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U.S. soldiers reveal details of search for, capture of Saddam

ADWAR, Iraq—Saddam Hussein crawled out with his hands above his head, just as Special Forces soldiers were about to throw a grenade into the hole where he was hiding, U.S. military officers said on Monday.

"I am Saddam Hussein. I am the president of Iraq. And I'm willing to negotiate," the former dictator said in English when he stepped out, according to Maj. Bryan Reed of the 4th Infantry Division's 1st Brigade Combat team, which conducted the raid with the Special Forces team.

A soldier replied: "President Bush sends his regards."

It was the triumphant end of an immense, often frustrating nine-month manhunt.

The U.S. military deployed an arsenal of technology and weaponry to find Saddam, but in the end it was patience, gumshoe work and a constant search for reliable intelligence that finally led to his capture.

Since April, Col. James Hickey, the commander of the 1st Brigade Combat team, 43, was trying to get ahead of Saddam. Like many U.S. soldiers, the Chicago native and graduate of the Virginia Military Institute was profoundly affected by the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Iraq, for him, was an extension of the war of terrorism—and Saddam was one of its bogeymen.

"As long as I am on duty, people are not going to attack America or kill Americans," said Hickey, a tall, well-built former Army fellow at Georgetown University.

Hickey's brigade was in charge of much of the area around Saddam's ancestral homeland of Tikrit. Everyone knew this was the ideal place for the dictator to hide. He had legions of loyal supporters in the region.

To track Saddam down, Hickey decided early on that he had to penetrate Saddam's inner circle to find the informant who would betray the Iraqi strongman.

Saddam was on the offensive. He used his network of spies and allies to hide from the U.S.-led coalition. He sent taped messages to taunt them. His loyalist fighters launched ambushes and suicide bombers, killing scores of U.S. soldiers.

Hickey and his soldiers, meanwhile, launched dozens of raids in the Tikrit region, detaining scores of Saddam's supporters. With each raid, Hickey learned about Saddam's tribal and family network and his closest supporters.

Hickey eventually found out that Saddam's security apparatus—those who protected him—was built around about five families.

"Once we learned who is who, who did what, it allowed us to work our way up those lines," said Hickey. "It's like being a detective, except we do it in a more dynamic, less stable environment."

By July, Hickey was hearing about a man who could possibly help him find Saddam. He was a member of one of the five families, but not part of Saddam's tribe. The man, who Hickey described as "middle-aged with a very large waistline," was a key figure in the guerrillas' campaign against the coalition. The man, he said, was one of the 55 in the card deck of the coalition's most-wanted fugitives of Saddam's regime.

"This individual was the member of a very important family, a family that owns many properties in this area and Tikrit," said Hickey, who spoke at the farm where Saddam was captured. "We raided this individual's properties on the 8th of July and the 24th of July."

They failed to nab him. Hickey kept pushing for more information on the man. On some raids, they captured insurgents related to the man, putting more pressure on him to cooperate with the coalition.

By December, the man had not been found. In nine months, Hickey and his soldiers had staged 12 failed raids for Saddam in different areas of Tikrit.

Hickey kept urging his soldiers to not allow the failures to crush their spirits.

"It was frustrating," recalled Capt. Desmond Bailey, 31, from Wetumpka, Ala., who took part in all 12 raids.

He remembers Hickey saying: "Keep up the faith. We'll keep developing intelligence and sooner or later we'll catch him."

On Dec. 4, Hickey and his brigade launched a five-hour raid in Tikrit to target the man. They captured some of his subordinates who were financing guerrilla attacks.

But the man fled to the nearby town of Samarra. Another unit launched a raid there to nab the man. They captured men who had $1.9 million with them, said Hickey. Once again, however, Hickey's target fled.

On Dec. 7, Hickey launched another failed raid in the town of Bayji to nab the man.

Then on Dec. 12, a raid by another unit in Baghdad netted fighters of the Fedayeen, Saddam's loyalist militia that U.S. officials say are behind many of the attacks on coalition troops. Hickey's man was among those captured.

When Hickey learned of the capture, he had the man flown up to Tikrit the next day. Under interrogation, the man revealed clues to Saddam's hiding place.

At first, Hickey's informant said Saddam was west of Tikrit. But by 11 a.m. Saturday, he said that Saddam was possibly in one of two locations southeast of Tikrit, perhaps in an underground bunker.

Hickey's soldiers had patrolled that area numerous times. Was it possible that Saddam was hiding under their noses all along?

Hickey switched gears. By 5 p.m., he knew the information was reliable enough to act on. By 6:30 p.m., some 600 troops had secured a 2 square kilometer perimeter around the area. Hickey had informed his immediate subordinates to "kill or capture Saddam."

But most of the soldiers didn't know they were going after High Value Target No. 1—or HVT 1.

At 8:15 p.m., a team of 20 to 30 Special Forces operatives with night-vision goggles and guns with red laser pointers swooped into the area and scoured two houses—code names Wolverine One and Wolverine Two. Saddam wasn't there.

After searching, they found Saddam's hut near Wolverine Two. As they were leaving, the soldiers noticed something odd about a white rug on the ground. They pulled it aside, revealing a mud-covered lid. They lifted it. It was dark inside because the electricity had been cut off.

Seconds later, Saddam came out without any resistance.

"He was wise not to waste time," said Hickey.

Outside the farm, Capt. Bailey heard a Special Forces soldier's voice crackle over the radio: "We got him." It was 8:26 p.m.

Bailey watched as two Special Forces soldiers came out with Saddam. He was handcuffed. They swiftly took him to a waiting helicopter.

"This symbolizes the end of the regime," said Lt. Erik Sanders, 25, from Morenci, Ariz. "Hopefully, his capture will convince the guerrillas to quit their resistance."

Hickey never saw Saddam. He was in a nearby field running the operation. He called his superiors with the good news.

"At the moment, I felt a great sense of accomplishment, and that was a fleeting moment," said Hickey. "We're not done here yet."

Inside his Humvee, he pulled out a Havana cigar that was given to him a few weeks earlier by a journalist. Hickey never smoked cigars, but this was a special occasion. He lit up.

———

(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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