U.S. troops were nine months into the manhunt for former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, when, on a farm less than 10 miles from the fugitive’s native Tikrit, Iraq, a disheveled, disoriented man found at the end of an underground tunnel answered to that name.
Hussein’s 24-year rule had been marked by brutality and bloodshed, including an ethnic cleansing campaign that resulted in the deaths of 50,000 Kurds and an eight-year war with Iran that resulted in the deaths of at least a million on each side.
He was, along with al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, one of the world’s most wanted fugitives — and his capture came five months after the announcement that his two sons and regime members, Uday and Qusay, had been killed in a fight with U.S. soldiers in Mosul.
On Dec. 13, hours after a member of Hussein’s family disclosed information leading to his whereabouts, the American mission to capture him, dubbed Operation Red Dawn, ended in darkness. Maj. Gen. Raymond Odierno, who led the operation, said Hussein had been “caught like a rat.” A few firearms, a taxi, $750,000 in U.S. currency and papers said to be of “significant value,” also were seized, the contents of the latter kept confidential.
Events leading to Hussein’s capture dominated most of the Dec. 15, 2003, front page of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, with images of the former leader in captivity, shaven and unshaven, appearing above news reports. Illustrations depicted the exact location and conditions of Hussein’s hideout. An additional two pages inside the A section were devoted to comprehensive coverage of the capture and other information, including a timeline of Hussein’s life.
News of his capture had been kept quiet for 18 hours while authorities were careful to identify the man described as “cooperative,” “talkative” and “resigned to his fate.”
It was reported that Baghdad residents responded to the news of Hussein’s capture with cheers and celebratory gunfire, while to the north in Kirkuk, Iraq, eight people were killed by stray bullets and 80 more injured as the result of similar shooting displays.
The celebrations weren’t universal, one article noted. Support for Hussein remained strong among area residents, one of whom called the ruler “our father.”
In a televised address to the nation the day after Hussein’s capture, President George W. Bush was cautious but hopeful.
“In the history of Iraq, a dark and painful era is over,” Bush told the nation. “A hopeful day has arrived. All Iraqis can now come together and reject violence and build a new Iraq.”
After a trial lasting more than a year, Hussein was found guilty by Iraq for “crimes against humanity” in the mass murder of Shiite men and boys in the 1980s. He was executed by hanging on Dec. 30, 2006.
— Francisca Jones
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