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US planned to avoid media gaffe with capture of Saddam

LONDON - The US put meticulous planning in place to ensure that the media announcement of the capture of Saddam Hussein did not backfire in the same way that the shooting of his two sons Uday and Qusay did in July.

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The news was revealed globally yesterday morning, with video images of a scruffy former dictator undergoing medical checks, designed to convince doubtful Arabs that the former Iraqi leader was safely in the hands of coalition forces.

Getting the story quickly on to television was seen as central to the media strategy because of the importance that satellite news, such as Al Jazeera, now plays in the Arab world. The images that were released for broadcast were the best that could have been hoped for -- a dirty, broken man with an overgrown beard.

Scott McClellan, White House spokesman, said: "The image of him undergoing a physical examination for lice in the hair and having his tongue pushed down with a tongue-depresser is about as routine as it gets, which showed basically that he was an ordinary mortal, was not superhuman, that he was no longer a threat."

The US also ensured that Iraqi officials from the fledging administration in Baghdad were closely involved in revealing the news to the world that after months of searching the dictator -- who was codenamed "HVT No 1", or "High-Value Target No 1", and was also the ace of spades in the US "Most Wanted" deck of cards -- had been found hiding in a hole in the ground across the street from one of his former palaces.

The US wanted to avoid any conspiracy theories getting started and ensure that pictures of the dictator were available regardless of whether he was dead or alive. In the event, the US was gifted with a capture that went off without a single shot being fired, despite Saddam being armed with a pistol and two AK-47s.

When Uday and Qusay Hussein were killed in a hail of bullets, news of their deaths leaked out and rumours began to circulate that the US had in fact not killed the two men, before an official announcement was made.

In the end, gruesome pictures of the two were released to the press creating a public relations nightmare. This time around, with Saddam, the US was able to keep his capture secret for 18 hours after he was taken by US special forces.

Gary Thatcher, who was behind the media strategy and is the director of strategic communications for the Coalition Provision Authority told the New York Times: "I think it's fair to say that we didn't expect the degree of scepticism that we found after Uday and Qusay were killed."

He added: "That it had to be verified by this rather macabre ritual of marching people through the tents and looking at the bodies, that was something we wanted to avoid this time."

Along with Thatcher the media team also included Charles Heatley, a British Provisional Authority spokesman, and officers with special forces and intelligence backgrounds.

However, the New York Times reported that some US media executives were uneasy at having to use US government images, but in the end so strong were they that it was thought it did not matter who had taken them.

"Whether they were released by the government or shot by us, the impact would be the same. Seeing Saddam in a disheveled, disoriented state -- in a potentially or seemingly humiliating state -- was a startling image, even to people as jaded as in the media," Paul Slavin, senior vice-president of ABC News, told the New York Times.

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