ADWAR, Iraq—U.S. soldiers searching a farm near here for Saddam Hussein had come up dry once again and were about to leave Saturday when one of them spotted a white rug on the ground near a small tree with red flowers. It looked odd, out in the dirt. They pulled the rug aside.
Underneath was what looked like a mud-panel in the ground. They pried it open and discovered a 6-by-8-foot hole, its entrance braced by lumber. At the bottom was a smaller cubbyhole with a pipe leading up to the ground for air.
And there they found Saddam. He had a white bushy beard and looked "disoriented," said Odierno. He was armed with a pistol, but he didn't use it.
"They just said he was very quiet," said Maj. Gen. Ray Odierno, quoting his soldiers. "He got out very quickly."
It was 8:26 p.m. The eight-month hunt for Saddam was over.
As it turned out, Saddam may never have been far from the American troops who finally seized him. The large farm where he was found is less than 10 miles from the luxurious palace complex that the 4th Infantry Division has turned into its headquarters and just a mile from the main road of Adwar, a quiet, dusty town where residents still refer to Saddam as Mr. President.
U.S. soldiers patrolled this town so often that they named the road heading to the farm "RPG Alley"—because of the rocket-propelled grenades that the guerrillas shot at them frequently.
"Anytime the coalition forces were in the area, he was probably going to that hole," said Odierno.
It's not clear why Saddam chose to hide on the farm. Neighbors said it belongs to a man named Qais Namik. He isn't a wealthy man. Neighbors said they never saw any strange cars or people go to the farm. There was only Namik's white Toyota pick-up truck.
"In the past he used to work with the regime, but I don't know what he did," said Muhammed Latif al Duri, 50, a taxi driver who lives near the farm. Other neighbors said he had no relationship to Saddam.
"He was an ordinary farmer," said Bilal Hani al Duri, 18, a student.
But the farm may have had nostalgic value for Saddam, said Capt. Joe Munger, a spokesman for the 4th Infantry Division who was guarding the road to the farm following the raid. After an assassination attempt on his life, Saddam escaped to his hometown of Tikrit by swimming across the Tigris river at the spot where the farm is now located, Munger said.
"This is where his supporters are," he added.
Someone obviously was concerned for his welfare. When soldiers entered a mud-brick hut on the farm, they found new clothes, still unwrapped.
In the past 10 days, U.S. troops had intensified their search for Saddam, detaining several of his tribal and family associates and plying them for information, Odierno said. In the end, one of them divulged the whereabouts of the former dictator.
On Saturday afternoon the decision was made to go get him. The mission was named Operation Red Dawn.
"The soldiers knew they were going after someone there, but they didn't know who," Odierno said.
As the evening gave way to a bone-chilling night, some 600 soldiers of the 4th Infantry Division's First Brigade Combat team swept silently onto the isolated farm nestled along the banks of the Tigris.
Nearby were a row of houses, an electricity plant and a large, oatmeal-colored field. In the distance was a mosque with a green-lighted minaret.
At around 8 p.m., the Humvees pulled up quietly. Not a shot or a yell was heard, and the electricity was cut off, said neighbors. The soldiers quickly sealed off two square kilometers, Odierno said.
"One of the vehicles stopped nearby. Another stopped on the other side of our house," said Rabiah Jassem al Duri, 35, an accountant who lives near the farm. "They didn't disturb us. There were no explosions. No gunfire."
The soldiers swept into the farm. There were two farmhouses at either end of a dirt road. The soldiers raided both farmhouses, code-named Wolverine One and Wolverine Two. No trace of Saddam.
Then they went to a small mud-brick hut between the two farmhouses. It had two rooms. One was a bedroom that had a chair, a bed and clothes scattered everywhere, including some new, unwrapped ones. The other room was a rudimentary kitchen, Odierno said.
Nobody was in the hut. The soldiers prepared to leave. That's when they spotted the white rug.
Whether Saddam ever contemplated defending himself was not known, but two of his aides, carrying Kalashnikov rifles, tried to run away. They were captured, too. It's unclear what happened to the farm's owner.
A red and orange taxi was nearby. It contained a green metal crate filled with $750,000—all in $100 bills.
Saddam was whisked to an unknown location.
Two hours later, the soldiers were back at the palace. Several lit cigars.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): usiraq+saddam