Iraq Analysis: Ace In The Hole

A video image of captured former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein is displayed at a news conference in Baghdad Sunday, Dec. 14, 2003 in this image from television. AP /APTN

CBSNews.com Editorial Director Dick Meyer looks at the implications of the Saddam Hussein capture.


One of the great manhunts in modern history ended in a hole.

There was no courageous final stand, no going out with a blaze of glory, no death surrounded by loyal martyrs.

There was only a disheveled dictator on the run, hiding in a "spider hole" six to eight feet under the ground with just enough room for a man to lie down. The Ace of Spades, Saddam Hussein was alive, but the "spider hole" might as well have been the coffin that the menace Saddam Hussein inflicted on Iraq and the world was buried in.

Saddam's formal grip on power ended more than eight months ago. We don't yet know how much influence he exerted over the resistance to American forces in Iraq since May. But his capture in a dirty pit is a powerful psychological moment for Iraq, for the U.S. and for the Middle East.

What comes out of this symbolic moment will likely be as unpredictable as everything else that has happened between Iraq and America. The important arenas, however, are obvious:

Iraq

The million-dollar question is will Saddam's capture curtail violent resistance?

"We do not expect at this point in time that we will have a complete elimination of those attacks," Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez told a news conference in Baghdad. Asked if he expected attacks to avenge Saddam's arrest, Sanchez said, "Do I expect an increase in retaliation? I don't know, but we're prepared."

The United States and Britain clearly hope Saddam's capture will help tame the resistance and immediately tried to use the news to that effect. There was no delay in putting out videotape of the captured and starkly defiled dictator for all the world, and all Iraq, to see. Iraqi officials were even taken to see Saddam with their own eyes.

And in remarks following Saddam's capture, both British Prime Minister Tony Blair in London and U.S. administrator Paul Bremer in Baghdad urged resistance fighters to put down their arms.

"The tiny minority of Iraqis who wanted Saddam back," said Blair, "must now know that their cause is a futile one; and assorted foreign terrorists who have entered Iraq, whose greatest fear is that a new Iraq spells the end of their vile campaign of terror and propaganda against the Arab and the Western world working in partnership together."

At least some measure of how the Iraqi people greeted the news could be seen in the briefing room where Bremer made the official announcement. Iraqi journalists in the audience stood, pointed and shouted "Death to Saddam!" and "Down with Saddam!"

The allies also hope, of course, that the Iraqi people feel safer knowing that Saddam has finally been captured. "For the Baathist hold-outs largely responsible for the current violence, there will be no return to the corrupt power and privilege they once held," said President Bush. "For the vast majority of Iraqi citizens who wish to live as free men and women, this event brings further assurance that the torture chambers and the secret police are gone forever. And this afternoon, I have a message for the Iraqi people: You will not have to fear the rule of Saddam Hussein ever again."

Adnan Pachachi, a 81-year-old Sunni aristocrat and member of Iraq's U.S.-appointed Governing Council, said Saddam's capture will bring stability to Iraq.

"The state of fear, intelligence and oppression is gone forever," Pachachi said. "The Iraqi people are very happy and we look forward to a future of national reconciliation between Iraqis in order to build the new and free Iraq, an Iraq of equality."

Other countries in the region, such as Saudi Arabia, also hope for some new stability in Iraq. Saudi Ambassador to the United States Prince Bandar bin Sultan said, "The capture of Saddam Hussein will end an infamous chapter of history for Iraq and the region. Saddam Hussein was a menace to the Arab world, and his reign of terror will be remembered for its brutality, aggression and oppression. His capture is another step in Iraq's path toward peace and unity for all of its people."

But lessened fear of Saddam, however, will not necessarily translate into greater acceptance of the American presence or a new regime of Iraqi leaders.

Resistance fighters appear to have many motives and sponsors. For aspiring jihadists, Americans occupying an Iraq will be an attractive target regardless of the fate of Saddam.

Initial reaction gathered by reporters in Arab countries underscores that.

"Saddam is a dictator and the Iraqi people suffered under him, but on the other hand, it was the (American) occupation that caught him," Mohammed Horani, a legislator with the Palestinian Parliament, said in the Gaza Strip. "There will be a sense of confusion in the public."

Samer Saado, an employee at a Damascus flower shop, said he didn't care about Saddam but felt overwhelming sadness for Iraq and the entire Arab world. "What the Americans are doing in Iraq and everywhere else is humiliating. There's nothing to say we're not next in line," he said.

Those doubts and resentments will still flourish in Iraq.

Bush

For President Bush, Saddam's capture may mark the elimination of a failure more than an enduring success.

In a war intended to rid the world of a dangerous despot, the failure to capture Saddam was a conspicuous embarrassment. The mantra, "Where's Saddam?" had become an effective two-word indictment of the Mr. Bush's Iraq policy delivered daily by Democratic presidential candidates. No more.

That does not mean, of course, that President's Bush's critics or the Democratic candidates will go away or even quiet down. "Where's Osama?" will simply be chanted louder and more frequently. But Saddam's capture erased one important worry.

The search for weapons of mass destruction will continue, and continue to muster controversy. For Bush's critics, the lack of proof that Saddam had the threatening weapons will continue to undermine the administration's justification for war.

But the ultimate symbol of Iraqi defiance and danger, Saddam Hussein, has now been vanquished and rendered harmless. It is a powerful symbol of victory. With that success in the bag, the president now has nearly a year before the election to hone his case with much greater agility.

The capture of Saddam Hussein must have a special sweetness for the Bush family. Whether the admit it publicly or not, Americans have watched two presidents named Bush feud and maneuver with this cruel but sometimes comical dictator for some thirteen years.

War on Terrorism

Public Enemy Number One is in the cooler. So Public Enemy Two, Osama bin Laden, gets the top spot.

Will the achievement of this huge symbolic goal, the capture of Saddam, allow the U.S. to focus more of Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda and Israel-Palestinian peace process?

If the violence against Americans in Iraq does not diminish, it will remain the administration's preoccupation. But certainly one huge diversion from the broader war on terror -- the Saddam manhunt -- has been removed. And according to CBS News Analyst Fouad Ajami, a Middle East scholar, Iraq's neighbors and America's more skeptical allies are now more likely to believe the U.S. has some "mastery" over the situation in Iraq.

In Afghanistan, said Sunday the arrest might blunt the growing insurgency here. They also speculated that Saddam's capture after seven months on the run could make it easier to catch the world's other top fugitive - al Qaeda mastermind Osama bin Laden.

"This is obviously good news for the people of Iraq who suffered for so long under Saddam's tyrannical regime and it is a warning to all the other outlaws who are at large like bin Laden, (Taliban chief) Mullah Omar and (renegade warlord) Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who hopefully sooner or later will be brought to justice," Omar Samad, a spokesman for the Afghan Foreign Ministry, told The Associated Press.

But reminder of how ineradicable Islamist terrorism is came soon.

Within hours of the announcement of Saddam's capture, a bomb exploded where a motorcade carrying Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf passed by minutes before. Musharraf earned the wrath of hard-line Islamic groups after he choose to abandon the Taliban regime of neighboring Afghanistan and back the U.S.-led war against Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda regime.


  • Dick Meyer

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