"Conceal thy travels, thy tenets, and thy treasures."Arab proverb
December 15, 2003
No one was to come in or out.
Dozens of American soldiers formed a defensive circle around the palm grove, silently keeping watch. Gunners in the turrets of Humvees parked next to the troops turned hand cranks at their waists to pan .50 caliber machine guns left and right, training the long gun barrels on the dense trees around the edges of the grove.
"Got to keep your eyes moving.
"Got to look out for snipers.
"Got to protect the circle.
"Nothing can go wrong today,
"Not in front of all these reporters."
It was a big day, and we all knew it. I was at the center of this defensive ring of American muscle and machines along with about a dozen other journalists. We probably looked ridiculous to the troops. They had their uniforms: khaki combat boots, M4 rifles, Kevlar helmets, and Wiley X ballistic sunglasses. We had our uniforms: brightly colored flak jackets (mine was sky blue), cameras, tripods, notebooks, khakis, and quick-dry synthetic shirts. The army had choppered us into this clearing on two Black Hawks to see what didn't look like much from the outside: a tiny cinder block farmhouse with a garden filled with sunflowers, oranges, and pomegranate trees. The fruit looked almost ripe on the cool bright December morning. But no one would be picking it. Not from this house. Not anymore.
"We have a cordon around the area, but it is still dangerous. Don't wander off," an army officer warned. My canvas hiking boots stuck in the soft black soil as I walked to the farmhouse and through its thatch gate.
But what I saw inside didn't make any sense to me. Military officials said Saddam Hussein was captured hiding in a hole. I didn't see any hole, but only a typical one-room Iraqi farmhouse with a cement patio in front where laundry and basterma (Arab pastrami) were drying on a line. One of the biggest manhunts in history had led the U.S. military here: Saddam's safe house where he slept and apparently cooked for himself. It seemed that he lived badly as a fugitive. My mother would have called the place, like my room growing up, "a pigsty." There were broken eggs on the floor, a dirty frying pan atop a gas burner, and a half-eaten Mars bar and an open bottle of moisturizer on a wooden stand next to a single, unmade twin bed. I imagined the dictator, who had lived in palaces with hundreds of servants, suddenly forced to fend for himself like a freshman in college who, no longer having his mother to pick up after him, eats junk food and doesn't clean up. It must have been a tough adjustment for Saddam. One of his private chefs told me the Iraqi leader was a finicky eater, often struggling with his weight; he always made himself a bit thinner in his statues. He liked vegetables and mutton stews, and would fine the chef if he used too much oil. Saddam would tip him if meals were particularly tasty and light. He liked things just so. One of Saddam's palace maids -- like many, a Christian woman (Saddam thought Iraqi Christians to be especially honest and clean) -- told me Saddam was also so fastidious about hygiene that she was required to take off her shoes and walk barefoot across a mat soaked in disinfectant before entering his bedroom. Saddam couldn't have liked living in this farmhouse, just three miles from his dusty home village, al-Ouja, which he hated for its poverty. The poor street thug who intimidated and killed his rivals until he became "al-Rais," Arabic for both head and president, had come full circle.
"But where's the hole?" I asked the officer. "Didn't you find Saddam in a hole?"
He led me back outside to the cement patio with the laundry line.
"At first we didn't see it either. A soldier was standing right here and didn't notice the hole until he kicked aside this mat," the officer said, pulling back a plastic tarp on the ground. Underneath was a Styrofoam cork in the cement about the size of a big fishing tackle box.
"When the soldier removed this Styrofoam cover," he said, "Saddam was inside. Saddam put his hands up and said, 'I am Saddam Hussein, president of Iraq, and I am ready to negotiate.' "
Saddam apparently lived in the farmhouse most of the time, and took refuge in the hole only when danger was close. Saddam also had a pistol, but didn't use it, and traveled in a beat-up white and orange taxi discovered nearby.
The soldiers were relaxed and joking with journalists. It was a "good news" day and this was the military's chance to play show-and-tell.
"And what did the soldiers say to Saddam?" one of us asked.
"President Bush sends his regards," an officer said.
We all laughed.
The scribblers among us frantically scratched notes into pads. Cameramen marked time codes so they could easily find the sound bite again, and the snappers took pictures of every angle, their big black cameras clicking like crickets.
The troops were playing it up. The soldiers from the 4th Infantry Division were the "landowners" here, in charge of the entire Tikrit area. Their commander, Major General Raymond Odierno, an ogre of a man with a bald head and a no-nonsense personality, said, "Saddam was caught like a rat."
But in reality the elite U.S. Special Operations Forces code-named Task Force 121 did most of the work. U.S. officials said Saddam was located after the "hostile interrogations" of several of his relatives and bodyguards. Odierno said "five or ten" of them were arrested about ten days before Saddam's capture. On the day of the predawn raid, roughly six hundred soldiers from the 4th ID provided perimeter security to ensure no one escaped as members of Task Force 121 moved in, raided the farmhouse, grabbed Saddam, and choppered him south to a prison at the Baghdad airport, where he was identified by former aides, among them soft-spoken, gray-haired former deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz. But members of Task Force 121 don't give interviews, so to the 4th ID went the glory. Sorry, Task Force 121.
Looking back, it's easy to see why so many people, including me, were generally optimistic back then. Saddam was in custody. U.S. forces had killed his hated sons, Uday and Qusay, five months earlier. President George W. Bush had just stopped by Baghdad for a surprise Thanksgiving Day visit to the troops. U.S. military officials said at the time there were only about five hundred to seven hundred insurgents, many of them former Iraqi intelligence officers or members of Uday's paramilitary force, the Fedayeen, operating in about a dozen cells in the Baghdad area.
But even then, violence was starting to pick up. Two days before Saddam was captured, militants threw a grenade at a U.S. patrol in Baghdad carrying Time magazine writer Michael Weisskopf and photographer James Nachtwey. The grenade landed between the two journalists as they were stopped in traffic. Weisskopf reached down and threw the grenade out of the vehicle. It exploded in the air, blowing off his hand. Nachtwey was also wounded, but the veteran war photographer was able to keep taking pictures throughout the ordeal. Tough guy.
That's one of the reasons we liked Odd Job.
I had driven to Tikrit to cover Saddam's capture in Odd Job, the affectionate nickname for our homemade satellite truck. It's what Iraqis call a "bongo truck," a pickup with a rear cab covered in a canvas tarpaulin. Our engineers -- the unsung heroes of the news business, our Task Force 121 -- fit it with a portable satellite dish, generators, tanks of diesel fuel, and enough cables to make it into a self-contained TV uplink. But it was Iraqi style. Unlike the white TV vans with telescopic dishes emblazoned with company logos that rush to crime scenes in the United States, Odd Job was rusted and painted to look like any other truck in Baghdad transporting onions or sheep. We liked it that way. Even back in December 2003, you didn't want to be seen. But stealth and discretion were our only defense at the time. Less than a year later, Iraq had become so dangerous we were forced to develop the most complex, expensive, and often inhibiting security procedures in the history of combat journalism.
The soldiers from the 4th ID gave us an hour to explore Saddam's hideout before heading back to their HQ, ironically in one of Saddam's most lavish palaces just a few miles away. The soldiers lived on green folding cots in the palace's huge rooms of green and white marble. Although the palaces looked impressive, like giant wedding cakes, the construction was shoddy. The crystals in the giant chandeliers were plastic. The toilets often didn't flush. The sinks with gold-plated faucets leaked. Hundreds of soldiers packed the building, nearly all of them young men away from their wives and girlfriends. You could almost smell the testosterone. A soldier told me that a few months earlier a visiting female reporter was sleeping topless on a cot, just covered with a white sheet.
"And it kept falling off!" he said.
It can reach over 120 degrees in the summer in Tikrit, so I can sympathize with the journalist trying to sleep. But she was such a distraction the military ordered her to leave the base.
I was in no rush to get back to the palace. I wanted to go in Saddam's hole. I was excited and must admit I was having fun. The entrance was smaller than a manhole cover, too small for me to fit through wearing my bulky blue flak jacket lined with ceramic strike plates. I ripped back the Velcro straps, put my hands on either side of the hole, and lowered myself inside.
When my feet landed on the floor, I switched on a flashlight and painted the walls with dim yellow light. The subterranean chamber was like a tomb: rectangular, about ten feet long, four feet high, and three feet wide. The walls were covered in rough concrete. The floor was lined with boards. A naked lightbulb and fan hung from the ceiling. The fan was attached to a plastic hose that ran through a hole drilled in the wall and led outside. It was a ventilation system and let Saddam breathe when the tomb was plugged with th...
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