ARLINGTON, Va. — Military officials at Central Command’s Tampa, Fla., headquarters cautiously celebrated Sunday the news of Saddam Hussein’s arrest.

“The ace was in a hole,” quipped spokesman Maj. Peter Mitchell.

Saddam, the deposed president of Iraq, topped the U.S. military’s top 55 most wanted former Iraqi leaders — and had been named the ace of spades. He was captured in a 6-foot deep spider hole near a farm hut outside Saddam’s ancestral home of Tikrit.

With the arrest of the 66-year-old former dictator, the Defense list has dwindled by 38 who have been captured or killed.

“There is an atmosphere of measured optimism at CENTCOM — we know that Saddam was likely a source of some of the resistance in that country, but not all of it,” Mitchell said.

“Where we see this will have the most impact is with the Iraqi people, who have seen Saddam as a symbol of oppression. The fact that he was at large was perceived that the coalition was not in complete control.”

This doesn’t mean the troops will let down their guard.

“We will continue to vigorously root out further remnants of the regime; the former criminals still are at large, foreign fighters and extremists,” Mitchell said from CENTCOM headquarters.

“No one here is feeling the sense that the job of security and stability is over.

“We feel that a significant portion of the Baathist remnants that had what they felt was the freedom to operate against coalition forces has lost a lot of the impact.”

An Iraqi tipster, in part, led soldiers from the 4th Infantry Division’s 1st Brigade Combat Team to the spider hole about 8 feet from a farm hut in Ad Dwar, about 9 miles southeast of Tikrit, Mitchell said.

The other ingredient to the capture was a boost in attacks against U.S. forces that sparked vigilant patrols.

“There was increased anti-coalition activity in the area of Ad Dwar … and that immediately raised suspicion and brought more focus to that particular area,” Mitchell said.

The U.S. government set up a $25 million reward for information leading to Saddam. It was too early to say Sunday whether the tipster would get all of that money, he said.

“We got a tip from an Iraqi source, and if it is determined that this tip led to his capture, it is expected the individual would be awarded handsomely,” he said.

Saddam was in U.S. custody Sunday at an undisclosed location in Iraq, Mitchell said.

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