For years he had posted his portraits throughout Iraq as an Arab knight riding a white horse in battle against “The Infidel.” His bronze busts presented him as a red-beret “commando.” The title he loved most–he had accumulated hundreds over 30 years of tyrannical rule–was Al-Bassel, which means “the brave one.”
And, yet, this was not how Iraqis, and beyond them the whole world, saw him today.
Saddam Hussein had claimed that he would fight his “Mother of Battles” to the bitter end, and would not be captured alive.
In one of the recent audiotapes attributed to him by the Arab satellite television channel al Jazeera, Saddam promised to fight the Americans until his death on the battlefield.
“I have a gun and I shall use it,” he had warned.
In the event, however, not a single shot was fired during his arrest. Not only did he not fight but he immediately offered his “cooperation.”
“He is in the bag, singing like a canary!”
This is how news of Saddam Hussein’s capture spread throughout Iraq yesterday.
The image that Iraqis saw yesterday was one of a shaky coward, hiding behind a bushy beard, and emerging from a rat hole somewhere near his hometown of Tikrit.
Saddam’s arrest has triggered scenes of jubilation that Iraq had not seen since its liberation six months ago.
“This is splendid news,” said Adnan Pachachi, current president of the Iraq Governing Council. “It shows that the enemies of the people can run but cannot hide for ever.”
It was not only in Baghdad, Basra, and Erbil that the news prompted scenes of euphoric joy. People were dancing in the streets even in the so-called Sunni Triangle which some have wrongly described as a base of support for the fallen dictator.
It may take months for the full impact of the final demise of Saddam to become fully apparent in Iraq and other Arab countries. His was the most brutal of the one-party regimes that the Arabs developed from the 1950s onwards. His rule affected almost every Iraqi. There is hardly an Iraqi family that did not lose at least one, member to Saddam’s death machine. And that includes Saddam’s own family. He murdered dozens of his own relatives, including both his sons-in-laws, two of his grandsons, a supposedly “favorite” uncle, and several cousins.
His victims included not only Shiites, Kurds, the Marsh Arabs and the Yazidis, but also Arab Sunnis. The Iraqi army itself was one of his victims; he killed thousands of officers. Even the ruling Baath party was a victim of Saddam’s terror. Of the 16 members of the Baath top leaders in 1968, only one was alive in 2003: Saddam Hussein. All others had been murdered by him inside or outside Iraq.
Some wonder why was Saddam captured at this time.
One reason is that it was only three or four weeks ago that the U.S.-led Coalition began seriously looking for him. A special task force was assigned to hunt down Saddam and the remaining figures on the notorious “pack of cards.”
Another reason is that the hunt, previously confined to the Coalition, was reorganized to give Iraqis a greater role. The actual, arrest was carried out by American troops. But the intelligence that led to it came from Iraqi individuals, including Sunni Muslims, both Kurds and Arabs. This was a joint U.S.-Iraqi operation, and an example of what could be achieved when the two work together.
Will Saddam’s arrest bring the current terrorist campaign to an end?
Hidden in his hole, Saddam could not have exercised effective leadership over the terror networks. His capture could dishearten some of the Baathist criminals who might hope for a restoration. But others would continue their terror to plunge the country into chaos and escape punishment for their crimes. There are also dozens of non-Iraq Arab terrorists who have gone to Iraq to kill Americans because it is becoming harder for them to do so in other places, including the U.S. itself. To these must be added Mafia-style groups who, having lost control of the black market that was created by the UN sanctions, have an interest in preventing stabilization.
Saddam’s arrest may have other effects, some negative, and some positive.
First the negative possible effects:
‐The removal of the fear that he may one day come back to power could end the restraint that many Iraqis have exercised in expressing themselves since liberation. They may now wish to come out with the 1,001 grievances that they have accumulated over decades, posing demands that would be hard to meet in a short time.
‐The Shiites and the Kurds who had measured their every move so as not to weaken the Coalition may now become bolder in pursuit of their own political agendas. With the unifying fear of Saddam gone they may be tempted to put their sectarian agendas above a broader national strategy.
‐For the same reason, Iran and Syria, who did not wish to Saddam return to power in any form, may also adopt a more hostile attitude towards the Coalition. Their hope would be to force the U.S. out and thus seize control of the agenda for a future Iraqi government.
‐The Arab powers, which also did not wish to see Saddam restored, may now throw their weight behind an alternative Arab Sunni leadership and try to play the ethnic-sectarian card in Iraqi politics.
On the positive side: Saddam’s arrest could persuade many Iraqis that it is now safe to come out and work with the Coalition and the Governing Council. An Arab proverb says: He who congratulates the victor on the first day is a fool, he who does so on the second day is an opportunist, but he who does it on the third day is a wise man. Saddam’s arrest may persuade many Iraqis that the “third day” has dawned. This is especially true of Sunni Arabs some of whom had adopted a wait-and-see attitude.
The arrest could provide valuable information that only Saddam possessed. His was a highly centralized power-structure in which only the chief knew exactly what was going on. The information that he is apparently offering could lead to a speedier dismantling of the terror organizations.
The end of the Saddam saga could persuade some Arab powers, notably those in the Persian Gulf, that it is time to recognize the Governing Council in Baghdad as the legitimate authority in Iraq. This could come as early as next week when the Gulf Cooperation summit is held in Kuwait.
Several European powers, notably France and Russia, may now realize that there is no possibility of Saddam or any of his supporters returning to power in Baghdad and that it is in their best interests to help with Iraq’s stabilization, or at least, refrain from acts designed to undermine it. By the same token, some countries that hesitated to contribute peacekeeping troops to Iraq may now be more willing to do so, if only out of pure opportunism.
The Governing Council and the Coalition would have to move fast to set a timetable for the trial of the Baathist leaders, including Saddam. Ideally, the trials should begin early next year, and certainly before power is transferred from the Coalition to a new Iraqi transition government. The special tribunal set up by the Governing Council last week is the perfect framework within which to hold the trials.
Some Western nostalgics of Saddam in Paris and London have suggested that the fallen tyrant be tried by the recently created International Criminal Court.
Their suggestion is prompted by two considerations. First, the United States is not included in the ICC, and thus would not be able to play a part in interrogating Saddam. The second is that the ICC would not be able to try Saddam for all his crimes since July 17, 1968, the date at which his Baath party seized power in a military coup d’etat. (The ICC’s remit is limited to crimes committed since its own creation in 2002.)
Saddam has countless questions to answer.
Some are of special interest to the people of Iraq. Most urgently, he must provide information on the fate of some 13,000 Iraqis classified as “missing” after being arrested by his secret police.
Then he must provide his narrative of 35 years of criminal rule that led to four foreign wars, two civil wars, and countless smaller conflicts in which some 1.5 million people, including many Iranians and Kuwaitis, died. So far the United Nations has discovered some 300,000 corpses in mass graves throughout Iraq. But many more corpses are still missing, including victims of chemical weapons. He is also responsible for driving some 4.5 million Iraqis, almost a fifth of the nation’s population, out of their homes. In the Kurdish areas alone he presided over the destruction of over 400 villages in the 1980s.
Saddam must also tell the Iraqis what he did with their money. During the Baath party’s 35-year rule, Iraq earned nearly $300 billion from oil exports. It also received some $50 billion in the form of gifts from the Arab oil-states of the Persian Gulf. And, yet, when Saddam fell Iraq had a foreign debt of over $120 billion. Bearing in mind that he built virtually no infrastructure apart from his 25 palaces, he will have a lot of explaining to do.
The outside world would be interested in what Saddam would have to say on other issues as well.
First, Saddam must provide answers to the 29 questions asked by Hans Blix, the chief U.N. weapons’ inspector in his last report on 7 March 2003, about Iraq’s missing weapons of mass destruction. Saddam should tell the world where those weapons are and, if they did not exist, why had he refused to answer Blix’s questions, thus pretending that they did exist.
Second, Saddam should tell the world which Western governments and corporations helped him build his death machine. He must also tell the world which European, and Arab, politicians, businessmen, bankers, media people, and so-called “peace activists” he bribed over the years.
Finally, he should tell all he knows about the two dozen or so terrorist organizations that he trained, financed, and sheltered for decades. Initially, Saddam may not have had a direct link with the al Qaeda gang. But several of the groups that he supported, and allowed headquarters in Baghdad, certainly did. And it is almost certain that, after the year 2000, he allowed at least one al Qaeda affiliated group, the Ansar al-Islam, to set up two bases in Iraq.
All those questions, however, must be left for another day.
“I don’t want to talk politics today,” said an Iraqi a friend reached over the telephone in Baghdad yesterday.
He quoted lines by Jahiz, an Arab poet of the pre-Islamic era:
The dragon that hid the moon is gone,
The bloodsucker has vanished into the abyss.
Let me taste this day like the ripest of dates,
And come tomorrow to talk about the days to come.
The sentiment was shared by many Iraqis. Some Arabs, however, felt despondent not because they had any affection for Saddam Hussein but because, prompted by tribal reflex, did not wish to see an Arab chief captured like a thief, although they know he was one.
Nevertheless, attempts at putting the machine of conspiracy theories in full gear failed quickly. Claims by some Arab TVs that the man captured was one of Saddam’s doubles were quickly laughed of screen. Then came the rumor that Saddam had not fought because he had made a deal with the U.S.-led Coalition. But what deal? The Arab answer was: a deal under which Saddam will be tried by an international court, rather than an Iraqi tribunal. But that, too, quickly proved false as the Governing Council announced it would try Saddam in Baghdad. Yet another rumor was that a Kurdish group had managed to drug the kebabs sent to Saddam in his hole, which explains why the dictator appeared somewhat dazed when captured.
But that rumor, too, did not fly. There was no way that any Kurdish group would organize a take-away kebab service for Saddam. But when his trial opens there will be many Kurds who would have many questions to ask him.
–Amir Taheri is an Iranian author of 10 books on the Middle East and Islam. He’s reachable through www.benadorassociates.com.