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U.S. Army Center of Military History

The Capture of Saddam Hussein

Operation Red Dawn

Saddam Hussein's Underground Hiding Place

Entrance to the hole that concealed Saddam Hussein. The vertical shaft connected to a small room equipped with an air vent and extractor fan.
Source: Briefing, Operation RED DAWN, 1st BCT, 4th ID


The day after Baghad fell to the 3d Infantry Division and the 1st Marine Division on 10 April 2003, the U.S. military began distributing special packs of playing cards featuring the photos, names, and job titles of Iraq's 55 "most-wanted." The decks were designed to help Coalition soldiers identify and apprehend high-ranking members of the regime. Saddam Hussein's visage appeared on the Ace of Spades. He was last seen in public in a north Baghdad neighborhood on the 9th. Sometime later, the Iraqi dictator escaped from the city in a convoy of vehicles, accompanied by his sons, Uday (the Ace of Hearts) and Qusay (the Ace of Clubs).

By the end of May, about half of the individuals depicted on the cards had surrendered to Coalition forces. Acting on a tip from an informant in July, soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division and Special Operations Forces (SOF) Task Force (TF) 20 surrounded Uday and Qusay at a relative's house in the city of Mosul. Both died after a fierce gun battle. Saddam himself, however, continued to elude capture through the summer and fall of 2003, despite the posting of a $25 million reward for information leading to his whereabouts. U.S. analysts believed he was holed up in or near his hometown of Tikrit, a small city on the Tigris River about one hundred miles north of Baghdad. Tikrit emerged as one of the strongholds of the Sunni Arab insurgency after the invasion and remained friendly territory for Saddam, with any number of relatives, tribal clan members, ex-military and security officers, and loyalists he could turn to for sanctuary.

Col. James B. Hickey, the commander of the 1st Brigade, 4th Infantry Division, the U.S. Army unit responsible for securing the Tikrit region, made it his mission to find Saddam. His brigade established a fruitful partnership with TF 20, the SOF group tasked with tracking down former government and military officials in Iraq. The brigade and task force coordinated operations, collaborated on missions, and shared information. Over a period of months, intelligence officers from the two organizations pieced together in chart form a detailed picture of Saddam’s social network in Tikrit. U.S. forces worked their way from the outer edges of the network towards the center, targeting for capture the key figures who would lead them closer to the fugitive dictator. By October, they were closing in on members of his inner circle. On 12 December, the Americans caught a break when SOF troops in Baghdad detained one of Saddam’s most-trusted and sought-after associates from the Tikrit area. Returned to the city for questioning, he revealed that Saddam was hiding out in one of two safe houses near the village of Ad Dawr by the Tigris River 10 miles southeast of Tikrit.

Col. James B. Hickey

U.S. Army Col James B. Hickey, the commander of the 1st Brigade, who oversaw the months-long manhunt for Saddam Hussein. Once one of Saddam’s confidantes disclosed his location, Colonel Hickey quickly organized and executed the operation that captured the elusive ex-dictator.

The next day, Colonel Hickey assembled a combined arms team composed of six hundred soldiers and twenty-five Abrams tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles from the 1st Brigade, a company of Apache attack helicopters cross-attached from the Aviation Brigade, 4th Infantry Division, and elements of TF 20. Later in the afternoon on the 13th, the brigade commander and his staff met with their SOF counterparts and quickly sketched out a plan to catch Saddam. The operation, codenamed RED DAWN, left little to chance. Hickey deployed his forces in a double cordon around the target area to seal off potential escape routes and intercept any insurgent groups attempting to come to Saddam’s aid. The raid kicked off under the cover of darkness at 1935 hours. Two SOF assault teams led the way, supported by a pair of platoons from Troop G, 10th Cavalry. They met no armed resistance and secured the two objective locations in twenty-five minutes. A search of the sites came up empty but an investigation of a nearby orchard located a hole covered by a mat and rubble and sealed with a Styrofoam lid next to a two-room hut. Inside the hole was Saddam, who surrendered as soon as his underground hiding place was exposed. In addition to Saddam, the raiding party picked up two Iraqis at the hut who were believed to be assisting him. The Americans also found a suitcase stuffed with $750,000 in $100 bills, two weapons, and an orange and white taxi parked nearby.

Saddam's capture and subsequent trial and execution by Iraqi legal authorities brought to an end a long and brutal chapter in the country's history. However, his detention and imprisonment failed to stop the Sunni-led insurgency or halt Iraq's slide into civil war that would become the defining episodes of the first few years of the post-Saddam era.

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