The man who caught Saddam
As the world's media reported the sensational capture of Saddam Hussein last weekend, a Sligo woman living in Chicago watched and listened with more interest than most. She was Anne Marie O'Hara, a native of Kilbride, Aclare, mother of U.S. Army Colonel James Hickey who led the special forces team that finally nabbed the former Iraqi dictator. For Col. Hickey's family and frien
>As the world's media reported the sensational capture of Saddam Hussein last weekend, a Sligo woman living in Chicago watched and listened with more interest than most. She was Anne Marie O'Hara, a native of Kilbride, Aclare, mother of U.S. Army Colonel James Hickey who led the special forces team that finally nabbed the former Iraqi dictator. For Col. Hickey's family and friends in the U.S., England, Ireland and in Sligo, it was a proud occasion, and one for special celebration. HARRY KEANEY reports:
THE unexpected sound of the late night phone call always startles. But for many an emigrant living away from home, it also fills with dread, for experience tells it often heralds some terrible news, perhaps even from home.
But when the phone rang at 4:30 a.m. on Sunday morning last in the Hickey family home in Chicago, the news was admittedly startling - but it was also good. For 70-years old Kilbride, Aclare native Anne Marie O'Hara, and her Clare-born husband, Jim Hickey, they were about to experience the dream of every emigrant parent.
Their son, Colonel James Hickey, of the U.S. Army's 4th Infantry Division's 1st Brigade, had become a hero in their beloved adopted homeland. And, in America, to be hailed a military hero is just about as good as it gets.
As the search for Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein continued for months, little did anyone realise it was the son of a South Sligo woman who was among those leading the hunt.
Col. Hickey's team had been concentrating in the area around Saddam's home city of Tikrit, north of Baghdad. Then, intelligence sources directed them to the village and farm area of Ad Draw, about 10 miles south of Tikrit, near the Tigris River. It's in the Sunni Triangle where U.S. occupation forces have met with most resistance since the fall of the Saddam regime.
But while Col. Hickey and his team followed up on what turned out to be many false leads in the past, it was about 5 o'clock on Saturday evening last that they received information that allowed them "to put together a rather detailed intelligence estimate of where the target was," according to reports.
Then came Operation Red Dawn as Col. Hickey led his team on a sudden stealth swoop through an area where they came across the 8 by 6 foot hole in the ground, two and half feet deep, where Saddam had been hiding.
"We actually had expected to have a bit of a fight here. And we were prepare to win that fight rapidly and decisively," said Col. Hickey, who is based at Fort Hood, in Texas, and was attending Georgetown University in Washington before leaving for Iraq.
But Saddam gave up without a struggle, emerging the haggard and bearded figure whose now familiar picture was soon beamed onto television screens and newspaper front pages around the planet.
Back in Chicago, after that 4:30 a.m. phone call to her home on Sunday morning, Anne Marie Hickey went downstairs, where husband Jim was already on the phone to another of their sons, Ken.
"Turn on the television," said Jim. "There's something happening. They've just captured Saddam."
"My heart started pounding and when I got myself and my thoughts together, I thought 'where's Jim' because I knew he was the lead," the colonel's mother recalled in an interview with The Sligo Champion from Chicago.
But being the mother of a military man, Mrs. Hickey kept the matter to herself.
"I didn't verbalise it or share it with anybody in the house but my heart was racing until 2 o'clock the next afternoon," she said.
'All over the news'
And then, amid all the phone calls, her now-famous son was on the line from the other side of the globe.
"Hello Mom, this is Jim," he said.
"Jim, how are you?" asked his mother, to which he replied, "Oh, I'm fine."
And when she told him he was "all over the news," he just laughed.
"By the way, I got all your packages," he told her before hanging up, referring to the goodie parcels and letters that American families have always sent to their loved ones serving abroad in war time.
As for being the mother of a man who led the team that had just captured the most wanted man in the world, Mrs. Hickey replied: "I haven't even thought about that as yet."
She explained that since news broke of Saddam's capture, there had been people constantly around her and she felt one needed to be alone to grasp the significance of what happened.
The Hickeys are a well-known Irish American family in the Chicago area, where Mrs. Hickey, 70, runs the Irish Way shop in Naperville.
They are regular visitors to Ireland, usually coming every January to Anne Marie's native Aclare, and to Kilbride where her childhood home now lies empty and silent.
"The home place, nobody's there. When you go there, it's saddens me," she said.
But, even after all the years, she has not lost touch with home.
"I was in the post office there last January and in Bradley's in Aclare where I bought a lottery ticket," she said.
She left Kilbride when she was 16, spending about a week in New York with her father's two sisters who were Dominican nuns.
"I guess they were trying to put me in the convent," she quipped.
But instead, she went to Chicago where she met Clareman James Hickey, whom she married on his return from the Korean War. They had six children.
Her father, local Aclare postman Peter O'Hara, died in 1982. He had met his grandson Col. Jim, she said, and was very proud of him.
Anne Marie O'Hara was herself one of 11 children which included John who died in 1987, Betty (Chicago), Vincent (Dublin), Bridie (Cleveland), Kathleen who died some years ago, Eithne (Lemont, Chicago), Rose (Oaklawn, Chicago), Sophia (Wilmslow, Cheshire, England), Pete (Australia) and Margaret (Chicago), who was born after Anne left home.
Another proud relation of Col. Hickey is his 64-years old cousin James O'Hara, of Doocastle, Ballymote.
"The way I look at it, he has risen high in his job. He did credit to his family, his country and the world," said James, adding, "I am proud as a family member and blood relation."
Similar sentiments were expressed by Col. Hickey's aunt, Sophia Flannery, in an interview with The Sligo Champion from her home in Cheshire in England.
And although she knew her nephew was on assignment in Iraq for the past eight months, it was not until she received a phone call from her sister Rose in America that she realised Saddam had been captured.
"I just went numb," said Sophia. "I couldn't believe it. I was absolutely delighted."
She said Col. Hickey had been in Ireland in 1985 while assigned to Germany. She described him as "a lovely, unassuming, down to earth guy."
But, in capturing Saddam Hussein at about 8:15 on Saturday evening last, Col. Hickey was literally down to earth, to a hole in the ground where soldiers had almost tossed in a grenade until they saw the bearded figure, with hands up, emerge from the darkness. He was handcuffed, taken to an open field where a helicopter swooped in and took him away as soldiers with back-up firepower guarded the perimeter of the operation area.
Although the special forces team was led to the area where Saddam was discovered after piecing together intelligence and tips, it's unclear what exactly drew their attention to the Iraqi dictator's underground hiding place in a courtyard beside a two-roomed mud house complete with air vent and fan. A Styrofoam hatch covered by rubber, cloth, and dirt concealed the entrance to a crawl space.
"We were prepared to use overwhelming combat power, if needed," Col. Hickey reportedly said.
"The most important part of the plan was based around stealth, speed and shock. It was carried out with zero illumination to try to ensure shock and speed. We were able to do it without anyone getting killed or shot or injured. It was very, very fast."