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Operation Red Dawn: The mission that snared Saddam Hussein

Saddam Speaks in Court | Image: Wikimedia Commons

It was on 5 November 2006 that Saddam Hussein was sentenced to death. On New Year’s Eve of that year, he was led to the gallows by a jeering, taunting crowd, his final moments caught on mobile phone footage that went viral online. How had a man who’d once dominated his nation like some all-powerful medieval king, who’d build dozens of personal palaces and signed death warrants with a Cartier pen, been brought to such a pitiful end?

Long regarded by the US in particular as a kind of international bogeyman who threatened the safety of the world, Saddam had taken control of Iraq back in 1979, following a rocky rise to the top. A politically active young man, he’d embraced the revolutionary, Arab nationalist ideology of Baathism and been directly involved in an attempt to assassinate the Iraqi prime minister in 1959. He would later serve time in prison for plotting another political killing, but a successful Baathist coup in 1968 led to Saddam becoming Vice President of Iraq. Over the years that followed, he consolidated his power base, eventually establishing himself as dictator.

The decades after that were scarred by conflict. There was the Iran-Iraq War that sprawled for eight bitter years in the 1980s. Then came the first Gulf War of the early 90s, triggered by Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Saddam maintained power through it all, but the end would eventually come in the wake of 9/11, when US President George W. Bush signalled a new, uncompromising stance by naming Iraq as part of an “axis of evil”.

In the face of widespread controversy, with many questioning whether Saddam even possessed any weapons of mass destruction, the US-led invasion of Iraq went ahead in 2003. Thanks to an unstoppable 'shock and awe' onslaught, Iraqi forces were rapidly crushed. Within weeks, the ruthless reign of Saddam Hussein, which had lasted almost a quarter of a century, had been brought to an end. The problem was, Saddam himself was nowhere to be found.

As Major General Ray Odierno later put it, 'The fact that he’d gotten away made him even more mystical. The longer that he was free, the more mystical it got.'

Designated 'High Value Target #1', the toppled dictator was the focus of a vast manhunt across a dangerous, war-torn landscape. Tens of thousands of US troops were involved, along with a special unit known as Task Force 121, which included members of the Delta Force and CIA operatives.

Hundreds of interrogations were carried out. Lieutenant Colonel Steve Russell would later recall how one Iraqi literally drew up a 'family tree' of those closest to Saddam – 'half a dozen families, cronies who had been with him since the 1950s… it was like sketching out Tony Soprano’s family.'

The mission to capture Saddam Hussein was dubbed Operation Red Dawn, after an 80s Patrick Swayze action movie

A prime focus was Mohammed Ibrahim al-Muslit, a close associate of the dictator who was eventually apprehended in a raid conducted in Baghdad. 'I knew exactly what he was supposed to look like,' a US army interrogator later said. 'Ibrahim was supposed to have a chin like John Travolta’s. When I took the hood off him, it was like, bam.'

Mohammed Ibrahim al-Muslit was the big break they desperately needed. He agreed to cooperate, and revealed that the former dictator was hiding in a location close to his hometown of Tikrit. The mission to capture Saddam Hussein was dubbed Operation Red Dawn, after an 80s Patrick Swayze action movie. The two sites singled out as where Saddam was most likely to be hiding were named Wolverine 1 and Wolverine 2, after the heroic resistance fighters in the Swayze movie.

Much to the frustration of the troops deployed to search the targets, both of these Wolverine sites yielded nothing. But then they closed in on a third, less important-seeming target: a farmhouse. A search of the site, followed by a fierce interrogation of the farm’s owner, led to the discovery of a concealed hole in the ground. And from this hole, came a voice that was instantly recognisable to one of the Iraqi translators. It was Saddam Hussein.

The news was communicated back over the radio with one word: 'Jackpot'. When he was taken to a secure compound, Saddam proved strangely chatty, even charming. While being examined by a US army surgeon, the heavily bearded and dishevelled former dictator said 'I wanted to be a doctor when I was a kid, but politics had too great a hold of my heart'. That began a conversation that lasted almost six hours.

Saddam would prove similarly talkative when he was put on trial for crimes against humanity. He shouted and jabbed his finger angrily, trying to assert his authority. The proceedings themselves were both farcical and tragic – the chief judge resigned, one of Saddam’s co-defendants had to be removed after calling the court the 'daughter of a whore', and Saddam’s own lawyer was murdered.

In the end, the one-time strongman of Iraq was sentenced to death. Many prominent figures disapproved – Amnesty International criticised the 'flawed process' of the trial, and even Tony Blair told journalists 'We’re against the death penalty, whether it is Saddam or anybody else.' To many others, death by hanging was all Saddam Hussein deserved for the brutality he had brought to his own people for so many years.