Legends Of The Fall

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During his brutal reign as Iraq's dictator, Saddam Hussein created around himself a legend of physical and political prowess. He demanded that his followers be willing to fight and die for him and acted as though he'd do the same for his country. So when he surrendered to U.S. soldiers without a shot from the pistol at his side, Arab diplomats and journalists say that the once admiring Arab masses were dismayed and embarrassed by his meekness. It suggested that legendary toughness was just that: legend.

Now, it seems, new legends are emerging. U.S. government sources familiar with the accounts given by troops who helped capture Saddam tell TIME that the fallen dictator apparently made one feeble attempt at defiance. As soldiers were handcuffing him after he was extracted from his "spider hole," these sources say, Saddam spit on his captor. As the incident was reported by the military, according to a U.S. source, a soldier promptly slugged the old tyrant — probably the first time in more than two decades that Saddam was powerless to exact lethal revenge on someone who stood up to him.

An official military spokeswoman in Iraq claims no knowledge of the incident. "I think this is an urban legend," she says. But the full story is yet to be told. A U.S. intelligence official, meanwhile, casts doubt on another widely reported tale: that a U.S. soldier hailed the nemesis of two Commanders in Chief named George Bush by saying: "Regards from President Bush." This person says some officials suspect the story is "apocryphal."