The papers all banner their front pages—and pack their inside ones—with the capture of Saddam Hussein at 8:26 p.m. Baghdad time on Saturday, in an operation code-named Red Dawn. The coverage spans just about every angle you can think of: How exactly the capture went down on a small farm outside Tikrit; the effect it will have on the Iraqi insurgency; Saddam’s confrontation with members of the Iraqi Governing Council; popular reaction in Iraq, in the U.S., and in other countries; speculation about a possible trial; the effect on the U.S. presidential campaign, and especially on Howard Dean; public statements by President George Bush; and, of course, how the “bearded,” “bewildered,” and “bedraggled” Saddam appeared like a “vagrant” or a “hobo” or even a “caveman” after being pulled from his “spider hole”—”disoriented” and yet “defiant.”
Talk about flooding the zone: Although the ruler of Pakistan, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, was nearly killed by a large bomb in a daring assassination attempt in Rawalpindi yesterday, the Washington Post doesn’t find any room to run a story about it until Page A28. (The New York Times, to its credit, reefers the Musharraf story on A1.)
The bloodless raid that nabbed Saddam was organized only hours—between 3 ( Wall Street Journal [subscription required]) and 11 ( NYT)—after a captured member of Saddam’s Tikriti clan pointed interrogators toward two farms near the town of Ad Dwar, which is only 10 miles from Tikrit and even nearer to Saddam’s birthplace, Uja. According to the NYT’s catchall lead story, U.S. troops had searched that same area as recently as two weeks ago. The Times also writes, in its off-lead, that U.S. forces have gone on such raids 11 times and come up empty-handed.
The papers report (none more dramatically than in USA Today’s TV-movie-ready cover story) that soldiers initially thought they had missed Saddam yet again, but when they saw two men trying to run away, the commanding officer sealed the area and conducted a more thorough search. Saddam was eventually found six feet below a concealed Styrofoam hatch over a ventilated crawlspace that Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, described yesterday as a “spider hole”—a term that originally referred to hiding places for Viet Cong fighters. (The NYT fronts an infographic that details how the hiding place worked; USAT has another one online.)
The Tikriti informant, for his part, had been nabbed in a raid on a Baghdad safe-house on Friday as part of a widening intelligence dragnet targeting mid-level allies of the former dictator, as reported on by all the papers, and in stand-alone off-leads by the Los Angeles Times, WP, and NYT. Gen. Raymond Odierno, who commands the 4th Infantry Division, which apprehended Saddam (along with the shadowy CIA–Special Ops hybrid, Task Force 121) clarified the intel approach at a press conference cited by all the papers: “We tried to work through family and tribal ties that might have been close to Saddam Hussein,” Odierno said, as quoted in the WP. “As we continued to conduct raids and capture people, we got more and more information on the families that were somewhat close to Saddam Hussein. … And finally we got the ultimate information from one of these individuals.” As a piece inside the NYT notes a little self-evidently, the success of this approach marks a rare public victory for U.S. intelligence “after many months of failures and frustrations.”
(The Post’s intel off-lead also reports this welcome piece of information for the fiscally minded: “Because the breakthrough came as the result of interrogations, not a voluntary tip, one senior official said ‘we saved the taxpayer $25 million.’ “)
So, what effect will Saddam’s capture have on the increasingly bloody battle between U.S.-led forces and Iraqi insurgents? Surprise, surprise: No one has any real idea. Bush was careful to say in his noontime national address yesterday that the battle in Iraq is far from over, and the WP, LAT, and NYT all front pieces that pick up those loose threads. Although Saddam’s easy capture might be demoralizing for guerrillas, the papers report, some Shiite groups that were wary of being associated with the deposed leader may now become more active in opposing the occupation. Moreover, Saddam loyalists might strike back hard to regain the upper hand. In any case, no one believes Saddam was actually coordinating recent attacks; his capture represents, more than anything, a psychological victory. And yet, despite the nuances in its piece, the LAT runs this disingenuously one-sided headline: “A GUT PUNCH TO LOYALISTS.”
According to stories the NYT and WP front, and the LAT runs inside, the White House waited between 14 (WP) and 20 (LAT) hours after Saddam was captured before revealing the arrest in Baghdad. According to the papers, the administration wanted to confirm and document Saddam’s identity without any doubt before rumors could undermine the impact of the event, as they had after the deaths of Saddam’s two sons, Udai and Qusai. According to the NYT, the White House had in fact already developed two protocols for Saddam’s capture: one if he were taken alive and the other if he were not. The now famous check-up video was part of the former plan. “Our planning was good,” the director of strategic communications for the Coalition Provisional Authority told the NYT. “But Saddam helped it immeasurably in the long run. He contributed in ways we never dreamed possible—he allowed himself to get into such a disheveled state and to look so haggard.”
In Iraq, according to a mood piece by the NYT’s John Burns, the video in particular aroused a peculiar mixture of hatred and compassion. “I hate this man to the core of my bones,” one middle-aged Iraqi man told Burns. “Just seeing him sitting there makes the hairs on my arms stand up. And yet, I can’t tell you why, I feel sorry for him, to be so humiliated. It is as if he and Iraq have become the same thing.” In the rest of the Arab word, as well, the LAT describes the reaction as “bitter-sweet”: Arabs have long hated the tyrant, but they aren’t too fond of the U.S.’s occupation of Iraq, either.
There was, even to an American eye, something humiliating (many would say appropriately so) about the way Saddam’s capture was portrayed. In a Style Section fronter, the WP’s Howie Kurtz reviews the saturation TV coverage, including anchors’ repeated use of the word “rat” and the never-ending loop of the former dictator being picked for lice:
The video of Hussein’s medical examination was replayed again and again. “The imagery is powerful,” said Fox’s Linda Vester, since Hussein had “murdered hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis” and was now “reduced” to having a tongue depressor stuck in his mouth.”