The dirt pile looked peculiar.
The Fourth Infantry Division's soldiers knew solid intelligence drove their mission: A "high-value" target was hiding out somewhere near Adwar, just miles from their headquarters.
But a search of two farms turned up nothing. Scouring the area, they found a two-room hut. Still-wrapped shirts were strewn about its bedroom. Just in front, soldiers noticed the dirt, covering some rugs, which in turn hid a styrofoam lid.
Pushing it aside, they found a dank hole. Staring back at them was a familiar, haunting pair of eyes: Saddam Hussein, a pistol cradled in his lap.
And so the world's most intense manhunt ended. Over the last 10 days, a cascade of turncoats, each a degree closer to the deposed dictator, had cooperated with US intelligence agents. US officials in Iraq and Washington yesterday provided details of the capture.
The endgame began two weeks ago. For months, intelligence agents had focused efforts in and around Tikrit, Hussein's hometown.
"We identified former bodyguards and other regime insiders who were the types who could conceivably be out there helping him to escape, or people who would know these people," said a senior US official, who requested anonymity.
US officials knew Hussein was relying on his vast extended family in Tikrit for support and shelter. Over the months, they slowly penetrated this circle.
Major General Raymond Odierno, Fourth Infantry commander, said yesterday that "five to 10 members" of families "close to Saddam" provided key clues to his whereabouts over the last 10 days. "As we continued to conduct raids and capture people we got more and more information," he said.
A breakthrough came just before the weekend, when US authorities captured a cousin of Hussein's who spoke, with telling detail, of two possible hideouts near Tikrit.
"He gave them information that led them to two sites where he said a senior bodyguard might be and perhaps Saddam himself," said the US official.
On Saturday, the troops moved on the tip. As night fell over Iraq, they formed a 600-person strike force, led by the Fourth Infantry's First Brigade Combat Team, known as the "Raider Brigade" and commanded by Colonel Jim Hickey. Special operations forces, engineers, artillery, air support, and cavalry all joined in. Operation "Red Dawn" began at 6 p.m., Baghdad time.
The target was Adwar, a small village of orange, lemon, and palm groves about 10 miles from Tikrit. It was the hometown of Hussein's trusted assistant Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, who remains at large.
The soldiers did not have far to travel. The Fourth Infantry's headquarters are in one of the ornate palaces once belonging to Hussein, on a riverbank near Adwar.
At 8 p.m., they descended on two farms. The soldiers had searched the area countless times, seeking insurgents, weapons caches, and Hussein's relatives. They had not been told that Hussein himself was their quarry, only that an important target had taken refuge at one of the farms, dubbed Wolverine One and Wolverine Two.
Both were a bust. Suddenly, they noticed two men rushing from a nearby house. The men were caught in seconds. An area about 1.5 square miles around the house was cordoned off. A painstaking search began.
Within the perimeter stood a tiny walled compound. Thousands like it dot the Iraqi countryside.
The compound contained a metal lean-to and a two-room mud hut. One room contained a kitchen with running water, a sink, and some cooking equipment. The other room had a bed and a chair. Clothes were scattered about. Someone, it appeared, had been there recently. The river ran nearby; supplies could easily be ferried to the location.
The soldiers searched the compound's yard. There, they spotted the suspicious pile. Moving the dirt, rugs, and styrofoam, they found the hole.
It was six feet deep, crawling with mice and insects, and it reeked. Soldiers call these hiding places "spider holes." There was enough space to lie down. A pipe to the surface provided air.
Inside was Hussein. Gone was the double chin. A long, graying beard hung from his face, and his hair was frayed and gnarled. The time was about 8:30 p.m.
Months earlier, his sons, Qusay and Uday, had gone down in a bloody hail of gunfire. Many Iraqis assumed their former dictator would perish in similar fashion in order to avoid the indignities of prison and trial.
This was a man who'd triggered three wars, ordered the torture of thousands, gassed an entire village. He maintained power over Iraq for three decades through ruthless manipulation.
But Hussein, cowering in his hole, simply surrendered.
He told them who he was. Not a single shot was fired. Odierno said Hussein was "very disoriented." Soldiers confiscated two AK-47 rifles, the pistol, $750,000, and a taxicab.
No communication devices were found. Odierno speculated that Hussein was not organizing resistance from the hideout but rather providing "moral support" to local insurgents.
Within an hour, Hussein was on a military helicopter flying toward an undisclosed site in Baghdad, "a man resigned to his fate," said Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, the top US commander in Iraq.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld called President Bush with the news on Saturday at about 3:15 p.m. Eastern time, according to White House officials. Rumsfeld warned that initial reports like this were often mistaken. The president cut in: It sounds like good news, he said.
Rumsfeld told him that General John Abizaid, head of US Central Command, was fairly certain the top target in Iraq had been captured.
Early yesterday, L. Paul Bre mer III, US administrator in Iraq, called national security adviser Condoleezza Rice with confirmation. Hussein had been shaved and medically examined, samples for DNA testing taken. Rice called the president at 5:14 a.m.
Bush made a round of calls: Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, CIA Director George Tenet, and the acting president of the Iraqi Governing Council, Adnan Pachachi.
Bush and his wife, Laura, began tuning into the television coverage of the dramatic capture. From Baghdad, Bremer announced to the world: "Ladies and gentlemen, we got him."
Several Iraqi journalists leapt up, cheering and weeping. Jubilation broke out in Baghdad, men shooting into the air, children tossing candy, women ululating in joy.
Bush set about preparing his address to the world.
Raja Mishra can be reached at email@example.com.