Dec. 13, 2021

The Capture of Saddam Hussein

The Capture of Saddam Hussein

December 13th, 2003. Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein is captured by American forces.

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Cold Open

It’s 8:30 P.M. on December 13, 2003 in the small farming town of Ad-Dawr, not far from the city of Tikrit in Iraq.

As the night draws in, an American Special Ops officer creeps around a ramshackle farm building, his weapon at the ready. For the last two and a half hours, he and hundreds of his fellow troops have been scouring the area.

He’s filled with adrenalin. This is no routine operation. His search is the result of information gathered just this morning, the culmination of months of intelligence work. His elusive quarry has a $25-million bounty on his head; a man infamous all the world over. He’s been hiding from public view for eight months now, ever since US troops flooded into Baghdad, causing the Iraqi government to fall.

At that time, the US Defense Intelligence Agency developed a pack of ‘playing cards’ featuring their 52 most-wanted targets. The Ace of Spades, their so-called ‘High Value Target No. 1’, is the deposed dictator, Saddam Hussein.

Earlier this morning, American authorities interrogated individuals close to Saddam. They claimed that the former despot may be hiding in one of two locations here in Ad-Dawr.

But the special ops officer is starting to lose hope. The officer fears Saddam has eluded the Americans again.

As the officer and his fellow troops prepare for their helicopters to arrive and extract them, the air is thick with frustration. But, before giving up, the officer decides to take one last look inside a dilapidated outbuilding.

There inside, the officer notices an area of floor covered with carpet, bits of polystyrene, bricks and dirt. He kicks the debris to one side and reveals a hole in the ground. He is about to throw a grenade inside, suspecting this is the entrance to a tunnel system used by insurgents.

But just then, a pair of hands appear from the hole, gesturing surrender. An unkempt man with an unruly beard appears from the hole disoriented and bewildered. But soon he speaks. ‘My name is Saddam Hussein. I am the president of Iraq and I want to negotiate.’    

The officer calls for backup and soon he and a few colleagues haul the dictator from his hiding place. In the hole, they discover a Glock pistol, an AK-47 assault rifle and three-quarters of a million dollars.

As the soldier takes High Value Target No. 1 away for formal identification, he says four words that sting the ego of the former dictator: ‘Regards from President Bush


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast – every day – we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is December 13th: The Capture of Saddam Hussein.

Act One: Brinksmanship

It's 2 A.M. on August 2nd, 1990, thirteen years before Saddam’s capture.

While the rest of Baghdad sleeps, Saddam Hussein dominates a secret, late night meeting with senior military figures, giving them an astonishing order: Invade Kuwait.

Hussain says Kuwait has been stealing oil from Iraq and flooding the market, driving down the price and imperiling Iraq’s economy.

Saddam knows his armies far outmatch those of Kuwait. He also knows that an invasion will set him at odds with most of the rest of the Arab world. But he has never been afraid to put noses out of joint. So he tells his commanders to march into Kuwait and take what he believes is his.

Within two days, Kuwait’s forces are overrun, no match for Saddam’s well-honed military machine. The UN immediately condemns the invasion but Saddam is characteristically unrepentant.

The only question remaining is not to heed international call to leave Kuwait, but whether to continue his military expansionism and invade Saudi Arabia too. He considers bombing Israel to provoke a response from Tel Aviv.

Saddam is a powerful and fiery despot, and his palace in Baghdad is a long way from the village in Tikrit where he was born a poor peasant in 1937. Over the years, he came to espouse Ba’athism, an ideology embracing both Arab nationalism and socialism. In 1968, he was a key figure in a Ba'athist coup that unseated the government and saw him installed as Vice President. After holding that position for 11 years, he became President in 1979.

But about that same time, neighboring Iran experienced a revolution and Ayatollah Kohmeini, an Iranian political and religious leader, took charge of a new Islamic republic. Tensions between Iran and Iraq spilled over into a devastating war that financially crippled Iraq. And by the end of the 1980s, Saddam was battling his own domestic separatist movements as Shi’a and Kurdish groups demanded reform. He faced these threats by ruthlessly suppressing any opposition and frequently resorting to human rights abuses.

By 1990, Saddam was eying Kuwait, his oil-rich neighbor had refused to negotiate a deal on the substantial debt owed by Iraq, and Kuwait also opposed Saddam’s request that regional oil producers restrict production to keep the price of oil high.

But perhaps most importantly, Saddam believes that Kuwait is already part of Iraq, and only exists as an independent nation because of Western interference. Now, having ordered an invasion and seeing the Kuwaiti defenses collapse in front of him, he follows through on his belief, and with trademark belligerence, declares Kuwait an Iraqi province.

But the world's response and that of the United States in particular is swift and severe. On August 7, just days after the initial invasion, US President George Herbert Walker Bush orders the organization of Operation Desert Storm and authorizes a dramatic increase in U.S. troops and resources in the Persian Gulf. And just after midnight, on January 17, Bush gave the order to attack. Following an aggressive bombing campaign, US led coalition forces march into Kuwait, and drive Saddam’s army out. But how far will US President Bush go? Saddam’s forces have been driven out of Kuwait, but will the United States pursue him into Iraq?


It’s late February 1991, about six months after Saddam was forced out of Kuwait.

From a place of safety deep inside Baghdad, Saddam meets with Iraqi officials: men who have been negotiating on his behalf with US diplomats.

The news is grim. He has not just loss Kuwait, but faces losing power altogether. Should these talks with the US stall, Saddam's prospects will be bleak. So he reluctantly orders his negotiators to agree to the terms of a cease-fire. Hopefully, Saddam will no longer have to endure a daily bombardment of US jets dropping their payloads from the desert sky.

Saddam was playing an extraordinary game of political and military brinkmanship, and he lost. Many inside and outside Iraq believe it's only a matter of time until he falls from power completely at the hands of uprisings that are bound to occur.

But Saddam prides himself on being a fighter. The ceasefire might feel like a defeat but, in fact, Saddam will outlast not only the administration of George H. W. Bush, but his successor Bill Clinton, too. Saddam will also become a constant thorn in the side of President George W. Bush, the son of his former rival.

Uprisings in Iraq occur as predicted, but Saddam is merciless in their suppression. Some reports claim he sanctions the use of chemical weapons, though their veracity is disputed. What is certain is that Saddam authorizes the killing of thousands of his own people.

Saddam remains in power, portraying himself as a survivor, a plucky champion of the Islamic Arab world striking back against Western colonialists. And thousands of miles away in Washington, some begin to wonder if the United States has left a job half done.

Act Two: Axis of Evil

It’s the morning of September 11, 2001 in a classroom at the Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Florida.

George W. Bush, America’s 43rd President, sits at the front of a class of elementary school children. The students are captivated as President Bush reads along with them from a children’s book called The Pet Goat. Bush seems in good spirits, but underneath his calm demeanor, the President is deeply anxious.

Earlier that morning, on his way to the school in the presidential motorcade, an aide called to report that a commercial passenger jet had just crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center in Manhattan. Concerned, Bush asked the aide to keep him apprised, but he was certain the crash was an accident likely caused by pilot error.

As Bush listens to the students read the story, his chief of staff - Andrew Card - walks in the room with a sense of urgency. Card whispers into the President's ear that a second plane has just struck the South Tower. It is no accident, the nation is under attack.

Not wanting to cause alarm, Bush remains in his seat for seven minutes until the children finish the story. Once they’re done, he praises their reading ability and implores them to read more books and watch less television. Then, as he poses for a few photos, a reporter asks if he’s aware of the attacks. Bush responds, “I’ll talk about it later.”

As the day goes on, Bush will get a full picture of the events unfolding around the country: of the two hijacked planes that brought down the twin towers; of the third plane that crashed into the Pentagon, and a fourth, that might’ve crashed into the White House were it not for a few brave passengers on board who fought the hijackers.

Nearly three thousand Americans are dead, making this the deadliest terrorist attack on US soil in American History. That evening, President Bush addresses the shocked nation saying, “The search is underway for those who were behind these evil acts... We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them.”   


Bush’s ire and desire for justice only grow as he receives reports from America’s intelligence community that the attacks are the work of the Al-Qaeda network, a militant Islamic group headed by Osama bin Laden. But, Bush, and many of his closest advisors, also suspect that these attacks might involve another Middle Eastern leader: Saddam Hussein.

Days after the 9/11 attack, Bush speaks with British Prime Minister Tony Blair. On the call, Bush tells Blair that he plans to “hit Iraq” soon. Taken aback, Blair asks for evidence of Iraq’s connection to the 9/11 attacks. But Bush has none, and his intelligence agencies will never find any.

Still, Bush sees an opportunity to finish what his father started a dozen years earlier. Months later, in January of 2002, Bush gives his state of the union address to a largely united country. In the speech, Bush does not directly link Iraq to Al Qaeda. Instead, he talks of an ‘axis of evil’, a collection of countries that threaten the international community. With a determined expression, Bush declares that Saddam’s regime supports terror and has been plotting to develop anthrax, nerve gas and nuclear weapons for over a decade.

Bush says time is against America. He will not wait for events to overtake him but will take the necessary action now.

Over the following months, a complicated game of international diplomacy plays out. On one side are the US and its closest allies who press the United Nations to authorize military action; on the other, skeptical nations who demand that weapons inspectors be allowed to confirm whether or not Saddam truly possesses weapons of mass destruction.

But on March of 2003, President Bush’s patience for diplomacy runs out. As US and British troops gather on the Iraqi border, Bush gives Saddam an ultimatum – stand down in 48 hours or face the consequences.

Within 90 minutes of the deadline expiring, Bush authorizes military action. Tomahawk cruise missiles rain down from the sky. Ground forces swarm the country. Saddam and much of his regime go into hiding as US troops spill into Baghdad.


Saddam’s army does not last long. On April 9, just three weeks into the invasion, U.S. forces pull down a bronze statue of Saddam, symbolizing that the invasion, like his tyrannical reign, has come to an end.

A few weeks later, on May 1st, President Bush stands on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln and declares in front of a cheering crowd of military personnel that major combat operations are over. But Bush is not content to let Saddam live to fight another day again. Instead, he summons all the resources he can muster to capture and control Saddam Hussein.

It will take months. But eventually they will find him, squirreled away in a hole in the ground on a run-down old farm in Ad-Dawr. This time, there will be no way back for the Iraqi strongman. Instead, he will stand trial on the gravest of charges, finally called to answer for his crimes against humanity.

Act Three: Trial and Retribution

It’s July 1, 2004.

Saddam Hussein sits in a makeshift courtroom in one of his former palaces on the edge of Baghdad. He is here to face a thirty-minute arraignment hearing where he faces charges of genocide and war crimes.

He is smartly dressed in a charcoal, pinstriped jacket, a white shirt open at the neck, and black trousers and shoes. He clutches a Quran in his lap. As he listens to the proceedings, he strokes his beard and occasionally nods to the judge or makes notes.

But for all his calm demeanor, he has no intention of cooperating. Instead, he rejects the court’s legitimacy outright. At one point he says, ‘This is all theater. The real criminal is Bush.’ He refuses to sign the document acknowledging he understands the charges against him.

And this is just the first round in a drawn-out legal process. His full trial will not start until the next year, 2005. But since his capture, things have moved quickly.

After he was seized, he was given a medical examination which was broadcast around the world. He was then interrogated by US personnel at an undisclosed location before being moved to a detention facility in Baghdad. Now, as he sits in the courtroom, Saddam knows that his life is on the line. If he is convicted he will be executed.


The following year, in 2006, a little after 6 A.M. on December 30th, Saddam is bustled by a throng of masked men into a stark, wooden chamber. The atmosphere is fervid, as the men jostle him and shout instructions. Saddam himself seems composed, though. One of the men places a scarf of fabric around his neck. Then a thick rope noose is passed over his head and tightened. A moment later, a trapdoor opens and the rope pulls taut. A sharp crack rings out, and Saddam Hussein is dead, found guilty of killing 148 Shia civilians in 1982. 


The 2003 invasion and Saddam's capture, divides opinion across the world. The weapons of mass destruction, so crucial in justifying the military action, are never found. Still, many are pleased with Saddam's demise.

He was convicted for killing 148 civilians but the exact number of deaths at his hand is unknown. By some estimates, he is responsible for as many as half a million.

None of this is comfort for those who remain in Iraq. The invasion does not bring stability that many had hoped for. The war rolls on for years as sectarianism takes over the country. At least 100,000 civilians perish, causing many to wonder if the horrible circumstances and shaky justification doesn't stoke anti-Western sentiment in the wider Arab world, fueling the rise of militant groups like ISIS.

Whether the benefits outweigh the cause is a question still debated, but what is certain is that on December 13th, 2003, the world saw the demise of a tyrant.


Next, on History Daily. December 14th, 1911, Roald Amundsen becomes the first person to reach the South Pole.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Music and sound design by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Dan Smith.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.