U.S. officials confirmed on Sunday they had captured former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein near his hometown of Tikrit. Sporadic celebratory gunfire was heard across the country as the news filtered out.
As Iraqis celebrated in Baghdad, world leaders congratulated President George W. Bush.
On the run from U.S.-led coalition forces since the fall of Baghdad in April, Hussein has been Washington’s most-wanted member of the Iraqi regime. His arrest will likely be a huge boost to the American occupation, which has had difficulty stabilizing postwar Iraq.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we got him,” Paul Bremer, the U.S. civilian administrator in Iraq, told a televised press conference in Baghdad.
U.S. Lt.-Gen. Ricardo Sanchez said U.S. special forces raided a farm house near Tikrit late on Saturday. He said Hussein was captured without resistance after being found in a small underground hideout. Sanchez then also showed a video of a bearded and haggard-looking Hussein being given a medical exam.
"There were no injuries. Not a single shot was fired," Sanchez, the top U.S. general in Iraq, told the press conference. He said he had no idea how long he had been hiding there or whether he had been coordinating opposition to the U.S. occupation from that location.
That the 66-year-old former leader had been able to elude U.S. forces for so long has been a major distraction for Washington. Hussein is suspected of encouraging resistance to the coalition occupation and supporting attacks against American and allied troops.
Along with a few small arms, Sanchez said Hussein had around $750,000 (€611,347) in cash with him in the six by eight foot hole. He did not say whether anyone had tipped off U.S. forces as to Hussein's location or if anyone would qualify for the $25 million bounty Washington had placed on his head.
"This is a great day in Iraq's history. The tyrant is a prisoner," said Bremer. "Now is the time for all Iraqis - Arabs and Kurds, Sunnis, Shia, Christian and Turkmen - to build a prosperous, democratic Iraq, at peace with itself and with its neighbors."
European leaders welcome capture
British Prime Minster Tony Blair was the first western leader to confirm Hussein had been taken alive. "This has lifted a shadow from the people of Iraq. Saddam will not be returning," Blair said.
Blair has been the staunchest ally of U.S. President George Bush throughout the conflict with Iraq, but the leaders of France and Germany, both high-profile opponents of the war, also congratulated Washington on Sunday.
“I was extremely pleased to hear of the capture of Saddam Hussein and I offer my congratulations on this successful operation,” German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder said in an official letter to Bush. “I hope his arrest will aid the efforts of the international community in rebuilding and stabilizing Iraq.”
Schröder, French President Jacques Chirac and the leaders of other countries opposed to the war were angered last week when U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz announced only companies from nations backing Washington in Iraq would be able to take part in Iraqi reconstruction efforts being funded by the U.S. government worth some $18.6 billion.
Wolfowitz said he hoped the action would put pressure on other nations to join the military efforts in Iraq, but it has also been criticized as unnecessarily provoking U.S. allies just as Washington is looking for greater NATO involvement in Iraq.