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Beyond Saddam Hussein

Print edition : Jan 02, 2004 T+T-

With the capture of Saddam Hussein the Americans have taken over the most powerful symbol of Arab resistance. Now the question is: what next for his war-ravaged country?

THE dramatic capture of Saddam Hussein on December 13 near his hometown of Tikrit provided the morale-booster the occupation forces of the United States were badly in need of. The preceding week was not too good for the Americans. A third of the police conscripts trained by them quit before doing even a day's work. Before news of Saddam's capture leaked out, a suicide attack on a police post near Baghdad killed more than 17 Iraqi policemen. President George W. Bush had known about Saddam's capture almost a day before the formal announcement was made by Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator of Iraq. "Ladies and gentlemen, we got him. This is a great day for Iraq's history," a gloating Bremer told the media in Baghdad. Six hundred soldiers belonging to an elite Army division, formed expressly to hunt down Saddam and his close associates, finally zeroed in on their target on the banks of the Tigris, near the village of Ad-Dawr in the Tikrit area. According to the Americans, Saddam was hiding in an 8 x 6 feet hole in a house belonging to a shepherd family.

Saddam had been on American hit list ever since the start of the first Gulf War. On several occasions, the American propaganda machine had prematurely predicted his demise. Hundreds of innocent lraqis were killed in the American attempts to liquidate Saddam. In the first Gulf War, a children's shelter was bombed in the mistaken assumption that Saddam and his close associates were holed up there. During the American invasion of Iraq, an upmarket residential area of Baghdad was bombed, killing innocent Iraqis.

Arab diplomats say that the end game for Saddam Hussein had started when Baghdad fell without a semblance of a fight being put up by the Iraqi Army. "It was not only the Americans, but also many Iraqis wanted Saddam Hussein eliminated," said a diplomat. Saddam's capture was celebrated by sections of the Kurds and Shias in many parts of Iraq. Supporters of the Iraqi Communist Party too had reasons to celebrate Saddam's capture. These three groups had borne the brunt of state repression during the three-and-a-half-decade-long Baathist rule. After Saddam went underground, he was reportedly moving around with only a couple of trusted bodyguards and was dependent on help from close family members. "Once you are out of power, nobody will protect you. He had only scattered groups of people fighting in his name," said an Arab diplomat. As the last six months have shown, the people of Tikrit and the so-called Sunni triangle have generally been very supportive of him.

The killing of his two sons, Uday and Qusay, in Mosul, after a six-hour-long gun battle with the American special forces, was an ominous precedent. They too were betrayed by a close relative in whose house they were staying. From available indications, Saddam, according to most reports, was also betrayed by a close relative, who was eager to pocket the $25- million reward. Some Arab diplomats feel that Saddam could have been surprised by the sudden American swoop on his hideout, described by American officials as a "rat hole". They point out to his track record and say that it was unlike him to surrender.

In his early days, Saddam had shown a courageous streak, personally taking part in an assassination bid against a former Iraqi President. He praised the deaths of Uday and Qusay, saying that if he had hundred sons, they would have all gone down fighting.

The diplomats point to Saddam's defiant stance after being captured. He defended all his actions while in power, saying that all what he did was for the unity of the Iraqi state. A member of the puppet Iraqi Interim Council questioned Saddam after his capture about the invasion of Kuwait. Saddam's reply was that every self-respecting Iraqi believed that Kuwait was part of Iraq.

The Americans had long suspected that he was in the area around Tikrit. Tikrit wore a look of a town in mourning after the news of the capture of its favourite son leaked out. According to a diplomatic observer, Tikritis were all the more upset "because the betrayal came from a close relative and fellow Tikriti".

Arab diplomats point out that the American victory would only have been perceived as complete by Iraqis only if the President of Iraq had surrendered, captured or been killed. Saddam is also an important symbol for the Arab world. Despite his flaws and strategic miscalculations, he stood up to the Americans in the last decade and was the implacable foe of Zionism. "To some extent, Saddam was a measure of the depth of the region's alienation from the West. He symbolised the anger, he symbolised the divide", according to James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute in Washington.

The Arab street remained shocked by the news of Saddam's capture. The Arab people had not come to terms with the fact that an Arab government was overthrown by America - the friend and protector of Israel. The humiliating visuals of Saddam repeatedly broadcast by Western media outlets will no doubt further wound the Arab psyche. Saddam's final political demise will be seen in West Asia and the rest of the Muslim world as another sign of Arab impotence and humiliation at the hands of the West.

"It is a psychological victory for the Americans. Since April 9, after the regime folded in Baghdad, the symbol of the regime was still there. Now that has come to an end. To a large extent, the Iraqi regime was based on the personality of one person," said an Arab diplomat. He, like many others, was surprised, that Saddam was captured alive. The diplomat said that he was not too sure about Saddam Hussein's capture having an adverse impact on the resistance movement. He pointed out that the American military officials in Iraq have admitted that Saddam did not seem to be involved in the planning of the insurgency.

American officials, who captured an unkempt and haggard Saddam Hussein, said that they found no communications equipment, maps or other evidence that Saddam was controlling the insurgency. "This is significant and disturbing because it means the insurgents are not fighting for Saddam, they're fighting against the United States," Jay Rockefeller, Vice-Chairman of the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee, was quoted as saying. Many Arab diplomats are of the opinion that the other groups, including Baath Party members, will keep on fighting. "The military resistance will continue. It does not matter whether they kill one American soldier every day or one every week. One military operation a day is sufficient to keep the pressure on the American occupation forces," said a diplomat.

George Bush and his advisers seem to be aware that they still have a fight on their hands in Iraq. "The capture of Saddam Hussein does not mean an end to the violence in Iraq," Bush told the American people in a nationwide address soon after the formal announcement of the Iraqi leader's capture. In his speech, he again alluded to the unproven connection between Saddam and terrorist groupings like Al Qaeda. The U.S. President was trying to provide a rationale for the continuing presence of American troops in Iraq.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair was quick to grab the media spotlight after the news of Saddam's capture came out. Blair said that Saddam's capture "was good news for the people of Iraq. It removes the shadow that was hanging over them for too long of the nightmare of a return to the Saddam regime".

Similar views were expressed by the other close allies of the U.S., such as Australia, Spain and Japan. Interestingly, one of the first people to hail the capture of Saddam was the German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. Schroeder, who had opposed the invasion of Iraq, hoped that Saddam's capture would "help the international community's efforts to rebuild and transform Iraq". French President Jacques Chirac another critic of the Iraq war, also joined in by saying that it was "a major event which should strongly contribute to the democratisation and stabilisation of Iraq and allow the Iraqis to be once more masters of their destiny in a sovereign Iraq". Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov also expressed similar views. The President of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, while cautiously welcoming the developments, said that the Americans should now speedily hand over power to the Iraqi people as the threat of Saddam returning to power was a non-existent one.

The only Arab countries that effusively praised Saddam's capture were Kuwait, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. "Very few people in power in the Arab world will say that they are sorry for Saddam because of the reality on the ground," said an Arab diplomat. However, a member of an Islamist Party in the Jordanian Parliament, Azzam Hneidi, openly sympathised with Saddam, saying that he was among the rare breed of Arab leaders who stood up to the West. Palestinians remember that Saddam was their consistent supporter and material benefactor. "It is a black day in history. I am saying so not because Saddam is an Arab but because he is the only man who said `no' to American injustice in the Middle East," a Palestinian told a Western news agency in Gaza. Iraq, under Saddam Hussein, was the only Arab country that could fire Scud missiles into Israel during the 1990 Gulf War.

The Indian government has been cautious in its reaction. Saddam Hussein, after all, was the only Arab leader who publicly and consistently supported the Indian position on Kashmir. Once, when there was a critical shortfall in India's petroleum reserves, Saddam Hussein ordered that Iraqi oil on the high seas be diverted to India. The Iraqi Army and Air Force were to a large extent trained by Indians.

With Saddam Hussein in their custody, it should now be easy for the Americans to discover the caches of "weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq. It was after all the raison d'etre of the war in Iraq. Instead, Bush has started hedging and is instead trying to shift the focus on to the crimes and atrocities that occurred during the rule of the Baath Party. An Iraqi War Crimes Tribunal was set up in the second week of December by the Interim Council for the express purpose of trying publicly the top Iraqi politicians who are in American custody. Bush and Blair do not want Saddam to go to an international tribunal. Another former head of state is currently incarcerated in the Hague, facing trial on war crimes charges. Slobodan Milosevic, while defending himself, has effectively highlighted the double standards the West adopted in the Balkans. If Saddam was to be produced in front of an international war crimes tribunal, he will have more interesting tales to tell.

Saddam is accused of presiding over the killing of more than 290,000 Iraqis. He could very well argue that the economic blockade of Iraq instigated by the West itself cost the lives of more than a million Iraqis.

Saddam could deeply embarrass the West if he gets an opportunity to delve into the intimate relations Baghdad enjoyed with Washington, London and Paris from the early 1980s. He seized power with American approval in 1979. The next year, he promptly invaded Iran at the behest of Washington. In 1982, U.S. President Ronald Reagan removed Iraq from the list of countries supporting terrorism. The current U.S. Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, visited Iraq in 1983 as senior official in the Reagan administration. He had a long meeting with Saddam when the Iran-Iraq war was at its height. After the visit, the U.S. military-industrial complex made a "killing" by supplying the Iraqi armed forces. American warships helped the Iraqi armed forces to destroy some Iranian oil platforms in the Persian Gulf and help break the Iranian naval blockade of the Iraqi fleet. Saddam's capture will be used by the American propaganda machine to divert attention from the illegal occupation.

George Galloway, the anti-war British parliamentarian, has said that people like Tony Blair will have to face the consequences of their actions in Iraq. "Because the truth is the country was taken to war on the basis of a lie," he told the British media.

Saddam's incarceration formally signals also the end of a secular enterprise in the Arab world. Saddam was inspired by pan-Arab nationalism. The goal of the Baath Party was to achieve independence from the West and revive the spirit of Arab nationalism. This ran contrary to the goals of the radical Islamists who wanted to unify Arabs under the banner of the Islamic faith. Until recently, Saddam Hussein was among the most reviled figures in the Islamist lexicon. It was Saddam's decision to invade Kuwait that prompted Osama bin Laden to quit Saudi Arabia and start the Al Qaeda network. Bin Laden feared that Saddam would bring the Arabian peninsula under the sway of secular pan-Arab nationalism if he was allowed to have his way in Kuwait.