Accessibility links

Breaking News

Iraq: Saddam Hussein's Capture A Big Step, But Not A Cure For Insurgency

The capture of Saddam Hussein may be significant, but it may not be enough to end the resistance to the U.S.-led occupation. In fact, just hours after the arrest was announced, explosions tore through downtown Baghdad. And after Saddam Hussein's sons, Qusai and Uday, were killed in August, there was a marked increase in attacks on U.S. and other foreign presences in Iraq.

Washington, 14 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- On a day that might have brought jubilation and even gloating, U.S. President George W. Bush soberly reminded the world that Saddam's arrest is no proof against further fighting in Iraq.

Speaking from the White House yesterday, Bush said: "The capture of Saddam Hussein does not mean the end of violence in Iraq. We still face terrorists who would rather go on killing the innocent than accept the rise of liberty in the heart of the Middle East. Such men are a direct threat to the American people, and they will be defeated."

Analysts interviewed by RFE/RL share this assessment to varying degrees. One is Leon Fuerth, who served as U.S. Vice President Al Gore's national security adviser during the 1990s. He says the effect of Hussein's arrest on the violence depends largely on how directly involved he was in leading the insurgency.

According to Fuerth, if Hussein truly had been in control of the resistance, then it probably would begin collapsing with his arrest. But if the former Iraqi president had been merely a figurehead of a resistance led by others, the attacks against U.S. and other foreign presences in the country may very well continue.

And there is a third possibility. Fuerth said the insurgency could be motivated by what he called a "general terrorist intent" -- that what was once an effort to restore Hussein to power may now have degenerated into terrorism for its own sake.

Judith Kipper takes a slightly less pessimistic view. Kipper is the director of Middle East studies at the Council of Foreign Relations, a private policy-research center based in New York and Washington. She told RFE/RL that the capture of Hussein could have in important, if indirect, effect on Iraq's stability.

"It's certainly going to have a major effect on the Iraqi people, who lived in a state of terror. And now they know for sure that the regime is gone and that may improve the environment psychologically so that people will be able to look to the future, build their lives, and by consequence have an effect on the insurgency," Kipper said.

Meanwhile, at the Baghdad news conference where Saddam Hussein's arrest was announced, Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez noted that Hussein gave up without a fight and was uncharacteristically "talkative" and "cooperative."

This raises the possibility that coalition forces might soon get to the bottom of the controversy that for months has been swirling around Iraq's suspected weapons of mass destruction. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and even Bush himself have been criticized for assertions about Hussein's capabilities, and his intent. These statements are now regarded as inaccurate.

Kipper says Hussein may be cooperating with the Americans now only to make the best of a bad situation, but she does not expect him to be especially helpful when his interrogators begin asking detailed questions about nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons.

According to Fuerth, however, what Hussein might have to say may be startling. He says it is possible that the former Iraqi president may lead U.S. forces directly to the weapons and weapons programs. But he noted that there is this alternative: "What happens if Saddam Hussein does talk about weapons of mass destruction, and what he says is 'I fooled you. They weren't around'? And [what if] he provides some explanation as to why he was prepared to see a U.S. invasion rather than to fess up and allow [UN] inspectors to completely varify their absence? Would we believe him or think that he somehow lying to conceal what there is?"

John Wolfstahl, a former nonproliferation official with the U.S. government, says that before his fall, Hussein played so many bluffs about weapons that it would be impossible to state concretely whether he actually possessed them or not.

What was important to Hussein, according to Wolfstahl, was the perception of his own people, his neighbors in the Middle East and world at large -- particularly the United States and the United Nations, whose inspectors were trying to determine Iraq's weapons capabilities.

In addition, Wolfstahl says, Hussein himself may have been unsure about his own military capabilities. He told RFE/RL that his military leaders may have given him exaggerated progress reports on weapons programs to make him feel powerful, or to prevent his disappointment, or both.

In any case, however, Wolfstahl says, Hussein liked to give the world the impression -- whether valid or not -- that his arsenal contained many exotic and powerful arms. "For example, we've interrogated a lot of Saddam's field commanders, all of whom were absolutely convinced that they did not have weapons of mass destruction, but were equally convinced that the next commander over in the region had [the weapons], and each said the same thing about the other," he said. "So Saddam clearly wanted his own people to think that he had these weapons, while at the same time trying to tell the international community that he didn't. So President Bush has been using false information, misinformation, but that was directly as a result of what Saddam and his own people were putting out."

Ultimately, Wolfstahl says, he believes that when the war began in March, Hussein had what is called a "surge capability" with weapons of mass destruction, allowing him to stop production in order to appease UN inspectors, but ready to "surge" into quick production once the inspectors left.

Now that Hussein is in U.S. custody, he most certainly will be put on trial. But it is unclear as yet who will prosecute him: the United States or the Iraqis.

Fuerth -- the former Gore aide -- says that to many Iraqis, there is not much distinction between Hussein and the Iraqi state, and that raises the question of whether Hussein would be regarded as a martyr if he were to be put to death.

According to Fuerth, Hussein is bound to use a trial as a platform from which to present his life and deeds in the most positive light, presumably as the man who stood up for Iraqis and all Arabs against predatory Western forces. But he says the prosecution will have an equal opportunity to present the other side of the story.

"A very important factor in deliberating over his ultimate fate [is] to try to figure out how to make sure that no glorified myth about him takes root, because that would be the source of continuing mischief. People are going to be deliberating somewhere about the connection between how he is dealt with and how to make sure that maximum damage is done to the myth by exposing people to the truth," Fuerth said.

Kipper, of the Council on Foreign Relations, says she fully expects that the United States and the interim Iraqi government will work closely with the United Nations to ensure that any trial will be "transparent and highly credible" to prevent any accusations that Hussein was not treated with the utmost fairness.

In that case, Kipper says, no one -- not even the most ardent Hussein supporter -- is likely to see the defendant as anything more than a vicious criminal, regardless of the sentence he receives.

Fuerth agrees that Iraq and the United States must be very careful in ensuring that a defeated, convicted -- and perhaps executed -- Hussein does not become a symbol for a new anti-Western movement in the Middle East. Optimistically, he says much of that goal already may have been achieved.

"The initial images and circumstances of his arrest convey a message, I think, that this is not a man that you want to continue to die for. This is not a leader, this is simply a fugitive who has finally been caught," Fuerth said.