Future Uncertain as Saddam Unearthed
by Jim Lobe
December 15, 2003

U.S. President George W. Bush celebrated a second victory in Iraq here Sunday with confirmation that occupation forces had captured fugitive former president Saddam Hussein on Saturday evening at a farmhouse outside Tikrit.

But even the normally cocky U.S. commander-in-chief, who addressed the nation by television from the White House, stressed that the former Iraqi dictator's arrest will not mean a quick end to the occupation's armed resistance.

"The capture of Saddam Hussein does not mean the end of violence in Iraq," Bush declared solemnly at the conclusion of a short statement that described Saddam's detention as "crucial to the rise of a free Iraq."

Bush's resignation to more resistance reflected much of the reaction to the day's news, as lawmakers and analysts described the capture as a potentially major breakthrough that would not necessarily, however, prove decisive.

Indeed, some specialists warned even before Sunday's announcement that Saddam's death or detention would prove largely irrelevant to the difficult problems faced by US and coalition forces in Iraq, both because loyalty to Hussein – or even to his Ba'ath Party – had ceased to be a catalyst for the insurgency long before and because the complex internal political situation in Iraq has begun to fuel more tension and violence in any event.

Some even suggested that Saddam's capture might actually create new problems for the occupation by empowering sectors in the country's Shi'a community to test the occupation and back up their demands for direct elections to a new Iraqi government with more militant tactics.

"Now that it is perfectly clear that (Hussein) is finished," noted Iraq specialist Juan Cole, who teaches history at the University of Michigan, "the Shiites may be emboldened."

"Those (Shiites) 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," Cole wrote on his website Sunday.

Saddam, of course, had been target number one for US invasion forces, who actually tried to kill him in two "decapitation" air strikes in the course of the war. US commanders expressed great confidence that they were closing in on the former president after his two sons, Uday and Qsay, were killed in a four-hour shootout at a house where they were hiding in Mosul.

But over the days and weeks that followed, the trail apparently went cold, although US military officials told reporters consistently they believed Saddam had gone to ground somewhere around Tikrit.

In the end, that proved to be correct; tipped off by Iraqi informants, US commanders said they found him in what they described as a 2 x 2.5 m. "spider hole" built under a farmhouse outside the city where Saddam grew up.

The bearded fugitive reportedly offered no resistance to US troops, and Iraqi political leaders who were taken to the scene Sunday described his attitude as defiant. Videotape taken by his US captors showed him being examined by medics, possibly for head lice.

Commanders said they did not broadcast his capture until they could determine positively through DNA testing that it was indeed the former dictator.

Although military commanders have long insisted that resistance to the occupation was being carried out primarily by "Saddam loyalists," they had never ascribed to him any actual leadership role, apart from his status as a symbol, particularly for Ba'athists.

That appeared to be borne out by the circumstances of his capture. Not only was Saddam bedraggled, he also lacked any apparent means of electronic or satellite communication, such as a telephone, with his supporters.

That was noted by some observers, who said it proved the resistance was clearly operating independently of Saddam. "Given the location and circumstances of his capture, it makes clear that Saddam was not managing the insurgency, and that he had very little control or influence," said Senator Jay Rockefeller, the Democratic leader on the Senate Intelligence Committee.

"That is significant and disturbing because it means the insurgents are not fighting for Saddam; they're fighting against the United States," he added.

Other argued that, regardless of Saddam's relevance to resistance operations, his capture was bound to have a demoralizing effect on the insurgents, particularly members of the Ba'ath.

Michael O'Hanlon, a military specialist at the Brookings Institution, told National Public Radio (NPR) the psychological impact of the capture was a "devastating blow to (Saddam's) supporters."

That impact could be more significant on anti-Saddam sectors in Iraq, according to observers, although they failed to agree on whether it would, on balance, favor the occupation.

"I think Saddam's capture will give Iraqis the courage and the psychological boost not to tolerate any more (Saddam loyalists or criminals) within their own society," Judith Kipper, a Middle East specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), told IPS.

At the same time she also stressed that it will not "solve the problem of the insurgency, of the political chaos or of the reconstruction."

Retired Gen. William Nash, also of CFR, told NPR the capture could lead many Iraqis in the so-called Sunni Triangle to cooperate more with occupation authorities. With the achievement of such a key objective, "everybody (will) want to get on the bandwagon," he said.

That might be overly optimistic, according to others – including Cole, who wrote Sunday that Saddam "was probably already irrelevant."

"The Sunni Arab resisters to US occupation in the country's heartland had long since jettisoned Saddam and the Ba'ath as symbols," he stressed.

"They are fighting for local reasons. Some are Sunni fundamentalists, who despised the Ba'ath. 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."

Both this thesis, as well as the administration's continued insistence that the insurgency consists mainly of Saddam and Ba'ath loyalists, criminals, and foreign "jihadis," will be tested in the coming weeks and months.

(Inter Press Service)

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Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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