The bearded, disheveled man dragged from an eight-foot hole looked, in the words of one U.S. soldier, like a homeless man at a bus station. In the deeply lined face and hollow eyes, there was no hint of the swaggering tyrant who terrorized his own people, invaded two countries, and held the world at bay. There were none of the verbal taunts that infuriated world leaders and energized the Arab street. When the end finally came, the most-wanted man in the world could say only, "My name is Saddam Hussein. I am the president of Iraq and I want to negotiate."
But the time for negotiating was long past. After months on the run, the former dictator faced a long interrogation by his American captors, followed, most likely, by a trial at the hands of his own people. In the wake of his brutal, masochistic rule, he will find little mercy among his countrymen. One senior Iraqi official, after meeting with the captured leader, gave voice to a sentiment doubtless shared by millions. "Damn you," Mowaffak al Rubaie told an unrepentant Mr. Hussein, and then expressed a desire beyond human power: "The Iraqis will send you to hell."
Acting on fresh intelligence, some 600 U.S. soldiers took part in a Dec. 13 raid near Tikrit. After sweeping through two farmhouses and a mud hut, they were about to leave the area when they spotted a white prayer rug in the courtyard. Underneath it was the entrance to a so-called spider hole, where Mr. Hussein was cowering alone. He gave up without firing a shot.
News of the capture set off ecstatic celebrations among Iraq's majority Shiite population. And while coalition troops may have felt a similar sense of jubilation, no one was ready to claim victory over the rebel forces loyal to Mr. Hussein. As if to underscore the ongoing danger, a car bomb killed eight Iraqi policemen in a suicide attack that came less than 24 hours after the stunning announcement.
Even if revenge attacks increase in the short term, military officials were confident that Mr. Hussein's capture would lead to a gradual lessening of hostilities, paving the way for an orderly transition to home rule by next summer. That's especially good news for President Bush, who has watched his poll numbers erode as the conflict dragged on. With Mr. Hussein at last in U.S. custody, the president can begin to focus on his challengers at home rather than his enemy abroad.