beds. Possessions that the military believed were Hussein's were strewn about, including Arabic poetry books, new sandals, shoes, socks and unopened boxer shorts and T-shirts.

Over the door to the hut were the words, in Arabic, "Praise be to God, the most Merciful."

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