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Saddam Hussein Captured by U.S. Army

Without firing a shot, U.S. forces captured a bearded and haggard-looking Saddam Hussein in an underground hide-out on a farm near his hometown of Tikrit, ending one of the most intensive manhunts in history.

In the capital, radio stations played celebratory music, residents fired small arms in the air in celebration and passengers on buses and trucks shouted, "They got Saddam! They got Saddam!"

After sundown, large explosions were heard in central Baghdad, and flames and thick smoke were seen. Bursts of gunfire rang out from the area of the blasts.

"The former dictator of Iraq will face the justice he denied to millions," U.S. President George W. Bush said in a midday televised address from the White House, eight months after American troops swept into Baghdad and toppled Hussein's regime. "In the history of Iraq, a dark and painful era is over. A hopeful day has arrived."

Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said in a statement that Russia believes the arrest "will contribute to the strengthening of security in Iraq and to the process of political regulation in the country with the active participation of the UN."

Washington hopes Hussein's capture will help break the organized Iraq resistance that has killed more than 190 American soldiers since Bush declared major combat over on May 1 and has set back efforts at reconstruction.

But Major General Ray Odierno, commander of the 4th Infantry Division, which captured Hussein, said the ousted leader did not appear to be directly organizing resistance -- noting no communication devices were found in his hiding place. "I believe he was there more for moral support," Odierno said.

Hussein's capture was based on information from a member of a family "close to him," Odierno told reporters in Tikrit. "Finally we got the ultimate information from one of these individuals."

The capture took place at 8:30 p.m. Saturday at one of dozens of safe houses Hussein is thought to have: a walled compound on a farm in Adwar, a town 15 kilometers from Tikrit, not far from one of Hussein's former palaces, Odierno said.

The event comes almost five months after his sons, Qusai and Odai, were killed July 22 in a four-hour gun battle with U.S. troops in a hideout in the northern city of Mosul. There was hope at the time that the sons' deaths would dampen the Iraqi resistance to the U.S. occupation. But since then, the guerrilla campaign has mounted dramatically.

In the latest attack, a suspected suicide bomber detonated explosives in a car outside a police station Sunday morning west of Baghdad, killing at least 17 people and wounding 33 more, the U.S. military said.

Hussein was one of the most-wanted fugitives in the world, along with Osama bin Laden, the leader of the al-Qaida terrorist network who has not been caught despite a manhunt since November 2001, when the Taliban regime was overthrown in Afghanistan.

"Ladies and gentlemen, we got him," U.S. administrator Paul Bremer told a news conference. "The tyrant is a prisoner."

Some 600 troops and special forces were involved in the raid that netted Hussein -- though not all were aware beforehand that the objective was "High Value Target No. 1," Odierno said.

Troops found the ousted leader, armed with a pistol, hiding in an underground crawl space at the walled compound, he said. The entrance to the hiding place, covered with rugs and dirt, was near a small, mud-brick hut where Hussein had been staying.

The hut consisted of two rooms, a bedroom with clothes scattered about and a "rudimentary kitchen," Odierno said.

Hussein was "very disoriented" as soldiers brought him out of the hole, Odierno said. A Pentagon diagram showed the hiding place as a 2-meter vertical tunnel, with a shorter tunnel branching out horizontally from one side. A pipe to the concrete surface at ground level provided air.

Hussein did not fire his weapon. "There was no way he could fight back so he was just caught like a rat," Odierno said.

Two other Iraqis -- described as low-level regime figures -- were arrested in the raid, and soldiers found two Kalashnikov rifles, a pistol, a taxi and $750,000 in $100 bills.

A U.S. defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Hussein admitted his identity when captured.

Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, who saw Hussein overnight, said he "has been cooperative and is talkative." He described him as "a tired man, a man resigned to his fate."

"He was unrepentant and defiant," said Adel Abdel-Mahdi, a senior official of a Shiite Muslim political party who, along with other Iraqi leaders, visited Hussein in captivity.

"When we told him, 'If you go to the streets now, you will see the people celebrating,'" Abdel-Mahdi said. "He answered, 'Those are mobs.' When we told him about the mass graves, he replied, 'Those are thieves.'"

Eager to prove to Iraqis that Hussein was in custody, Sanchez played a video at the news conference showing him in custody.

Hussein, 66, with a thick, graying beard and bushy, disheveled hair, was seen as doctor examined him, feeling his scalp and holding his mouth open with a tongue depressor, apparently to get a DNA sample. Hussein blinked and touched his beard during the exam. Then the video showed a picture of him after he was shaved, juxtaposed for comparison with an old photo of the Iraqi leader while in power.

Iraqi journalists at the press conference stood, pointed and shouted "Death to Saddam!" and "Down with Saddam!"

Though the raid occurred Saturday afternoon U.S. time, U.S. officials went to great length to keep it quiet until medical tests and DNA testing confirmed Hussein's identity.

Hussein 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 or what his status would be.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair hailed the capture, saying the deposed leader "has gone from power, he won't be coming back."

"Where his rule meant terror and division and brutality, let his capture bring about unity, reconciliation and peace between all the people of Iraq," Blair said.

(The Moscow Times 15.xii.03)

 
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