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December 15, 2003

Saddam Was Already Irrelevant


by Juan Cole

Seeing a captive, disheveled Saddam on television this morning released a cascade of memories for me. I remembered the innocent Jews brutally hung in downtown Baghdad when the Baath came to power in 1968; the fencing with the Shah and the Kurds in the early 1970s; the vicious repression of the Shiites of East Baghdad, Najaf and Karbala in 1977-1980; the internal Baath putsch of 1979, when perhaps a third of the party's high officials were taken out and shot, so that Saddam could become president; the bloody invasion of Iran in 1980 and the destruction of a whole generation of Iraqi and Iranian young men in the 1980s (at least 500,000 dead, perhaps even more); the Anfal poison gas campaign against the Kurds in 1987-88; Halabja, a city of 70,000 where 5,000 died where they stood, their blood boiling with toxic gases, little children lying in heaps in the street; the rape of Kuwait in 1990-91; the genocide against the Shiites that began in spring of 1991 and continued intermittently thereafter; the destruction of the Marsh Arabs; the assassinations, the black marias, the Fedayee Saddam. Yes, the United States was not innocent in some of this. Perhaps they cooperated in bringing the Baath to power in the first place, as an anti-Communist force. They certainly allied with Saddam against Iran in the 1980s, and authorized the purchase of chemical and biological precursors. But the Baath was an indigenous Iraqi phenomenon, and local forces kept Saddam in place, despite dozens of attempts to overthrow him.

A nightmare has ended. He will be tried, and two nations' dirty laundry will be exposed, the only basis on which all can go forward towards a new Persian Gulf and a new relationship with the West.

What is the significance of the capture of Saddam for contemporary Iraqi politics? He was probably already irrelevant.

The Sunni Arab resisters to US occupation in the country's heartland had long since jettisoned Saddam and the Baath as symbols. (See "Sunnis gear up" below.) They are fighting for local reasons. Some are Sunni fundamentalists, who despised the Baath. Others are Arab nationalists who weep at the idea of their country being occupied. Some had relatives killed or humiliated by US troops and are pursuing a clan vendetta. Some fear a Shiite and Kurdish-dominated Iraq will reduce them to second class citizens. They will fight on, as Mr. Bush admitted today.

My wife, Shahin Cole, suggested to me an ironic possibility with regard to the Shiites. She said that many Shiites in East Baghdad, Basra, and elsewhere may have been timid about opposing the US presence, because they feared the return of Saddam. Saddam was in their nightmares, and the reprisals of the Fedayeen Saddam are still a factor in Iraqi politics. Now that it is perfectly clear that he is finished, she suggested, the Shiites may be emboldened. Those who dislike US policies or who are opposed to the idea of occupation no longer need be apprehensive that the US will suddenly leave and allow Saddam to come back to power. They may therefore now gradually throw off their political timidity, and come out more forcefully into the streets when they disagree with the US. As with many of her insights, this one seems to me likely correct.


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    Juan Cole is Professor of History at the University of Michigan. Visit his blog.

     

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