Prague, 13 December 2004 (RFE/RL) -- When U.S. soldiers pulled Saddam Hussein from a hole on a central Iraqi farm, U.S. officials were upbeat they had reached a turning point in their fight with insurgents.
Hussein presented the very picture of a beaten former leader. He had a long, unkempt beard grown as a disguise and showed the fatigue of months on the run. Although he was armed with a pistol, he was captured without a shot being fired.
Two days after the capture, U.S. President George W. Bush said Hussein's arrest dealt a fatal blow to "anyone hoping to restore the former regime to power." "The capture of this man was crucial to the rise of a free Iraq," Bush said. "It marks the end of the road for him and for all who bullied and killed in his name."
Many U.S. and Iraqi officials say it is clear that the Iraqi insurgency -- with its multiple leaders and motivations -- is too complex to be set back significantly by the capture of one man, even one once as powerful as Hussein.
For a time, it did seem that getting Hussein and a briefcase he was carrying had set back the insurgents. The seized papers indicated that Hussein was in contact with some former regime officials who apprised him on insurgency operations and took some instructions from him.
Ten days after Hussein's capture, Lieutenant Colonel William Adamson, a senior U.S. commander in Iraq, said that partly thanks to that information his troops were successfully hunting down insurgent leaders: "We detained four individuals; one was a major-general of Iraqi intelligence service and then three other individuals [are] all in our custody, going through interrogations."
But if Hussein's capture gave a boost to counterinsurgency efforts early this year, the months that followed have shown that the boost was only temporary.
In April, separate insurgencies in the Sunni central city of Al-Fallujah and in many Shi'a southern cities, including Al-Najaf, produced the bloodiest month for U.S. troops -- 135 killed -- since the invasion of Iraq last year.
During the fighting, U.S.-led forces faced rebels including Hussein-loyalists, Islamists, self-declared nationalists, and foreign militants. It remains unclear what, if anything, unites these groups, apart from a shared hostility toward the Untied States.
Last month, a new high was set when 136 U.S. soldiers died battling insurgents in Al-Fallujah and elsewhere, mostly in central Iraq.
Addressing U.S. Marines at a base in California, U.S. President Bush acknowledged earlier this month that the insurgents are far from defeated: "The enemies of freedom in Iraq have been wounded, but they are not yet defeated. They will keep on fighting and so will the Marine Corps."
Many U.S. and Iraqi officials say it is now clear that the Iraqi insurgency -- with its multiple leaders and motivations -- is too complex to be set back significantly by the capture of one man, even one once as powerful as Hussein.
Iraqi national security adviser Mowaffaq al-Rubaie recently said that other former Ba'athists continue to be active in directing rebel attacks on U.S. and government targets. He said that evidence seized in Al-Fallujah shows that former top Hussein aides orchestrate some operations from Syria and fund them with money smuggled earlier out of Iraq.
But Iraqi security officials also call foreign-born Islamist and Al-Qaeda ally Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi a key insurgent leader. He is believed to possibly cooperate with diehard Ba'athists but to be independent of them. In a sign of Zarqawi's importance, the U.S. is offering a bounty of $25 million for his capture or killing -- the same amount Washington once offered for Hussein.
Yet amid the evidence that diehard Ba'athists and foreign fighters play key roles in the insurgency, some in Iraq say the insurgency is larger than those groups alone.
Muhammad Bashar al-Faydhi, a spokesman for the Muslim Clerics Association, says there is widespread resentment of foreign military occupation that is quite different from any nostalgia for Hussein: "The former regime was an oppressive and dictatorial regime, which had inflicted massive harm on the Iraqi people in order to remain in power. But we know that what will happen is occupation and the occupation hides its ugly face, so we have warned the Iraqi people not to be happy because the future will be worse."
While U.S. and Iraqi government officials seek to defeat the insurgents militarily, there are also efforts to bring at least some rebel leaders into Iraq's political process.
The most notable effort to date has been with radical Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose Al-Mehdi Army supporters have twice launched rebellions in many southern cities and Shi'a-majority areas of Baghdad.
Al-Sadr has agreed to support a unified list of candidates endorsed by pre-eminent Shi'a cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Those candidates will compete in Iraq's first round of post-Hussein elections, scheduled for next month.
Meanwhile, Hussein remains held on a large U.S. military base north of Baghdad. He is reported to be in good health following a prostate operation earlier this year. He is also said to still maintain he is president of Iraq and to refuse to cooperate with interrogators.
U.S. military officials at the base today denied media reports that Hussein has launched a protest fast on the anniversary of his detention. A spokesman said the protest fast is limited to some of 11 other former top Hussein aides confined at the facility separately from the former leader.
Hussein is due to face trial by an Iraqi court for war crimes and crimes against humanity. However, no trial date has yet been set.
He appeared before an Iraqi magistrate in July to hear general charges against him for the first time. The charges include orchestrating the killing of tens of thousands of Iraqi Kurds and Shi'a in crackdowns on rebellions and with the brutal occupation of Kuwait.