TIKRIT, Iraq – My first impression when I crawled down into Saddam's "hole," where he was nabbed Saturday night, was, "Hey, this isn't all that bad."
It was a bit of a tight, dirty squeeze going down. But once I got to the base compartment, it was relatively well-built, with a smooth floor and ample headroom.
Then I thought a little more about it. I realized that Saddam is at least 30 to 40 pounds heavier than I am and a few inches taller. I also know his ego is about 50 miles wide.
That's when it really hit me. This must have been as close as the megalomaniac could have gotten to being in a living hell — of his own creation.
Basically, Saddam dug his own grave, even if it did have an air pipe and a circulation fan.
The former Iraqi dictator could have had it all, if he'd played his cards right. But Saddam played every hand stupidly. And now he's sitting in an even more uncomfortable place — probably a cubicle somewhere in Baghdad's airport — being worked over by coalition folks.
Along with Capt. Desmond Bailey, head of the "scouts" for the 1st Brigade Combat Team (search), 4th Infantry Division, who caught Saddam, I walked up to the mud-hut complex in Adwar, outside Tikrit, where the former dictator was found.
It was Bailey's guys and special-forces operatives who actually made the initial "get." Bailey told me at first he thought the mission was going to be another "dry hole," like so many raids and patrols he had gone out on over the last several months.
But in fact it was a "hole" ... with The Prize inside. When Bailey saw the grizzled Saddam Hussein being walked out of the compound, Bailey told me, "My heart rate went up."
Seeing how Saddam spent his last few days or hours of relative freedom was a real eye-opener.
I guarantee you the place will not figure in any photo spread in Better Homes and Gardens anytime soon. It's quite a comedown for Saddam Hussein from the architectural monstrosities he built all around Iraq.
The bedroom was full of disheveled clothing, plus a few signs the ex-dictator was still thinking of fashion on the run: two new pairs of shoes and a still-packaged pair of underwear.
Next door, Saddam's kitchen and eating area was also nothing to impress. Food and bowls thrown all around. Some higher-grade canned food. Mars chocolate candy bars. A final low-life meal for fugitive Saddam.
Another insight: Whoever owned the place where Saddam was hiding out was a member of one of the religious faiths the ruler allowed to exist in Iraq in his vain effort to show that he was an open and egalitarian leader, when all he really cared about was himself. On the walls of the place: a Christian calendar and a poster of Noah's Ark.
Unfortunately for Saddam, he was unable to avoid the deluge of the coalition forces hunting him. But just.
One soldier told me they had run several patrols about a hundred yards from where Saddam might have been. Another told me he was amazed to see a red motorcycle outside of the huts, since there had been numerous sightings (the soldiers eventually called them "Elvis sightings" ) of Saddam on a motorcycle in the area.
Imagine, Saddam, his long hair and beard whipping in the wind, racing down a backwoods highway. Why am I thinking of a cross between dictatorial "Easy Rider" and "Fear and Loathing in Salahuddin Province"?
As for myself, after getting fully gritty in Saddam's lair, I was brought back to the 4th Infantry Division's headquarters in Tikrit (search), where I was staying. That just happens to be one of Saddam's grandly weird and disgusting palaces.
I promptly used one of the gold-plated and marble-clad bathrooms to wash away any vestiges of the Butcher of Baghdad — and soaked up all the irony. As President Bush said Monday, "Good riddance."