From lavish palaces to a hole in the ground

FOR the man who went from Tikriti peasant boy to president, it would have provided the grimmest possible reminder of his 40-year rise and fall.

Saddam Hussein’s final hiding place was opened up to the world yesterday - a dishevelled, ramshackle country shack, just like the one he was raised in as a child.

Keen to show the squalid conditions in which he spent his final days of freedom, the US army raised the cordon on the building yesterday afternoon for groups of reporters.

The through-the-keyhole tour revealed the miserable bachelor existence of the world’s most wanted man - living in an unheated, jerry-built bedsit, with little more than troublesome flies for company. The visit took place under cloudy skies yesterday afternoon, as locals in the nearby town of Ad Dawr, just south of Tikrit, did their best to voice their disapproval. Eyeing the waiting TV cameras, a small crowd turned up to sing praise for the man they still called "the President".

After a brief stand-off, US troops then led the way down a kilometre-long track to a group of farm buildings, snuggled in a bend of the Tigris and hidden from the road by a small wood.

The shack looked no different from any other Iraqi peasant dwelling - except for a neat square opening dug in the soft earth nearby. This was the famous hiding hole, where, to Saddam’s horror and disbelief, a head wearing a US army helmet had peered in two days before.

"It’s about three feet wide and six foot long - no more than a coffin really," explained Captain Joe Munger.

"We think it has been here for a long time, but it seems to have been purpose-built as a hiding place, as it has human dimensions."

One by one, the assembled media slid down the four-foot shaft to imagine Saddam’s final moment of capture, emerging, as he did, filthy and dusty from the dank earth walls of the chamber beneath.

There was little to report from inside - just an office-style propeller air filter at one end, and a small fluorescent strip light at the other.

Saddam’s mudbricked bedroom, cast in semi-gloom by the light from a tiny window, looked only slightly more hospitable. Dirty mattresses and blankets lay scattered on the floor, and the only creature comforts appeared to be a few religious texts and a portable heater.

The contents of the fridge gave some idea of his favourite snacks - half-eaten jars of honey, pistachio nuts, and sausages. A large and nearly empty cardboard box also revealed Iraq’s former president as a secret Bounty-bar fan.

Despite his dishevelled appearance on being caught, scattered toiletries also suggested some efforts to look after himself. There were droppers of eye ointment - perhaps the dust was a problem for a man used to palace life - and bottles of shampoo. The hands that had been stained with so much blood over the years had also been kept soft and tender with bottles of moisturising cream.

Next door, under a lean-to, was an outdoor self-catering kitchen, supplied with untreated water from the nearby Tigris. His last meal of non-prison food, meanwhile, appeared to be a half-eaten bowl of tomato salad, left Marie Celeste-like on the table.

It seemed Saddam had relied on being able to spot his pursuers coming from a distance, as security appeared to be minimal. The only sign of any precautions was a ladder leading up to the building’s roof, where an observer could peer across the surrounding countryside from under the foliage.

"We knew we were looking for Saddam on the raid, but we weren’t told who it was we had arrested at first," said Private 1st Class Philip Hebson. "But when we got back to our base there was a complete communication black-out - no phones, no internet, nothing. That’s never happened to us before, and at that point we figured it was probably him."

After eight months of hunting, US soldiers had taken Saddam without either side firing a shot.

"What we found surprised us," said Colonel James Hickey, the head of the First Brigade of the Fourth Infantry Division and the special operations forces who formed the core of the raid. "We didn’t think it would be so simple."

Col Hickey said the army was led to Saddam’s hideaway by information from a wealthy man from nearby Tikrit who had been arrested in a raid on Saturday morning.

"On Saturday at 10:50 I received a call from a comrade who told me that they got a man in Baghdad. We brought that person to Tikrit for interrogation and that made us clear Saddam was somewhere here," Col Hickey said. "That guy was really crucial for us."

He declined to identify the source, saying only that he was from an important family in the town and that he had "a large waist line".

It was at least the tenth time US troops in Tikrit had headed out on a mission hoping to capture Saddam.

"The most important thing was stealth and speed to shock and overwhelm the enemy," Col Hickey said. "We expected a bit of fight and we were ready."

As the operation progressed, Col Hickey was in his command vehicle co-ordinating movements of the 600-strong force composed of infantry, mechanised cavalry, special forces and light artillery units, helicopters and combat engineers.

"Instructions I gave were detailed and cryptic... we had intelligence that there will be an underground facility… but we expected something better constructed, not something so humble," Col Hickey said.

On finding nothing in the first two farmhouses they checked, the troops decided to check out the nearby hut. "The orchard and palm grove looked like the best place. If there were an underground area, it would be there," Col Hickey said.

Special forces raided the hut, a simple two-room construction behind a fence made of dried palm leaves, while regular soldiers sealed off the area. They caught one man trying to escape and another in the hut.

When they discovered the hole, Saddam immediately gave himself up by telling soldiers, in English, who he was.

"We were about to clear that UGF [under-ground facility] in a military sort of way," Col Hickey said. "He was wise not to wait too long".

Another few moments, and the grenade would have been through the hole, and the debate over what to do with Saddam would have become academic.

From Ad Dawr, the former Iraqi leader was reportedly taken to a holding cell at Baghdad airport, but the initial interrogations went slowly. Reports based on an alleged transcript of his initial interview suggested that he did not answer questions directly and seemed less than fully coherent.

Asked "how are you?", Saddam is said to have replied: "I am sad because my people are in bondage."

Offered a glass of water by his interrogators, he is said to have responded: "If I drink water I will have to go to the bathroom and how can I use the bathroom when my people are in bondage?"

He reportedly denied any knowledge about the whereabouts of a US pilot missing since the first Gulf war.

And when he was asked about weapons of mass destruction, he was dismissive. Asked if Iraq had possessed such weapons, he is reported to have said: "No, of course not. The US. dreamed them up itself to have a reason to go to war with us."

He is said to have told interrogators that he turned away inspectors because he did not want them to go into the presidential areas and intrude on his privacy.

On Sunday night, Donald Rumsfeld, the US defence secretary, said Saddam was not helping. "He has not been co-operative in terms of talking or anything like that," he said.

But, initially at least, it is not so much what Saddam said that excited US officials as what was found in his possession. Officials are said to have found a briefcase containing a letter from a Baghdad resistance leader, including details of a meeting with a number of resistance leaders in Baghdad.

Brigadier General Mark Hertling, of the US army’s First Armoured Division, said that the first round of Saddam’s questioning and documents in a briefcase found with him had provided valuable information on the insurgency.

"It was reported as his personal briefcase," Hertling said. "There were a lot of things that can be exploited."

Since Saddam’s capture, US army teams from the 1st Armoured Division have captured one high-ranking former regime figure and that prisoner has given up a number of others. All the men are currently being interrogated and more raids are expected.

"We’ve already gleaned intelligence value from his capture," Brig Gen Hertling said. "We’ve already been able to capture a couple of key individuals here in Baghdad.

"We’ve completely confirmed one of the cells. It’s putting the pieces together and it’s connecting the dots. It has already helped us significantly in Baghdad. I’m sure he was giving some guidance to some key figures in this insurgency.

"We certainly can gather intelligence he has on the organisation of the insurgency, who their leaders are, how the cells are performing, how they’re being commanded and controlled, who’s funding them and what their connections are to crime."

Brig Gen Hertling said he hoped Saddam would eventually clear up allegations that he had chemical and biological weapons and a nuclear weapons programme.

"I certainly think some of that will come out," Brig Gen Hertling said. "I think we’ll get some significant intelligence over the next couple of days."

With Saddam’s capture, 13 figures remained at large from the US military’s list of 55 most-wanted regime officials. The highest ranking is Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, a close Saddam aide who US officials say may be directly organising resistance.

Saddam’s exact whereabouts yesterday were unclear. US officials said he had been moved to a secure location and remained in Iraq, although conflicting reports placed him in Qatar and outside Basra.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said it hoped US authorities would let its staff visit Saddam to check on the conditions in which he was being held. But already the demands for a quick trial are gathering momentum.

"We will get sovereignty on 30 June, and I can tell you, he could be executed on 1 July." said Mouwafak al-Rabii, a Shiite member of the Iraqi Governing Council and a long-time human rights activist.