“The enemies of a free Iraq have lost their leader,” said George Bush following the capture of Saddam Hussein. To many people’s eyes, the lone derelict crouching in a six-foot-deep “spider hole” hardly seemed the mastermind of the insurrection. Yes, his capture is good news for the Iraqi people. Their ex-dictator can now be held to account for the fearful crimes and atrocities that pocked his reign–hanging innocent Jews in Baghdad in 1969; ordering a third of Baath Party officials shot in 1979; invading Iran and decimating a generation of young men; gassing the Kurds in 1988; massacring Shiites and marsh Arabs after the first Gulf War; ceaseless arbitrary arrests and executions.
That said, Bush’s incipient triumphalism seems an attempt to inflate the arrest of Saddam into a justification for his illegal war. Saddam’s capture does nothing to justify the war, said Senator Robert Byrd in a speech (full text at www.thenation.com) at the December 14 Nation Institute dinner: “As each day passes and as more American soldiers are killed and wounded in Iraq, I become ever more convinced that the war in Iraq was the wrong war at the wrong time in the wrong place for the wrong reasons.” Bush used his press conference to announce his run for re-election and tout his “extraordinary year” of achievements. He got a temporary boost in popularity out of the capture, and his political strategists are already devising ways to put Democratic critics of the war on the defensive. But neither Howard Dean, who warned that Saddam’s arrest “has not made America safer” (polls say 60 percent agree), nor Dennis Kucinich, who called for ending the occupation and bringing in the UN, was intimidated by slams from the Administration, other Democrats or the punditocracy.
Even the ebullient Bush felt constrained to warn that the fighting in Iraq will not soon be over. (In the twenty-four hours after Saddam’s arrest, at least twenty-six Iraqi police and civilians were killed by car bombs.) Nor will the arrest of Saddam hasten the capture of Osama bin Laden or eliminate a single Al Qaeda cell.
Meanwhile, in Iraq, Reuters reported that “joy at the capture of Saddam Hussein gave way to resentment toward Washington…as Iraqis confronted afresh the bloodshed, shortages and soaring prices of life under US occupation.” The Washington Post noted that “in the towns and villages to the north and west of the capital, where anger at the occupation is most intense, Hussein’s arrest may have little impact on the insurgency.”
At most, the former dictator was a rallying symbol for a restoration, but that prospect instilled dread in the hearts of most Iraqis, who had come to loathe him. Many Iraqis, Sunnis as well as Shiites, may actually feel emboldened to resist US troops now that Saddam has no chance of coming back. As for the Islamists coming in from other countries, they were never fond of Saddam.
Although US military spokesmen play down the attacks as “strategically insignificant,” their continuation seriously hampers Iraq’s reconstruction, undermines GI morale and sways a growing body of Iraqis to blame America for their troubles.
A cheerleading media bought into the triumphalist Bush scenario. On CNN Judy Woodruff asked, “What are the issues left to talk about regarding Iraq?” Well, ending the occupation, for one. The need to seize this moment to internationalize the transition to a sovereign Iraq is ever more pressing, although it seems unlikely. There was speculation that the Administration would use ex-Secretary of State Jim Baker’s debt-moratorium sales mission to smooth ruffled feathers in France, Russia and Germany, angry over being blacklisted for Iraq reconstruction contracts. Warmed by the news of Saddam’s capture, all sides should face-savingly drop past quarrels and contribute to rebuilding Iraq. Some debt reduction is likely, but we doubt this Administration will engage in the serious diplomacy required to eliminate the residue of bad feelings left by its punitive unilateralism. Germany, for example, had an agreement with Washington that it would bolster its troop strength in Afghanistan while staying out of Iraq. The Administration still put it on the blacklist.
There are other issues in Iraq: Will US troops, Iraqi security forces and aid workers continue to be killed or attacked on an almost daily basis? Will Bremer & Co. solve the shortages of power, food, drinking water, housing and jobs? What about the tactics used by US forces–bombing, demolitions, assassinations, nightly raids–that are alienating Iraqis? What form should a free and independent Iraqi government take? What about the oppression of women? How to repair the damage Bush’s interventionism has done to the US constitutional balance of powers? Byrd observed, “Congress allowed the Constitution to become a casualty of the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive strikes…. Congress delegated its constitutional authority [to declare war] to the President and effectively washed its hands of the fate of Iraq.”
Then there is the growing stain of scandal around Iraq’s reconstruction. Stories about Halliburton’s profiteering on gasoline were bumped from the front pages by Saddam’s capture. There must be more such exposés (see Naomi Klein on page 11).
We hope that the trial of Saddam Hussein will be fairly conducted and enable Iraqis to purge their dark past. For Americans the trial should provide some lessons: Neither the overthrow of the Baathist regime nor Saddam’s capture can erase the fact that Washington (and other Western powers) helped prop up Saddam for years. It will be said that such things matter little now that the dictator is in custody. Such a view suits our ethos, our indifference to history; it is also the privilege of the victor to wipe the slate clean and forget the past–but that is a luxury we can ill afford. The rise of Saddam Hussein is as much a part of US history as is his fall.