How Saddam Hussein was finally captured in a ‘spider hole’

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Saddam Hussein wielded despotic power over Iraq for over two decades. After years of brutal repression, the imprisonment and murder of dissenting voices, and multiple bloody wars waged on neighbouring countries, his regime fell soon after US-led coalition forces invaded the country in early 2003. A vast manhunt was launched to bring him to justice, under the codename “Operation Red Dawn”. It took nine months to find him, and after standing trial he was executed on December 30, 2006.

Hussein was born in 1937 in the city of Tikrit, 90 miles northwest of the Iraqi capital of Baghdad. 

Politically active from his teenage years, he joined the Arab nationalist Baath party. Seeking revolution, Hussein was involved in a failed plot to assassinate the Iraqi prime minister in 1959.

After multiple failed attempts, a Baathist coup in 1968 saw his cousin, Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr installed as the country’s dictator, with Hussein himself as his vice president.

Having consolidated his power base, 11 years later Hussein assumed leadership, in 1979. 

His regime was savage. While his people languished in poverty, he built opulent palaces for himself across the country, and his secret police quashed any dissenting voices by force.

In September 1980, Hussein’s forces invaded neighbouring Iran to its east, starting an eight-year war during which it is estimated over a million lives were lost.

The Iraqi Republican Guard then annexed the small nation of Kuwait to its south in August 1990. After refusing to withdraw by the UN-mandated deadline, an international coalition spearheaded by the US ousted the despot from the country in what became known as the Gulf War.

Hussein’s regime endured UN economic sanctions and airstrikes throughout the Nineties. However, in the wake of 9/11 the US stance towards the dictator hardened, with then-president George W. Bush famously naming Iraq as part of an “axis of evil”.

In March 2003, the US – alongside the UK, Australia and Poland – invaded Iraq with the stated aim of taking Hussein’s nuclear weapons.

In a “shock and awe” campaign, Iraqi forces were overrun within weeks and the government fell. Hussein himself, however, was nowhere to be found.

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He was designated a “High Value Target Number One” – at the top of a list of his regime’s 55 most-wanted members. An enormous search effort ensued involving tens of thousands of US troops, including the specially created Task Force 121 unit.

The mission, dubbed Operation Red Dawn after the 1984 action movie starring Patrick Swayze, took nine months to achieve its objective. 

Hundreds of interrogations were carried out, until US forces got hold of a close associate of Saddam’s willing to cooperate. Mohammed Ibrahim al-Muslit revealed the despot was hiding not far from his ancestral home city of Tikrit.

On December 13, 2003, two sites in the town of ad-Dawr – nicknamed Wolverine 1 and Wolverine 2 after the heroes of the action film – were searched but to no avail. However, as helicopters approached to extract them, the soldiers of the 4th Infantry Division decided to investigate a nearby farmhouse. 

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One account suggests an interrogation of the farm’s owner directed them towards a dirty rug on the ground outside. Beneath it, a polystyrene plug sealed the entrance to a small hole in the ground. One of the Iraqi translators is said to have instantly recognised the voice of Saddam Hussein coming up from it.

Another account claims a soldier happened upon the hole by accident, and was preparing to throw a grenade down the shaft when Hussein appeared.

Either way, at the bottom of what was coined a “spider hole”, Hussein was found hiding in a primitive bunker. Commander of the 4th Infantry Division, Major General Raymond Odierno, said the dictator was “caught like a rat.”

Reports and photos of his capture show he was dishevelled and frail-looking, and despite being armed with a pistol, Hussein did not offer any resistance and was reportedly uninjured in the arrest. 

“Jackpot!” was the word used to communicate his capture on the radio, but the public announcement of the news the following day by American official Paul Bremer has since gained far more prominence as an internet meme: “Ladies and gentlemen, we got him.”

After being detained by the US in Baghdad for six months, Hussein was handed over to the interim Iraqi government and put on trial for crimes against humanity.

The proceedings were frequently disorderly, the former autocrat often shouted angrily, his lawyer was murdered and the chief judge resigned. On November 5, 2006, he was found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging. 

Finally, on December 30, he was led to the gallows by a taunting crowd with whom he exchanged jeers. Mid-prayer, Hussein was hung. Mobile phone footage of the execution quickly went viral online.

Weapons of mass destruction were never found on Iraqi soil.

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