WASHINGTON – Eight months and four days after the fall of Baghdad, it fell to soldiers of the 4th Infantry Division (search) and a secretive team of commandos to pry Saddam Hussein (search) from a hole in the ground far smaller than the craters made by U.S. bombs that missed him on the war's opening night.
Untold numbers of close calls had raised questions in some quarters about the quality of U.S. intelligence.
But senior military commanders, including Maj. Gen. Raymond Odierno (search), whose 4th Infantry is responsible for the Tikrit area that is Saddam's tribal home, had expressed confidence they would get him.
Military and intelligence leaders began a more concerted effort a few weeks ago to penetrate Saddam's inner circle, systematically capturing or interrogating supporters and family members in the area around Tikrit, U.S. officials said.
"A combination of human intelligence tips, exceptional intelligence analytical efforts and detainee interrogations narrowed down the activities of Saddam Hussein," said Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, commander of all coalition forces in Iraq.
On Friday, the 4th Infantry captured 22 individuals in the Tikrit area.
The intelligence effort paid off as one of Saddam's family members provided the information that triggered Saturday's successful raid, Odierno said. They found the former Iraqi dictator in a 6-foot-deep hole. He had a long salt-and-pepper beard and was armed with a pistol he did not use.
Ironically, the work of capturing Saddam fell to the 4th Infantry. One of the Army's elite mechanized divisions, it missed most of combat operation in Iraq as it awaited Turkey's elusive permission to invade Iraq from the north. Division soldiers arrived in Iraq in April, shortly after the fall of Baghdad.
Exactly one week before the capture, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told Odierno during a visit to his headquarters in northern Iraq that he was "dumbfounded" that no Iraqi had shown the initiative to earn the $25 million reward offered by the State Department for information leading to Saddam's capture. Now it appears that one of his family members might get the money.
Frequently in recent months U.S. officials got tips about Saddam. None proved out, either because the information was bad or because the search team was late.
As Gen. Tommy Franks, the former Central Command chief who ran the Iraq war, was fine-tuning his plan of attack last winter, he held out hope for an early knockout punch that would make it unnecessary to launch a full-scale air and ground assault.
On March 19, as U.S. ground forces were poised to attack Iraq from Kuwait, sources told the CIA that Saddam was spending the night at a riverside compound near Baghdad, in an area called Dora Farms. It was the chance Franks had hoped for.
Within hours, F-117A stealth fighters rocketed toward the site, their bunker-buster bombs joining a salvo of ship-launched cruise missiles fired on the compound in the hope that Saddam could be killed. This kicked off the war and proved to be Saddam's first escape.
American bombs narrowly missed the small palace where Saddam reportedly was staying even though the compound was leveled, U.S. officials now believe. While little evidence of his presence was found at the site, Saddam's associates already in custody said he was in that building during the strike, according to officials familiar with their interrogations.
U.S. intelligence said Saddam's security forces, as well as emergency vehicles, surrounded the site. There were unconfirmed reports of someone resembling Saddam being wheeled away on a stretcher. Within hours, a video of Saddam, looking shaken and reading from a notepad, appeared on Baghdad television.
The American military's search for Saddam remained focus around Baghdad for weeks more.
On April 7, an Air Force B-1B bomber dropped four bombs in the upscale Mansour neighborhood in western Baghdad, destroying three houses. Afterward, intelligence sources reported seeing Saddam go in one of the houses before the attack, but not come out.
In June, U.S. troops excavated the site and found no evidence of him. U.S. officials now believe he left minutes before the bombs hit.
On April 18, a new video of Saddam aired, showing him outside, atop a vehicle surrounded by adoring Iraqis. Iraqis said it was recorded April 9 -- two days after the Mansour strike and the day U.S. troops overran Baghdad.
By summer, with the anti-occupation insurgency in full motion, U.S. commanders switched the focus of their Saddam hunt to the Tikrit area north of Baghdad. That put the onus on Odierno, whose Task Force Ironhorse of 32,000 soldiers has responsibility for a wide swath of northern Iraq.