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'President Bush sends his regards'

Col. James Hickey, left and his team pose for a photo, in front of the mud-brick hut that was the last hideaway of Saddam Hussein.
Col. James Hickey, left, and his team pose for a photo in front of the mud-brick hut that was the last hideaway of Saddam Hussein.

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Saddam Hussein
George W. Bush

(CNN) -- The soldiers who captured Saddam Hussein talked to reporters Monday about how a mission that seemed similar to others they had been on ended with the former Iraqi dictator in custody.

In fact, Saddam's capture came as something of a surprise to some of the 600 soldiers of the 1st Brigade, 4th Infantry Division, who carried out the mission.

"To us, quite frankly, it was another raid," said the brigade's commander, Col. James Hickey. His unit and others had gone after Saddam at least a dozen times before.

But last Saturday evening was a little different.

They had good intelligence, and they were accompanied by a special operations unit called Task Force 121 set up to go after members of the former Baathist regime and other high-profile targets.

"There was a good chance that we would be successful because of the source of information and the timeliness of the information," Hickey said.

It came from intelligence accumulated over some time and from an Iraqi under interrogation, said Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq.

And, as Hickey said, they had good luck: "There was zero illumination that night. Moonrise would not happen for some hours. It was fortuitous."

As the troops swept into a farm compound near the village of Ad Dawr on the banks of the Tigris River outside Tikrit, they found nothing at first.

One room of a two-room hut yielded only two beds, books, clothes, an unopened plastic package of new underwear, and miscellaneous items.

The other room was a kitchen. Beneath the sink, the troops found Mars bars and cans of Spam. On the floor nearby were boxes of rotting oranges.

Outside the hovel, the soldiers saw a rug on the ground, pulled it back, and found an 8-inch thick piece of Styrofoam covering a narrow hole that appeared to be 6 to 8 feet deep.

They heard noises from below.

They were about to execute a "clearing procedure" -- firing into the hole or dropping a grenade into it -- when someone saw upraised hands belonging to a bearded, bedraggled man. The man had a pistol but did not fire it.

When the soldiers assisted the man from the hole, he said, in English: "I am Saddam Hussein. I am the president of Iraq. I want to negotiate."

The soldiers replied: "President Bush sends his regards."

Afterward, some soldiers expressed surprise: "There it was. It wasn't the blaze of glory we expected," said Capt. Desmond Bailey, who led the close-in security team.

"It was surprising. We did not expect to find him where we found him," said Maj. Steve Pitt, who ran the outer defense perimeter.

Not only had Pitt and his men patrolled past the ramshackle compound before, but also they were taken aback by Saddam's hovel -- the messy bedroom, the squalid kitchen -- a far cry from one of his palaces overlooking the Tigris in nearby Tikrit.

"The initial thought from the soldiers was, 'OK, we got his cook,'" Pitt said.

But in the end, the troops were happy that their months of tracking Saddam had paid off.

"It was on our day off. I'll take a day off like that any day," Bailey said with a laugh.

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