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Something big was happening at Raider Base

By Alphonso Van Marsh

Alphonso Van Marsh
Alphonso Van Marsh

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Editor's note: In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences in covering news.

TIKRIT, Iraq (CNN) -- The armored Bradley fighting vehicles outside the palace gates were missing. That was the first indication that on this cold Saturday night in Saddam Hussein's ancestral homeland, U.S. forces were on to something -- and on to something big.

Night raids are not unusual for troops in the Army's 4th Infantry Division here. I have been living in a guardhouse outside one of Saddam's palaces, now "renovated" into a U.S. military compound, for weeks. I see the troops go out, I see them return. But I have never seen them take the Bradleys.

At about 11 p.m. local time, a convoy of heavily fortified Humvees -- followed by two Bradleys -- roared past the guardhouse into the Raider Base military complex. Standing at the steps and under the bright light of a waning full moon I could see the excitement on the soldiers' faces. ... So I grabbed my camera.

From the guardhouse rooftop venue, I could see over the three meter high security fence and into the palace grounds. I filmed dozens of U.S. forces gathering in front of the Bradleys, with my night scope-equipped camera I could see military leadership giving what looked to be a pep talk to the troops. Their response, an occasional "Hoo-Ha!" ripped through the night air. Then some of the service members pulled out their own cameras and started taking pictures. Posing like a soccer team on the pitch before the match. Bright smiles. Arms over the shoulders. Shaking hands with captain and colonel.

It was clear this was a celebration for a raid well done. I needed to find out why.

I walked into the Raider Base "Tactical Operations Center," a sort of war planning room full of high-tech gear and wide screens, where CNN has been granted extraordinary access. Tonight, the room was packed with military officers. And tonight, I was politely and swiftly walked and talked out of the room. The hallway was heavy with the smell of cigar smoke. ... Keeping "operational security" -- the military's term for a policy allowing them to keep the media from reporting sensitive information -- in mind, I needed to find a way to figure out who had been taken into custody. I asked one military source -- if we were playing poker with the U.S.'s "most-wanted Iraqi" deck of cards, "Which card would you be holding?"

I was hoping to hear "Ace of Spades, that's Saddam's card." But lady luck was not on my side. No answer from the source, but a bit of encouragement: "Are you religious? If so, I would say a prayer, light a candle, carry out a sacrifice, whatever works for you" because Sunday will be a busy day. You will just have to wait and see."

The next six or so hours were intense. Raider Base is a 24-hour operation; troops on overnight guard duty were ... giddy, whispering amongst themselves. In a reporter's presence, and due to operational security, troops stopped talking.

After daybreak and after intense persistence, the pieces of the puzzle came together. I knew U.S. forces had "Number One". My talented CNN colleagues in Washington confirmed it and the next thing I knew, I'm live from the roof of the guardhouse reporting a CNN exclusive. On this truly historic day, CNN's nighttime pictures offered a glimpse into how these historic events unfolded. It was the first opportunity for viewers to see U.S. forces reveling in one of their greatest adrenaline rushes since the fall of Baghdad. And those forces included the boys in the Bradleys, celebrating the capture of Saddam Hussein.

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