On Dec. 13, 2003, the U.S. military caught up with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein who had been in hiding since the beginning of the U.S. invasion. Here, NBC's Richard Engel remembers his tour of Saddam's "spider hole" and the tiny farmhouse where he lived in squalor.
I looked down into the hole through its tiny entrance, a square no bigger than a placemat. It felt like I was looking into an underground cave that had been accidentally discovered by a child who slipped in and was now trapped. I was on my knees, peering into the opening, my head below ground. It was dark, musty and damp, and the air didn’t circulate. It seemed like the kind of a place where spiders would live.
I'll admit it: I was excited. I was about to descend into the final place where Saddam Hussein took refuge, take pictures and show them to the world. I felt a bit like Jacques Cousteau. I stood up, brushed off the dust and pulled off my flak jacket, ripping back the velcro straps somewhat excitedly. There was no way to fit inside with the bulky Kevlar jacket lined with ceramic 'strike plates.' Jacket off, I put both feet into the hole and lowered myself into the depths.
My feet quickly landed on the floor of 'the room' below me. I switched on my flashlight and painted the walls with dim yellow light. It looked like a subterranean tomb: rectangular, 10 feet long, four feet high, and three feet wide. All that was missing was a sarcophagus.
The walls were covered in rough concrete. The floor was lined with a few boards, and a single light bulb hung from the ceiling. A fan sat in the corner, attached to a plastic hose that exited the chamber the wall to the outside. The hose and fan let Saddam breath when the tomb was plugged, like it was when U.S. forces arrived without preamble, unexpected and uninvited.
"When we opened the hole, Saddam popped his head out," explained the colonel, encircled by a knot of about a dozen reporters. The colonel was relaxed, smiling, joking and swapping persiflage with the journalists. It was a 'good news' day and this was the military's chance to play show and tell.
"Saddam put his hands up and said, 'I am Saddam Hussein, President of Iraq and I am ready to negotiate,'" the colonel said. The scribblers frantically scratched notes into pads, cameramen marked time codes, and the snappers shot every angle, their big black cameras clicking like crickets.
"And what did the soldiers say to him?" one of us asked.
"One of the soldiers said, 'President Bush sends his regards.'" We all chuckled.
Saddam's cave, or 'spider hole' as some U.S. military commanders and American commentators started calling it, wasn't isolated in the center of a field. It was in the backyard of a tiny farmhouse, surrounded by a fence, pomegranates and wildflowers. According to the military, Saddam spent most of his time in the farmhouse, and only slipped into his underground bunker when danger was close. The colonel gave us a half hour to explore the house before the Blackhawks would fly us back to base. Ironically, the base was one of Saddam's main palaces just a few miles away in Tirkrit. While Saddam was living in squalor, and sometimes like a mole, the U.S. troops hunting him were down the street in his palace. It must have annoyed Saddam more than just a little a bit.
The farmhouse had only one room, appointed with a twin bed and wooden dining table. It had the feel of a poor-man's bachelor pad, inhabited by someone clearly not used to cooking, cleaning or taking care of himself. The bed was unmade. The sheets were dirty. Broken eggs were rotting on the floor. Saddam apparently gave up cooking. A half-eaten candy bar sat on his bedside stand, along with a tube of face moisturizer.
Saddam often compared himself to Baghdad's ancient caliphs, the leaders of the Islamic empire who governed with a mix of cruelty and beneficience, striving to be both loved and feared. In the fabled accounts of their exploits like the epic "Tales of 1,001 Nights" the caliphs would often dress as commoners and walk the streets in disguise to gage the public's opinion of their rule. Standing in Saddam's farm house, I couldn't help but think that he was like a caliph who'd fled his palace with only the clothes on his back, abandoned by all but a few of his servants and totally unable to function on his own.
After we filmed, photographed and documented every corner of the farmhouse and the 'spider hole' out back, we loaded into the choppers and returned to base. As far as I know it was the only tour the U.S. military gave to reporters. The military said it would destroy the spider hole, filling it in, so it wouldn't become a tourist attraction, or shrine for Saddam loyalists.
Saddam is now on trial, ironically again in a courthouse close to one of his former palaces occupied by the U.S. military. He lives in a cell not much bigger than the farmhouse where he hid. His visitors tell me the cell has a small, enclosed pen where Saddam reads, smokes, writes poems and tends a few plants. In November, Saddam was sentenced to death for crimes against humanity. Although few doubt Saddam's guilt or overall responsibility for the deaths and oppression of hundreds of thousands of his countrymen, many human rights groups said his trial lacked necessary judicial standards. Saddam is expected to be hanged sometime between January and March.