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Saddam captured hiding in hole Sun 14 December, 2003 15:26
By Joseph Logan
AD-DAWR, Iraq (Reuters) - U.S. troops have captured Saddam Hussein hiding in a hole near his home town of Tikrit in a major coup for Washington's beleaguered occupation force in Iraq.
Grubby and bearded the 66-year-old dictator was dug out by troops from a cramped hiding pit during a raid on a farm in Ad-Dawr village late on Saturday, the jubilant U.S. commander in Iraq Ricardo Sanchez said on Sunday.
Gunfire crackled out in celebration across the country as Iraqis greeted a U.S. military video showing their once feared leader, dishevelled and sporting a bushy black and grey beard, undergoing a medical examination after seven months on the run.
The arrest is a boon for U.S. President George W. Bush after a run of increasingly bloody attacks on U.S. troops and their allies that imperil his campaign for re-election next year. Saddam may also provide intelligence on alleged banned weapons.
The former president, who once seemed almost to believe his own claims of invincibility and urged his men to go down fighting the invaders, gave up without a shot being fired, Lieutenant General Sanchez told a news conference in Baghdad.
"Ladies and gentlemen, we got him," a beaming U.S. administrator Paul Bremer said in his first comments to the news conference where the film was shown. "The tyrant is a prisoner."
Cheering Iraqis in the audience shouted "Death to Saddam!"
Leading members of the U.S.-backed Iraqi Governing Council said they would put Saddam on trial in Baghdad. He may face the death penalty as he answers for a three-decade reign of terror and for leading his oil-rich nation into three disastrous wars.
"We want Saddam to get what he deserves. I believe he will be sentenced to hundreds of death sentences at a fair trial because he's responsible for all the massacres and crimes in Iraq," said Amar al-Hakim, a senior member of the Shi'ite party the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.
NO END TO VIOLENCE
The White House warned, however, that Saddam's capture may not mean an end to violence, which continued hours after he was seized, with a suspected suicide car bombing that left at least 17 dead at a police station in Khalidiyah, west of Baghdad.
U.S. officials say anti-American Muslim militants affiliated to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network have become active in Iraq amid the chaos following Saddam's ousting on April 9.
U.S. officials will also hope to extract vital intelligence on the alleged weapons programmes which formed the public grounds for Bush to go to war in defiance of many U.N. allies.
Little evidence of banned weapons has been found, helping fuel continuing international wrangling over the lack of security in Iraq and the cost of rebuilding a country that holds the world's second biggest oil reserves.
However, there was broad consensus among opponents of the U.S. invasion that getting Saddam behind bars was a good thing. French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, both fierce critics of Bush's war, hailed the arrest.
"This has lifted a shadow from the people of Iraq. Saddam will not be returning," said British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Bush's main ally in the invasion of March 20.
In the Arab world, there were mixed feelings, with many ordinary people welcoming the final humiliation of a man who had invaded two of his neighbours, Iran and Kuwait, oppressed Iraq's Shi'ite majority and launched gas attacks on Kurdish villages.
Others, however, regretted the role the U.S. occupiers played in his overthrow and capture and some lamented the passing of a figure they saw as a defender of Arab interests in the face of the global superpower.
HOLE IN THE GROUND
Saddam's capture was in stark contrast to the bloody demise of his once powerful sons Uday and Qusay, who went down with guns blazing against an overwhelming U.S. force in July.
Saddam kept up a series of taped appeals to his countrymen after that. But a huge manhunt and the $25 million price on his head must have cramped his role in the guerrilla war. It was unclear if any bounty would be paid for his capture -- U.S. forces paid out $30 million to a man who informed on his sons.
Sanchez said the farm where Saddam was seized near Ad Dawr, south of Tikrit, had been surrounded by troops acting on a tip.
It was a humiliating end to a lifelong adventure that began not far away in a poor village on the Tigris river outside Tikrit. Clan connections in the Sunni-dominated military and a taste for ruthless street violence took Saddam to the top of the Arab nationalist Ba'ath party which seized power in a 1968 coup.
He crushed all opposition and spent huge amounts of Iraq's oil wealth on marble-lined palaces and massive monuments to himself. Many of the former are now barracks for U.S. troops while the latter were pulled down by joyful Iraqis months ago.
The soldiers finally tracked the fugitive down to the bottom of a narrow, man-sized hole in the ground, some two to three-metres (six to eight feet) deep, Sanchez said.
Washington had made Saddam number one -- the "ace of spades" -- on a list of 55 most-wanted Iraqis.
Saddam would be put on trial, Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmad Chalabi told Reuters. A tribunal system for Iraqis to try Saddam and fellow Baathist leaders was set up only last week and U.S. officials say it could make use of capital punishment.