The end of Saddam Hussein’s reign of terror and flight from justice ended in a six-foot hole in the ground where the Butcher of Baghdad hid like a trapped rat every time U.S. troops came near the mud-brick hut he called home for months following the invasion of Iraq.

After the capture

After the capture

Squalid conditions for a man who lived in palaces and thrived off the sufferings of a country he terrorized for too many years, yet a fitting home for one of the most sought-after war criminals of modern times.

Like most tyrants, Saddam was – in the end – a coward, a disoriented, tired old man who gave up without a fight. Although he carried a pistol and had AK-47s at arm’s length, he surrendered meekly and seemed, as one soldier described him, like “a man resigned to his fate.”

The bearded, dirty man looked more like a homeless vagrant than the dictator who ruled Iraq with an iron, cruel, hand. But vagrants don’t carry $750,000 in American bills or an army of insurgents willing to fight a war that was – in reality – lost months ago.

Hussein the fugitive is now Hussein the prisoner. He didn’t die in a hail of gunfire like his sons or take his own life like Hitler. He surrendered meekly. Now he is just one less tyrant to deal with; one less madman to threaten the security of the world; one less re-election problem for President George W. Bush.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we got him,” a beaming Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator in Iraq, told a press conference in Baghdad Sunday. Cheers broke out. Even journalists, the ones who are supposed to stay stoic in such times, applauded.

For too long, it seems Saddam – like Osama bin Laden – would remain an elusive fugitive, a sought-after but never-located target who would taunt the U.S. from hiding through release of audio tapes and calls for a continued holy war.

But Saddam never had a workable escape plan. His government collapsed so quickly it trapped him in a country where the predator became the prey. U.S. troops blocked available routes out of Iraq. His only option was to hole up in and around his hometown of Tikrit, For months, he moved around, always one-step ahead of the many raids by U.S. military.

Then his time ran out. U.S. troops, acting on a tip from a family member, raided the walled compound near Tikrit and found the Ace of Spades from that deck of cards that signified Iraq’s most wanted. But this was a man who had many look-alikes and the U.S. waited until DNA checks confirmed his identity before announcing capture of Iraq’s most-wanted criminal.

At 1600 Pennsylvania, Bush could let out a temporary sigh of relief. Saddam’s capture brought good news from a war that has gone badly of late. A mounting U.S. death toll, weapons of mass destruction that have never been found and increasing questions about the administration’s handling of the war threaten to turn the Iraq war into campaign issue number one in next year’s election.

Democrats, tasting blood, planned an attack ad campaign built around the claim that the Bush administration “can’t even find Saddam Hussein.” Now those plans are scrapped. New attack strategies must be devised. Osama is still at large, the economy is still fragile and the deficit is growing. And Americans are still dying. Still, Hussein was a big ticket campaign issue. No more.

At the Baghdad airport, U.S. soldiers subjected Saddam to the “perp walk,” a long stroll past other prisoners, another humiliation for the man who deserves to be humiliated many times over as he is brought to justice. Other prisoners, many who bragged Saddam would never be captured, watched in silence as the tired, broken old man was led past their cells.

In the streets of Baghdad, Iraqis celebrated and fired weapons in the air. Some, however, still showed support for Saddam but wondered why he gave up without a fight.

“He swore before the war that Iraqis would fight America, and then he didn’t fire a single shot,” said Kassem Shelshul, a 28-year-old chauffeur living in Baghdad. “We expected him to commit suicide or resist.”

Cowards don’t fight. They make others fight for them. Some say cowards take their own life but it still takes guts to fight and die in a lost cause, especially for a man like Saddam Hussein, whose culture where suicide bombers give their lives for the cause.

Had Saddam Hussein chosen come out of hole firing, dying in a hail of bullets while trying to kill his enemies, his death could have turned him into a martyr capable of spurring his followers into a never-ending war with America.

In the end, however, Hussein couldn’t die in a fight. He cared only about himself, not any cause. He laid down his gun and surrendered in a pathetic move that – in the eyes of his fanatical followers – can only be seen as a final, cowardly act.