THE tip-off came in at about 10:50am Iraqi time on Saturday. Saddam Hussein, it said, was hiding out in a farmhouse about ten miles south-east of his home town of Tikrit.
Over the previous ten days, US forces had picked up a number of people with family and tribal ties to Saddam. Desperate for information about the former Iraqi leader’s whereabouts, interrogators had been quizzing the captives intensively. Perhaps they reminded them of the $25 million bounty on Saddam’s head. Whatever they did, it had the desired result. Now they had the information they had craved for so many months, which could lead them to the ultimate prize.
With Saddam believed to be hiding in an area of little more than a square mile, US commanders began to plan Operation Red Dawn. They identified two potential targets near the town of Ad Dawr, codenaming them Wolverine 1 and Wolverine 2, and mobilised the First Brigade combat team from the 4th Infantry Division. The mission: to kill or capture Saddam Hussein.
For the next few hours, the soldiers ran through the plan, identifying their various tasks and targets, determined not to let Saddam escape again. As the sun set, 600 troops - special forces, mechanised cavalry, engineers and artillery - prepared to set off through the rural areas of the Sunni Muslim heartland which was once Saddam’s power-base, heading for Ad Dawr.
At a little after 6pm local time, they swung into action, positioning themselves north-west of Ad Dawr, before swooping down on their targets. They drew a blank. Saddam was not at Wolverine 1, nor was he at Wolverine 2. They cordoned off the area, and redoubled their efforts. North-west of Wolverine 2, they had their reward.
The farmhouse they targeted was nothing to look at - a low-lying, dirty white building set among scrubby grass and trees, standing near the banks of the Tigris river, with an orange and white taxi parked outside. On the far side of the river stood one of Saddam’s old palaces, just visible from the farm.
As the soldiers approached, two men bolted out of the building, intent on escape. They did not get far before the soldiers brought them to the ground and hauled them away.
Inside the walled compound, they came across a two-room mud hut containing one bed, one chair and a rudimentary kitchen. In the bedroom, they found new T-shirts, some still in their wrappers, socks and sandals. The kitchen was basic, but had running water. Whoever was living there was not at home.
They moved outside and began to scour the yard. A few yards from the building was a rough metal structure, and on the ground a scrap of carpet. Pulling aside the carpet, they found a small Styrofoam cover set into the ground, camouflaged with bricks and dirt. The soldiers lifted the plate, and shone their torches into the hole - on to the face of Saddam Hussein.
He was lying about 6ft down, at the foot of a narrow shaft known to the soldiers as a spider hole. He looked confused, but put up no resistance. He made no attempt to use the pistol he was carrying, or either of the two AK47 rifles they recovered from the hole. Haggard and dishevelled, his hair was long and he wore a bushy white beard. He seemed disorientated as he climbed out of the hole, the soldiers said, and he spoke very little. It was 8:30pm and the hunt for Saddam was over.
"He was just caught like a rat," said Major General Ray Odierno, commander of the 4th Infantry Division, when he was asked about it later. "When you’re in the bottom of a hole, you can’t fight back."
Maj Gen Odierno knew who the target was before the raid. But the soldiers on the ground did not know who they were after until Saddam was in their hands. Even then, it was hard to tell. "His appearance was such that it made it not immediately certain you could say it was Saddam Hussein," one official said.
But when they challenged him, he confirmed his name, and the identifying marks on his body, combined with the information they already had about the target, convinced them they had their man. He was put in a helicopter, and carried off towards the south.
As Saddam was being taken away, the US soldiers began a thorough search of the hide-out. What they found was a narrow shaft, between six and eight feet deep, with a space at the base just large enough to accommodate a man lying down. But there was just enough space for the two AK47s and a small chest, into which $750,000 in $100 bills had been crammed. Saddam had decided to keep his money by his side.
Despite rumours that he had been co-ordinating the resistance, the troops found no telephones, radios or other communication devices. Maj Gen Odierno said that confirmed his suspicions that the captured dictator could not have been leading the anti-US insurgency on a large scale.
"I believe he was there more for moral support," he said. "I don’t believe he was co-ordinating the effort because I don’t believe there’s any national co-ordination."
Saddam, he said, appeared to have been living in the hut, diving into the hole for cover whenever troops entered the area. "I think it is rather ironic that he was in a hole in the ground across the river from these great palaces that he has built when he robbed all the money from the Iraqi people," he said.
The hut was probably one of dozens of hideouts used by Saddam. "We have been to this area before," Maj Gen Odierno said. "We have been down this road before. That does not mean he has been there the whole time. My guess is that he has probably 20-30 of these all around the country that he moved around. I have said from the beginning I believe he moves every three to four hours at very short notice. I believe he moved probably to several locations such as this."
Initially, the former dictator was taken to Tikrit, where US forces have a base, but he stayed there only an hour before the helicopter took off again, heading south towards Baghdad.
Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, the top US military commander in Iraq, who saw Saddam overnight, said the deposed leader "has been co-operative and is talkative". He described Saddam as "a tired man, a man resigned to his fate".
After three decades in power, he had been captured without a single shot. It was the breakthrough coalition leaders - military and political - had been praying for. Shortly after soldiers pulled the haggard figure from his hole, the US defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, was delivering the news of the prized capture to President George Bush.
It was 3:15pm in Washington, 8.15pm in the UK, when Mr Rumsfeld got hold of the president on the phone, before he had left Camp David in Maryland. At the defence secretary’s first words, Mr Bush’s ear’s pricked up. "Mr President, the first reports are not always accurate," Rumsfeld started. Mr Bush interrupted: "This sounds like it’s going to be good news." Mr Rumsfeld told him the military believed they had captured Saddam. "That is good news," the president replied.
But both men felt there was still a need for caution, fearing the man captured could be one of many impostors Saddam is believed to have used as decoys. Mr Bush asked why General John Abizaid, the chief of the US Central Command, whose area of responsibility includes Iraq, seemed so sure about his information. Mr Rumsfeld said that identifying marks had left Gen Abizaid very confident.
But US officials were determined not to let the news leak out before they were certain that they had their man.
Saddam was handed over to a medical team, who took swabs from the inside of his mouth and checked his dental records to make sure there were no mistakes. As he stood in front of a white tiled wall, the gloved hands of his examiner probing his beard and his unkempt hair, the man who had ruled supreme for more than 30 years had on his face a look of resignation and defeat.
The Americans videoed the examination for posterity, and took him away to be shaved and photographed again, so there could be no doubt in the minds of anyone who saw the pictures about the identity of the man they had in custody.
To be absolutely sure, they brought in Tariq Aziz, Saddam’s former deputy prime minister, to make a further identification.
In the meantime, President Bush got on the phone. He spoke to the acting president of the Iraqi Governing Council and US congressional leaders. He phoned his most ardent war allies - Tony Blair, the Spanish prime minister, Jose Maria Aznar, Australia’s prime minister, John Howard, and the Italian premier, Silvio Berlusconi. He also congratulated military leaders, speaking with Gen Abizaid, Lt Gen Ricardo Sanchez, the top commander in Iraq, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard Myers.
With the results back from the DNA tests, Mr Rumsfeld called Mr Bush again at 5:14 am yesterday morning, 10:14am GMT, at the White House.
But the cat was already out of the bag. They had done well to sit on the story for so long, but word was leaking out from the Kurdish leaders who had helped US forces in the initial intelligence-gathering operation.
At 9:59am UK time yesterday, the first report appeared on the news wires, quoting Jalal Talabani, head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, saying that the former Iraqi president, Saddam Hussein, had been arrested in his home town of Tikrit. Shortly afterwards, Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim, the president of the Iraqi Governing Council, said that DNA evidence had confirmed that the suspect was Saddam.
In Baghdad, a spokeswoman for the US-led occupation conceded that a "very important" announcement would be made at a news conference scheduled for 12:00 GMT.
The rumours raced around Iraq. "We are celebrating like it’s a wedding," said Mustapha Sheriff, a resident of Kirkuk. "We are finally rid of that criminal."
"This is the joy of a lifetime," said Ali Al-Bashiri, another Kirkuk resident. "I am speaking on behalf of all the people that suffered under his rule."
Still the US was taking no chances in making sure that everyone would believe they had the right man. Members of Iraq’s US-backed Governing Council were taken to see Saddam in US custody to confirm his identity.They found him, they said, defiant and unrepentant. Adel Abdel-Mahdi, a senior official of a Shiite Muslim political party, said:
"When we told him, ‘If you go to the streets now, you will see the people celebrating’. He answered, ‘Those are mobs’. When we told him about the mass graves, he replied, ‘Those are thieves’.
"He didn’t seem apologetic. He seemed defiant, trying to find excuses for the crimes in the same way he did in the past."
At the US Army’s 4th Infantry Division in Tikrit, they were lighting up cigars.
"It almost seems too easy," said Sgt Ebony Jones, from Kansas City, Missouri. "This is the best thing that ever happened to us here."
Just after noon, Paul Bremer, the US administrator in Iraq, stepped up to the microphone in Baghdad to begin the news conference and officially announced the news.
"Ladies and gentleman," he said. "We got him."