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Reflections on the Capture of Saddam

Seeing a captive, disheveled Saddam on television released a cascade of memories for me. I remembered the innocent Jews brutally hanged 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. 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 Fedayee 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.

The capture of Saddam is probably more important for US politics than for the Iraqis. The Baath Party and the Saddam cult of personality were spent forces by the end of the Gulf War, which was why Saddam was forced to rule by sheer terror. You don't have to put thousands of people in mass graves if you have a large popular mandate. So when Saddam fell, and when the Republican Guard tanks corps disintegrated last April, it was over with. Saddam could never have come back. His actual capture is just a footnote in Iraq. Of course, there are still Baathists, and some of the violence has come from them (as I have repeatedly suggested), but they are a small minority that knows how to rig bombs, not a mass movement.

Robin Wright and Glenn Kessler of the Washington Post have more on the complex tasks that remain in Iraq. I am quoted there saying, "Today represents the beginning of the final struggle for the shape of post-American Iraq. The Baathists were a spent force. But what does inspire Iraqis is the vision of Iraq as part of Arab nationalism or as part of the trend toward Islamic governance. ... With the removal of Saddam, the issue is the shape of Iraq's future, and these are the issues that will come to the fore."

The commentators on cable news shows on Sunday seemed to think that Saddam's capture guarantees Bush's reelection in November of 2004. Well, incumbents have great advantages, and most often do get reelected. But Saddam won't do it for Bush. In a way, the capture came too early for those purposes. It will be a very dim memory in October, 2004.

The Sunni Arab insurgency will continue at least for a while and the possibility that the Shiites will make more and more trouble cannot be ruled out. The US military is stuck in the country for the foreseeable future at something approaching current troop levels. The move to give civil authority to a transitional Iraqi government may not go smoothly. The administration will have to ask Congress for another big appropriation for Iraq sometime before the '04 election, and that won't help Bush's popularity. The Iraqi economy is still a basket case, the oil pipelines are still being sabotaged or looted, and a whole host of everyday problems remain that having Saddam in custody will not resolve. If Iraq is still going this badly in October of 2004, it would be a real drag on the Bush campaign. Yes, I said"this badly." One arrest doesn't turn it around, except in the fantasy world of political theater in which pundits seem to live.

Howard Dean and Wesley Clark were far more gentlemanly about the news than one might have expected. I suppose their handlers told them that capturing Saddam is very popular with the US public, and they had to find a way to applaud it and to avoid seeming petty toward Bush on his day of victory.

But in the coming year the Democratic candidates just have to take off these kid gloves. I'd begin by asking some hard questions about Republican administrations' past relationship with Saddam. Put that photo of Rumsfeld shaking Saddam's hand in 1983 in the commercials; ask hard questions about former Reaganites now serving in the Bush administration who supported Saddam to the hilt while he was gassing Iranian troops and Kurds; find out who authorized the US sale of chemical and biological precursors to Saddam; and be so rude as to bring up the horrible betrayal committed by Bush senior when he stood aside and let Saddam massacre all those Shiites in 1991, after they rose up in response to a Bush call for the popular overthrow of Saddam. The US military could have shot down those helicopter gunships that massacred Shiites in Najaf and Basra. Bush senior clearly told them to let Saddam enjoy his killing fields. And imagine, the Bush administration officials are actually getting photo ops at the mass graves their predecessors allowed to be filled with bodies!

What happened Sunday was that the Republicans captured a former ally, with whom they had later fallen out.