"We Got Him."

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CAPTURED: Former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is shown before and after his beard was shaved while in custody

Even before he is brought to trial, there was justice in the news that Saddam Hussein had survived by being buried alive. Like a pharaoh in his tomb, he had surrounded himself with symbols of his lost power — two AK-47s, a pistol, $750,000 in $100 bills. The Butcher of Baghdad was nestled underground with pictures of Ben Franklin. The hunt for Saddam that began with a hellfire of bombs eight months ago ended without a shot being fired. It was soldiers from the Raider Brigade of the Army's 4th Infantry Division who dug him out of the 8-ft.-deep spider hole; the palace monster of monuments and torture chambers had been reduced to the life of a bug. His captors picked through his shaggy hair, the raccoon beard. They scraped his throat, checked his teeth. "Merry Christmas," said the soldiers to one another, and they lit cigars and took pictures and smiled.

It was a relief to see him made small enough to handcuff because the phantom had become too big, and you can't bring peace to a haunted house. Bribes and threats and rockets and satellites had failed to find him, even with the world's mightiest army conducting the manhunt. The President had stopped talking about him, as if he were superstitious or trying to change the subject. People bought Saddam golf balls, Saddam piñatas, voodoo dolls, to satisfy the need to hit back and not feel helpless every time he taunted his hunters with a new videotape to rally his followers, every time we heard of a new ambush conducted in his name.

With his capture, we exhale, after a long, deep breath we have held for a year. We can measure the meaning of his capture by the measures we have taken — old alliances and long traditions discarded to go to war to take him out and, in the name of democracy, a war that was opposed by vast majorities in most democracies on earth. Hundreds of soldiers killed, hundreds more wounded, $4 billion a month spent and billions more to come, a country broken in pieces that we will be helping rebuild for years to come. And so what is the gift this capture has brought? Perhaps a true taste of freedom from fear for 25 million people who could never quite have faith that the tyranny was over while the tyrant was still loose. It was an antidote to the contempt expressed by Arab and European commentators who poked the American tiger: See, you can't even catch Saddam.

"The capture of this man was crucial to the rise of a free Iraq," Bush said in a nationally broadcast address from the Cabinet Room. "It marks the end of the road for him and for all who bullied and killed in his name."

Other implications of Saddam's capture are less clear. Will it encourage Bush to reach out to other European allies to help in the policing and reconstruction of Iraq, or will he be encouraged to stick to his current course? And how will this victory affect Bush's re-election campaign in 2004 — and, perhaps more to the point, the campaigns of the Democratic candidates, including front runner Howard Dean, who want to replace him?

It was a team of 600 soldiers from the 4th Infantry Division and U.S. special forces that acted on the tip that Saddam was hiding in a little town called al-Dawr, 15 miles from his hometown of Tikrit. These soldiers had been scouring the area for months in the belief that he would stay close to home, where loyalty among those who most benefited from his rule still ran deep. U.S. intelligence sources tell Time that over the past month they were getting better leads. "In the last three to four weeks, our forces have been able to capture people we've been hunting all summer," said Lieut. Colonel Steven Russell, the commander of the 4th's 1-22 Infantry Regiment. "This was the inner circle, and we were taking pieces out of it." Last week they could tell they were getting closer and closer. "Four days ago, an individual was captured that led to the capture of the man we believed was Saddam's right-hand man," Russell told Time. "He was captured two days ago. Information he had led to information that led to the capture of Saddam Hussein."

But the pressure was also intense. Just the week before, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was in the region pressing the officers about why this was taking so long. Sitting in front of walls lined with maps and flat video screens, Rumsfeld marveled at the elusiveness of the quarry. "I'm dumbfounded when I think about it," he told Army Major General Raymond Odierno, commander of the 4th Infantry. "The chances of us using that kind of money to find somebody — to figure out how to invest some time and develop a network and produce the information that would do it — I mean, that ought to be doable."

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