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Capturing Saddam: Iraq, December 2003

ISSUE:  Spring 2004

The spartan interior of a U.S. Air Force C-130 has uncomfortable web seating. Our gear is strapped to a pallet in the aft section, where clamshell doors yawn open until we accelerate down the runway. This airplane is all business—bare fuselage walls and exposed bulkheads, longerons, and stringers. It is adorned with clamps for hanging rifles, knapsacks, ladders, and other mechanical equipment and rigged with cable for paratroopers’ rip cords—insurance that the chutes will open uniformly when men depart the airplane’s belly.

The preflight briefing, if there is one, is conducted by one of the enlisted loadmasters. “So here it is, folks. A siren followed by beeping means prepare for crash landing. If smoke fills the cabin, you should use the O2 hoods in those packs behind your heads. Oh, and cinch your belts up tight. That’s it.” Although it’s never in the briefing, tarmac worrywarts sometimes frighten themselves into the notion that they should sit on their flak jackets too. So they drag them aboard rather than leave them stowed in duffle bags. Space is a precious commodity in a C-130, and the bulky armor gets in the way. Big sky, small bullets is the alternative—and, I decide, a statistically sound attitude.

The cables that operate the aft control surfaces—elevators, rudder, trim tabs—scrape and scratch, moving fore and aft at takeoff. The airplane’s hydraulic system is similarly exposed in the open bay. Backup and primary, one of the reservoirs and pumps is mounted on a partial bulkhead, directly across from me. An army colonel is to my left, legs extended. Wet spots appear mysteriously on his boots, and he retracts them, hoping, I suppose, to preserve the rough leather. “Hydraulic fluid?” I ask. We both scan the tubing above our heads, half expecting to spot a leak. More moisture falls, accompanied by a rattling sound above us as a blower switches on. It’s the cabin fresh air system—just sucking in a little rain as we fly toward Mosul, which lies damp and cold near the Turkish mountains. Relieved, we both doze off.

In my normal life—a now seemingly past life—I’m a professor of biological sciences and assistant vice president for research at Texas Tech University. Much of my research focuses on the very small—cell and molecular evolution, viruses that replicate in the salivary glands of rodents. But in more than thirty years of field research, I’ve seen plenty of big problems in troubled regions. I’ve worked in Cuba, Nicaragua, Kenya, Pakistan, Thailand, to name a handful, and made frequent trips to the hot zone around Chernobyl. Still, nothing I’ve done before has been quite like this. Last year, I accepted a position as William C. Foster Fellow in the Office of Proliferation Threat Reduction at the U.S. Department of State, and now I conjure strategies to control the spread of expertise and technology associated with biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons. This is called nonproliferation, and I cannot think of a more sacred cause, given what I know of the potential of misdirected modern science. So I’m on my way to Baghdad.

Among other perks (but I can recall no others), I have the rank to ride the flight deck—crew permitting. So once we’re prepared to leave Mosul, I take the bench seat behind the navigator and an airman, who perches on a pedestal seat overlooking the pilots. The rattling sound of wheels on concrete abruptly stops as we lift off. The navigator and airman unsnap their belts and take positions at the expansive right and left cockpit windows. The C-130 flies level, only a few hundred feet above the ground, beneath visibility to any MANPADS shooter a few kilometers away. MANPADS (always uppercase)—man-portable air defense system. Soviet-made, shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles. I join the navigator, looking over his shoulder. The more eyes—even amateur eyes—the better. Low, straight, and level, and the airspeed builds slowly until the nose is pitched up into the steepest allowable angle of attack. And so we climb up and away, spewing heat from the four turboprops, knowing that SAM-7s are metabolically reptilian.

As the airplane climbs, the altimeter clocks steadily but slowly. Finally, its white hands roll past 12,000 feet. There is no perceptible collective sigh, but the intercom suddenly crackles with jokes and team camaraderie among the California-based crew—businessmen, lawyers, and teachers in their other lives—all called to active duty to help persons unknown build new lives. Wives, girlfriends, and children await them in the far-off Golden State. On the flight deck, introductions are made, stories told, sports discussed, and cold soda and sandwiches retrieved from the cooler, while a laptop computer displays Iraqi terrain in color and in red traces our path across Saddam’s former kingdom. The airplane’s original nav station sits dark and unused, both a remnant of past technology and a reminder of the craft’s agelessness. By comparison, the Kuwait air force C-130s look their age. They squat resentfully in massive hangars in Kuwait City, like Floridian retirees wishing they were still useful.

Traversing the country northwest to southeast, the gray-green Tigris Valley meanders below. The cradle of civilization, I remind myself. Millennia past, some familiar food plants were invented here in Iraq, sorghum among the more important examples. Saddam nearly undid all that history. At the far end of this valley, where the Tigris and Euphrates terminate, he drained the marshlands in an act of cultural genocide perpetrated against Arabs whose whole history was rooted there. The Iraqi seed collection—the refined genetic material representing crops fit for growth and production in Iraqi climate and soil and, ultimately, the main source of sustenance for these people—was lost as Saddam’s Iraq went steadily downhill after the 1980s war with Iran.

Examples of at least some crop strains were preserved in U.N.-supervised cold storage, and these, along with whatever can be developed quickly or imported, will be the foundation stock for the future. Helping Iraqis rebuild their agribusiness is just one of the significant challenges before us. Fortunately, agricultural traditions run deep among the Iraqi people.

Here and there, below us, are collections of buildings—some flattened, the others abandoned. Black smudges are the unmistakable war scars where tanks and trucks and emplacements were exploded and burned. In summer and fall this view is obscured by oxidized Mars-red dust fine as talc, but in winter, the scrubby, undulating landscape is clearly dotted with Saddam’s air force storage bunkers, debris, razor wire, and mud puddles large as ponds. Dirt trails crisscross the landscape where heavily armed young Americans weave in and out in mud-spewing ATVs. Looking for MANPADS shooters.

Those soldiers would just as soon kill a MANPADS team as look at them. As we near Baghdad, I wish them the best of hunting.

Five hundred feet above us, two F-16s on the reciprocal bearing flash past with scarcely an electronic fare-thee-well. Ahead, a column of greasy black smoke stretches to 20,000 feet, where it expands cloud-like in jet-stream winds. Just before we enter this unnatural cloud, I can see the orange fire at a ruptured oil pipe far below. Saddam and his boys always got their kicks from oil fires. Kuwait in 1991. Around Baghdad in 2003. It’s no different than the drained marshes, the lack of adequate sewage. Saddam, the polluter. Saddam, the poisoner.

We nose down toward BIAP (as Baghdad airbase is called in government-speak). Upon approach, the two loadmasters don flak vests and helmets and climb into parachute webbing strung up like hammocks, and thus suspended they can scan Iraq beneath them through porthole-like windows in the aft cargo bay. If the men spot a SAM-7 aloft, they can alert the flight deck and manually release flares and chaff—if they’re faster at it than the automated detection system. The C-130 is throttled back, dips a wing hard to port, drops steeply, and is pulled up abruptly. G-forces push everyone into their nylon seats and make it difficult to draw a breath. The descending turn continues, the best amusement park ride a person could have—just another corkscrew tactical landing in Baghdad. At the last moment the C-130 is put into its dirty configuration—flaps and gear down—but this scarcely precedes contact with the runway. The clamshell doors drop open.

On this trip I billet in Saddam’s presidential palace, green-zone home to the CPA—the Coalition Provisional Authority. Outside, gigantic busts of Saddam have been cut free and craned from pedestals at each of the main roof corners. They have a vaguely Egyptian feel to them—the lion of Iraq in his helmet, visor just above his narrowed eyes, jaw clenched and subtly jutted. Now some of these bizarre aggrandizements lie facedown in the palace driveways. Others sit upright, staring blindly and being used as photographic props by passing troops. As one might expect, the busts are impressive from a distance, but up close it turns out that they were crudely made. Metal plates were cut by torch and simply tack-welded to underlying I-beam and wooden frameworks. Loaded on flatbed trucks, the statues prove too large to pass through the palace gates—but Iraqi workmen wielding torches easily cut Saddam down to size.

The palace itself rests upon a low hill overlooking the Tigris and has an elegant swimming pool, where Saddam once floated contentedly. Oasis-like, the pool is shaded by date palms whose lacy fronds whisper in the daily breeze. Metallic Black Hawks clatter overhead at nearly any hour and roost on a cement pad just around the corner. In late afternoon, bats silently swoop and dart in and out, capturing mosquitoes and lapping chlorinated water on the fly. Not far away—a stone’s throw—one can see Uday’s “sex palace,” where Iraqi women were brought at his command. It’s quiet there now, but in former times passersby could hear the screams. But no civilians ever entered the presidential grounds until we arrived.

At mid-afternoon in winter the swimming pool grounds are ideal for “meetings,” and my CPA colleagues occasionally take refuge there. At night I sometimes smoke cigars poolside and use the satellite phone. I used to stand in the road, between palace and pool, but the boys come down that lane in their Humvees late at night, lights out and armed with heavy machine guns. Civilian guys distracted by their satellite phones might not be noticed. Just for emphasis: the road is a kill zone, blocked off in such a way as to force intruders to run down it fully exposed.

Inside the palace, one of the hallways is decorated with messages—penciled block letters adorning familiar blue-lined elementary school paper, dried autumn Oregon leaves pasted to each one. Dear Soldier, many begin, May God bless you and protect you so far from home, fighting for freedom. Men and women in U.S. Marine and Army uniforms pass by here, as do soldiers wearing the flags of Poland, Ukraine, Australia, Italy, and Great Britain.

I bunk in Saddam’s large throne room, beneath a massive mural showing a covey of SCUDs, rocket engines aflame and supposedly en route to Israel. Khidhir Hamza, author of Saddam’s Bombmaker, witnessed the murder of an Iraqi nuclear scientist in this very room, with Saddam perched upon his golden throne. Until recently in post-Saddam Iraq, this throne room served as a chapel rather than a bunkhouse, and the army chaplain’s office is just around the corner, down another long hallway lined with chairs and homemade bookshelves loaded down with hundreds of paperbacks.

Now, however, the throne room is as crowded as crew’s quarters on a navy destroyer, though the clientele is mostly CPA civilians and army and marine officers. The only navy guy is from our coalition partner, Ukraine. Most of my neighbors are colonels or majors, but one bunk houses a Spanish diplomat who sleeps in silk pajamas, while the rest of us wear T-shirts and boxers. Late one night a rocket explodes nearby. Before we take shelter, a flashlight illuminates the diplomat stepping into his slippers while the rest of us scramble for our dusty army boots. Good for him, I think.

Another bunk neighbor has a baseball hat labeled “Texas A&M.” I call him on it—telling a few time-honored Aggie jokes. “I got a hat like this for my dad,” he responds. “He calls it the most expensive hat in the world: all those tuition checks and nothing but a cap.” This wandering Aggie watches over political VIPs, taking some of them to see firsthand the nearby mass graves that once held Saddam’s victims. To do it regularly he’s had to harden his heart. It’s tough for him, but it’s worth seeing these artifacts, just as a reminder that unimaginable evil inhabits the real world. For most Americans, evil on Saddam’s scale exists only in Hollywood settings, which is both fortunate and wildly misleading. The real thing is sobering. One of the new Iraqi ministers with whom I work lost more than fifty members of his family to Saddam’s torturers. And today Saddam’s supporters make attempts on the minister’s life, solely because of his desire to build a free Iraq. His driver was killed. A few days later, one of his bodyguards died in an ambush just outside the minister’s house.

Each night, at about midnight, a small mess opens in the palace. Troops coming off duty, security forces, special ops guys, and the CPA crowd—who regularly put in incredibly long hours—take advantage of spicy chili, warmed leftover roasted chicken from dinner, sandwiches, juice, and the like. Coffee and hot water for tea are available there twenty-four hours a day. We swap stories over snacks.

A Bulgarian engineer who joined his country’s new government after the collapse of the Communist regime in the early nineties expresses his faith in the future of Iraq. “No one gave us a chance to survive either,” he says. “The economy was zero, the legal and banking system in tatters, social and health service a century behind Western Europe, and we didn’t know a thing about democracy—just like here. But we did survive, and thanks largely to the United States. So now I’m here, repaying the Americans by doing my part to help rebuild. I know it can be done.” Many Spanish and Portuguese coalition diplomats have expressed similar faith and pride that smaller European nations like theirs are participating in so dramatic and significant a nation-building project.

An FBI agent back from a day in the field training Iraq police officers is less encouraged by what he sees. He laments the cultural divide and fears the democratic ideal will have to be built from the ground up. There is no tradition here in investigation or forensics. Under Saddam, police merely awaited visits from Ba’ath party functionaries, who brought premade lists of guilty persons—and their punishments—to the station house. There was no pretense of due process, no attempt to conceal wrongdoing. Sometimes torture records were kept on file.

One night at Nabil—the best restaurant in Baghdad, if my informant is to be believed—I am seated alongside an Iraqi fellow tall and athletic enough to play forward on a successful college basketball team. And he does, in a sense, because he is on the newly formed Iraqi national team. So far they’ve had good luck; several U.S. Army teams have fallen victim in high-spirited contests between these wannabes and those has-beens.

Between trips to the buffet tables, covered by a vast array of popular and savory dishes, the two of us talk about newly resurrected sports in post-Saddam Iraq. The awful stories about the former Olympic soccer team are already legendary and the perpetrator dead. Rebuilding is under way under the auspices of the Ministry of Youth and Sport. But where and how does one create the foundation for sport in a nation where very few of the children participated even informally?

The new Iraqi national basketball teams—both men’s and women’s—will visit the United States this spring, just in time for what we in insulated ?innocence call “March Madness.” My new acquaintance tells me that women’s basketball was unheard-of in Saddam’s time, but teams have sprung up already as young girls explore new opportunities. Of course, even now there is debate about what is appropriate and whether or not strangers should be allowed to watch as girls in sports clothing run the floor, man the post, rebound with vigor, and box out. What about fouls? We laugh and it spreads to others at the long table.

It is an excellent restaurant; a generator chugs business-like in the cool night air outside the place—backing up Baghdad’s public electrical output. It’s a good thing too, as the public wire is interrupted several times before ten o’clock. From where I sit I can see a massive crew-cut fellow—a German, to judge from the flag sown to his many-pocketed blue vest—seated at a table six feet inside the main entrance. Private gun-for-hire, he glares at passersby and eyes each would-be customer; a locked and loaded submachine gun rests across his lap, and a 9 mm Glock is nestled in its nylon case strapped to his thigh. He’s paid to protect a dining couple—shall we guess one’s a German businessman? The couple can enjoy their wine, knowing that the gun-for-hire, if need be, will block the entrance with his body.

“It’s always best to have someone else do the dirty work,” the Iraqi basketballer says, nodding gravely. Indeed. Then the two-man band strikes up. Traditional Iraqi music fills the room, drawing dancers from the tables. We join in, clapping. Three weeks later, on New Year’s Eve, Nabil will be gone. A terrorist car bomb will leave a huge crater. The building will be flattened—and innocent diners, like we were tonight, will be dead or injured.

On a Sunday morning my colleague Joe and I are in Baghdad on business, riding in Joe’s SUV. En route back to the green zone, we encounter an incredible traffic jam. The intersection has lights, but of course they’re nonfunctional at this moment. Cars, trucks, and buses of every description—but mostly old and dilapidated—are interwoven in an impossibly complex mass of steel, horns, and shouts. Newly trained Iraqi police arrive but remain car-bound as civilians alight and try their traffic direction skills. Most of it is good-humored, and we eventually weave our way through the mess, delighted to again have open road before us. Unnoticed in our dust-covered vehicle, we pass an army patrol. Humvees and a Bradley have pulled to the shoulder, and young soldiers are playing ball with a gaggle of Iraqi kids. It brings to mind Bill Mauldin cartoons of American GIs in Europe more than fifty years ago. It’s a welcome contrast to dodging IEDs (improvised explosive devices) and a hopeful sign of things to come.

An hour later, when Joe and I walk to another meeting, the tinny sound of AK-47s fills the air not far beyond the nearest checkpoint, out of sight to us and down an ugly corridor of coiled razor wire and cement barricades. An attack? We pause and listen and walk on; the absence of zipping and zinging says the firing is directed elsewhere. Then there is more gunfire, now to our north and then to our east, near and far. A heavy machine gun joins the AK-47s in a melody of celebration as Arabic language radio passes on a rumor—Saddam Hussein has been captured and perhaps even killed. America, meanwhile, is still asleep.

A joke passes around CPA: due to inflation, boxes of 7.62 mm ammo are going for more than US$2 in the Baghdad bazaars. Encouraging wild celebrations might be the best and surest way to disarm Iraq. But joking aside, the CPA headquarters remain oddly quiet. There are no high-fives, no gloating, no shouts—only a few handshakes among friends and business as usual. Most people are in their offices, at their desks. I am struck by the professionalism, and later, after the fact, it is this eerily quiet, business-as-usual, nose-to-the-grindstone, Sunday atmosphere that will stick with me.

In the early afternoon, I am with Iraqi-American physicist Khidhir Hamza. Dr. Hamza escaped Iraq on his own hook and enlisted the CIA to help rescue his family—stories he tells in his book. Now the Hamzas are all back in Baghdad, helping their old homeland get back on its feet. Hamza’s friends, colleagues, and family members at various times were imprisoned, killed, tortured, or mutilated by Saddam’s henchmen. He knew Saddam well. On the computer screen, Hamza and I watch video of Saddam’s capture, and overcome with emotion, Hamza leaps to his feet. “It’s him! It’s surely him! Look at that tattoo on his hand! They’ve finally got him!” As a scientist, I put my trust in DNA—I unravel and read it regularly in my research projects—but how could there be any better identification than Hamza’s elation?

When his cell phone rings late Sunday afternoon, Hamza says it’s a network reporter in New York seeking his reaction to Saddam’s capture. He demurs. “It’s too soon. I need time to let it sink in.” Smiling broadly, he logs off the telephone and to no one in particular announces, “I’d better go home and celebrate.” For a moment I wonder if that includes doing some shooting into the night sky, but then he adds, “I’ve been saving some scotch for just such an occasion.”

At eleven o’clock my friend Owen and I look out over Baghdad from the palace roof, listening to bursts of gunfire and watching for red tracers arching skyward. There has been an explosion near the Palestine Hotel; a tanker truck glows orange on the horizon, victim of an apparent accident. Periodically, brief but disciplined sounds of M-16s and American machine guns mix in to remind me that probably not all of the nocturnal gunfire is in celebration of Saddam’s capture.

All hands had been advised to wear flak vests and KEVLAR helmets when outside the palace as protection against stray bullets, but many of us forget or carelessly disregard. Big sky, small bullets, we say. But then, back inside and at the midnight mess, a fellow comes in from outside carrying his blankets and a spent AK-47 round. Falling from the sky, it penetrated his trailer roof, struck the floor, and bounced into bed with him. So here it was: proof that gravity persists even at the political center of gravity, even on the day we caught Saddam.


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