After Saddam's Capture the Crowns Sit Lightly

There was dancing and singing in the streets of Baghdad and giddy jubilation in the holy Shiite city of Najaf to the south.

There was dancing and singing in the streets of Baghdad and giddy jubilation in the holy Shiite city of Najaf to the south.  Even in Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's hometown, the citizenry seemed to heave a collective sigh of relief.  Yet, despite the almost universal Iraqi euphoria, the longer term impact of Saddam's capture remains uncertain, both at home and throughout the Muslim world.

Saddam, the dreaded, despised and deposed president of Iraq, on the lam since US forces liberated Baghdad on April 19, had been arrested.  "Caught" better describes the bizarre conditions in which units of the U.S. Army's 4th Infantry Division captured the man who, at 66, had been involved in Iraqi politics for half a century, his country's tyrannical dictator for 35 years and star-crossed commander of Iraq's armed forces through four horrific wars. 

Baghdad observers, Sunni and Shiite alike, were aghast at Saddam's performance, on emerging from his rat-like lair.  Disquieting as his disheveled looks and disoriented expression were, the pacific, pathetic way in which he surrendered shocked Iraq's 25 million citizens.  In quavering tones, Saddam, the man who often bragged about knowing no English, said "Don't shoot!  I am the President of Iraq....  I am ready to negotiate."

Fittingly in his home town of Tikrit, Saddam ended his political career at an even lower point than he had launched it: a fugitive lying on his back in a stinking underground lair, given over to the Americans by family and friends thoroughly disillusioned with the man who had been their despotic leader for what seemed an eternity.  Saddam had launched his political career with a bang in 1954 by committing his first murder and in 1959, in a humble hut, he conceived his initial plans to take over power.

He had disguised himself in a beard once before.  Sporting fake whiskers and dressed like a shepherd he fled to Syria in 1959, having shot and wounded the revered Iraqi leader Abdul Kareem Qassem, in an abortive attempt by the Ba'ath party to assume power.  At the time of his arrest last week, the beard was real and the formerly sham shepherd looked the part of a genuinely defeated, tired old man.

This time, there was no disguising it: Saddam Hussein was finished.

Local Arabic language newspapers waxed jubilant at Saddam's capture.  Baghdad, published by the Iraqi National Accord Movement, said, "Following Saddam's arrest, there are calls for making December 14 a national holiday."  A separate article noted that "Saddam ruled the country with an iron fist, then fell, humiliated," noting further that, "At the end, the symbol of dictatorship was captured, creating relief for the Americans, support from the French, congratulations from the Germans and a welcome from the Kuwaitis."

Writer Mahdi al-Hafiz in Al Nahdah, published by the Iraqi Independent Democrat Group, observed in an article entitled The End of a Dark Chapter: "Sunday marked the end of the kingdom of fear … unique in its ugly crimes of terrorism, violence and mass murder."  Another article by journalist Sadiq Bakhan was titled "And the Monster Fell Into the Trap," also noting numerous calls for observing December 14 as an Iraqi national holiday.

In a telephone interview with a leading Cairo radio station, the official spokesman of Iraq's Islamic Al-Dawah Party, Jawad al-Malki, said, "… We have suffered painful wounds inflicted by Saddam.  For example, he signed a decree on 31 March 1980 ordering the execution of all Al-Dawah Party members, and all people promoting our party's ideas or concealing our secrets."

The radio interview with Al-Malki was one of the few public reactions in Egypt's tightly controlled press.  The leading newspaper Al-Ahram, for example, simply ran a front page photo of the captured Saddam under the headline: "Arrested."  The virtually non-opinionated nature of Egyptian media coverage was seen by Cairo observers as a sign of President Hosni Mubarak's difficult position.  In nominally democratic control of the Arab World's largest country for 22 years, the autocratic Mubarak must balance his concern for the longevity of his government in the face of mounting popular unrest, at the same time as he fears offending his financial angel, the United States.  The interim solution: direct the muzzled press to report the fact blandly, with no interpretation, whatever.

The fall with a mighty thud of the Middle East's most notorious despot and the possibility of a serious democracy replacing him, is terribly unsettling to despots as diverse as those residing in Cairo, Damascus, Riyadh and Tripoli, as well as in Yasser Arafat's corrupted Palestinian satrapy based in Ramallah.  The dictators running Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Libya have run their countries as if they owned them.  Moreover, they are so enamored by the treasure and trappings of power that they either have or are seeking to create family dynasties to rule their nations.

Not unreasonably, this tendency is increasingly unpopular in the street.  Thus, each of the governments [barring Palestine's Arafat, whose wife and daughter reside in Parisian splendor] is faced with the same dilemma: how to reform, without being resoundingly sacked by their restive citizens. 

An American expert on Islam, Robert Spencer, author most recently of "Onward Muslim Soldiers", described the regional impact of Saddam's capture as one of "shock, disbelief, shame and anger, no matter what they may say for public consumption."  He noted that the London-based pan Arab newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat [funded and owned by members of the Saudi royal family and previously anti-Saddam], reflected its owners' fears as well as the hypocritical attitude of a many Arabs with its headline announcing Saddam's arrest: "Insult to Arab Honor."