12.13.09

A Sleepover With Saddam

On the sixth anniversary of the capture of Saddam Hussein, Dr. Mark Green, on scene at the "spider hole," recalls an historic confrontation.

Today marks the sixth anniversary of Saddam Hussein’s capture in a eight-foot deep “spider hole” near his tribal hometown of Tikrit, Iraq, by a team of around 600 American forces. The former dictator surrendered at around 8:30 p.m. Baghdad time, with no casualties accompanying the swift raid.

Mark Green, then a U.S. Special Operations flight surgeon, handled medical plans and casualty care for the task force charged with capturing Saddam Hussein. Green, who today practices medicine in Panama City, Florida, authored a book about his experience, A Night With Saddam. He spoke with Elise Jordan from his home of Ashland City, Tennessee, about that fateful night—a turning point in the Iraq War.

You were a flight surgeon for the 1st Battalion, 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne). What was your particular role in the operation?

I was assigned to the task force with the mission of getting Saddam Hussein and other high-value targets. My job was to fly on the mission with them and be prepared in case anyone ever got hurt. For that particular mission, I was in the helicopter covering the target.

“I remember very distinctly hearing, ‘We have Big Jackpot.’ We were all doing high fives.”

What was going through the minds of the men and women of the Task Force before the raid?

We had done a lot of missions—tons of different missions up to that point, looking for Hussein and the others. This mission was somewhat different because we felt the intelligence was more reliable … but still there had been so many dry holes—that’s the military’s term for a mission that turns up nothing—looking for Hussein. So in a sense it was just another mission with a slighter better chance due to the confidence in the intel.

Tell me what you remember about that day six years ago.

My role was stand by over the target in the helicopter and wait to see if there were casualties. I typically planned the medical plan of the battle; I kind of detailed the medical plan. For this mission, I was on the casualty evacuation aircraft, very standard, very routine, and was parked at another place waiting. Fortunately no one got hurt that day, and my skills were not needed over the target.

What was the feeling when you and the team realized you had gotten Saddam?

It was elation. I am on the same communications network as the shooters. I could hear the code words and I could hear the words that signified he had been captured. It was kind of interesting— for this mission we were looking for “Little Jackpot” and “Big Jackpot.” I remember very distinctly hearing, “We have Big Jackpot.” We were all doing high fives. I was actually physically in the helicopter doing high fives with my buddy.

So you did not see Hussein’s hiding spot?

I was in the helicopter on standby. Saddam was flown back, but I had to stay and cover the target because there were still Special Ops guys clearing the target. Hussein was detained without a fight.

What were the first steps taken after his surrender?

Once he surrendered, [Saddam] was flown back to our interrogation facility and got cleaned up, shaved, and a physical exam by another medical officer who had just arrived to Baghdad a week or two before. He was another Special Ops flight surgeon and his sole responsibility was to cover the interrogation facility. [The other doctor] left, so Saddam was alone with the interpreter in his cell.

That’s when the commander of the task force came out and said, “Mark, will you go sit with him? I want a doctor with him 24-7.” It was around midnight by then. So it was just the three of us at first.

Describe your night with Saddam.

To put it in a word, surreal. I do remember distinctly thinking the equivalent to this in history would be Adolf Hitler or Pol Pot had either been captured… I am thinking this man is a ruthless dictator, murderer. And here I am chatting with the guy.

What did Saddam talk about to you?

I was sitting at a table, and he was lying in a cot in a room about 16 x 10 feet. He was lying down, and I was seated, and he motioned for me to come over. He signaled for me to take his blood pressure.

I go over. When you take someone’s blood pressure, you are in their face. He’s checking me out, and I’m checking him out. That’s when he said to me, "I wanted to be a doctor when I was a little kid." I was pretty dumbfounded … I couldn’t imagine Saddam Hussein taking the Hippocratic Oath. But that’s what he said. He sat back down, and I started asking him questions about that.

He spoke in Arabic to me through my interpreter. We started out discussing things like why he joined the Baathist Party and where he went when he fled the country after his first coup attempt— Syria first, then on to Egypt, he said. In Egypt, he claimed to develop a very close relationship to Abdel Nasser, then president of Egypt. I think this was because Nasser brought a lot of pride to Arabic countries and Saddam wanted to connect himself to him because he wanted to be the guy who united all the Arab countries.

I asked [Saddam] why he invaded Iran and Kuwait. And we had a really lengthy conversation. We spoke for five hours. He was extremely charming at this point. He sat up, sat cross-legged, very dignified, as if I were a history major doing a thesis on him. I just sat and asked tons of questions because no one said I couldn’t, and here he was wanting to be talkative.

What was the most fascinating story Saddam told you?

The deal he made with the Ayatollah Khomeini. Khomeini was hiding from the shah in Karbala, Iraq. Khomeini is a Shia Muslim. Saddam was Sunni, the very clear minority in Iraq. Clearly this Shia cleric's presence in Sunni-controlled but Shia-majority Iraq was a threat to Saddam. Saddam was at this time the second in charge of Iraq. He goes down to Karbala, meets with Khomeini, and Saddam tells me he said, “Here is the deal. You can hide out, but if you get in control of Iran, you cede some coastline to me so I can get my oil shipping out of the country more easily.” When Khomeini got in power in Iran during the revolution, he reneged on the deal, and that’s why Saddam said he went to war, because Khomeini broke the deal. This is not in history books, but Hussein told me that was why he went to war, because Khomeini broke the deal.

When did the evening end?

About five o’clock in the morning, the commander comes in and sees Saddam is chatting with me very nonchalantly. He says, “Doc, we have to get this on camera.” When the camera came in, Saddam stopped talking, pulled the blanket over his head, and went to sleep.

At that time, the doctor in charge of the facility came in. I left and went and packed up, watched the announcements of the capture, and flew home from Iraq for Christmas. Thirty days later, I went to Afghanistan to try to get the other one.

December 30 will mark the three-year anniversary of Hussein’s execution. Six years later, what do you take away from the experience?

For me, this was obviously a great opportunity for me to be part of history. When I think back, I can reflect on it this way: There was a murderous dictator ruling Iraq tyrannically and he’s no longer ruling Iraq. Now the people of Iraq have the opportunity to choose their own legacy. And if there is a legacy for American soldiers in Iraq, it is that Iraqis can choose their own destiny, where before they had no choice.

Elise Jordan served as a director for communications in the National Security Council from 2008-2009. A former speechwriter for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, she lived and worked in Kabul for most of the last year.