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Western Press Review: The Capture Of Saddam Hussein In A 'Spider Hole' Near Tikrit

Prague, 15 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Today's most-discussed story continues to be the 13 December capture of deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in a makeshift farmhouse cellar -- a so-called "spider hole" -- in the village of Al-Dawr, about 15 kilometers south of his hometown of Tikrit. The former Iraqi leader was apprehended without resistance and taken in U.S. custody to an undisclosed location, where he underwent a medical examination and preliminary questioning. Much of the debate ensuing from Hussein's capture centers around how he will eventually be tried in a court of law; some commentators urge a trial by Iraq's fledgling war crimes tribunal, while others suggest he should be tried for war crimes in an international court.


A "Wall Street Journal Europe" editorial says the capture of a weary and disheveled Hussein has chipped away at his image as a defiant and powerful ruler and revealed him as "a frightened man on the run." His capture will not bring an end to the insurgency against the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq, but it is "the beginning of the end."

The "Journal" says as long as Hussein remained at large there was a persistent fear in Iraq that he would someday emerge from hiding "and resume his reign of terror." A nation "that has been steeped in tyranny for decades must exorcise its dictator's power to inspire fear before it can make the transition to liberty."

The next phase of this exorcism will be putting Hussein on trial. The "Journal" says the world must learn the extent of his crimes through the careful examination and documentation that characterize a legal prosecution. But the paper emphasizes that this process must be conducted by Iraqis themselves. The "restoration of Iraqis' sense of justice -- visibly and psychologically -- is [the] reason he needs to be tried before the Iraqi people in Iraq itself." The message this sends "will be clear: Even though it took foreign help to depose him from power and hunt him down, it is the Iraqi people who should be responsible for judging Saddam and determining his fate."


A "New York Times" editorial says Iraq's newly created judicial institutions are not yet ready to handle a trial as important as that of Hussein. His crimes, it says, are "monstrous. Hundreds of thousands of his people were murdered or tortured at his order and some may have been brutalized by his own hands."

And it is now "critical" that the former Iraqi leader be given a fair and open trial to see justice done, "to give some solace to the people he terrorized and to give pause to other despots." Such a trial "must be above any suspicion that it is merely an exercise in retribution or propaganda." But while "every effort should be made to maximize Iraqi involvement, Iraq's judicial institutions are too weak to handle the case. Although last week's creation of an Iraqi war crimes tribunal was a promising step, we would suggest this trial be conducted in Iraq under United Nations auspices by international and Iraqi judges." The paper adds that any tribunal "picked by Americans would lack legitimacy."

But the paper goes on to say in spite of this successful capture, the United States is still "facing the same profound questions about how best to create a stable and democratic government in Iraq." Preferably, this should be done under the auspices of the United Nations. Ultimately, the true "measure of success will be an Iraq held together by consent, not force, with its resources dedicated to development, not weapons. Iraqis will then finally be free of the malign legacy of Saddam Hussein."


An editorial in the London-based "Times" says Hussein "must now be tried by those he tyrannized." Hussein was responsible for the deaths of millions, including Iranians and Kuwaitis, but it was his own people "who were principally his victims, and they must judge him for what he did." An international trial at The Hague, "allowing Saddam to delay and prevaricate, diverting attention away from plain murder to the intricacies of international politics, would serve little good."

Hussein's trial "will be cathartic for Iraq," says the "Times." "It will, at last, define the parameters of his misrule. It will apportion the blame to the henchmen, cronies and opportunists who thrived on his dictatorship. It will explain how such a man was able to reach and hold power and why Iraqis were unable to resist -- lessons vital to the attempt now to construct a new democracy." It will also have "an accelerator effect on the rebuilding of Iraq by forcing the fledgling state to set up the appropriate organs of justice."

The paper says it is also "vitally important" that the United States "is seen to handle this issue adroitly." Washington should not risk contravening the Geneva Convention's rule against "displaying" those captured, and should show Hussein in public as little as possible. The paper says, "[the] more Saddam is treated with the dignity of common humanity, the more pointed will be the contrast with the way he tortured and humiliated prisoners during his rule."


The British "Independent" says in trying Hussein, it will be important to ensure "striking the right balance between Iraqi and international justice."

Two disparate perceptions must be avoided in any future trial, says the paper. The first is of "victor's justice," the idea that the Western coalition will take Hussein out of Iraq to be tried by a British- or American-influenced court. Even a UN tribunal at The Hague could be subject to this misinterpretation, the paper says.

The second perception to be avoided is that of a trial being "the simple revenge of the formerly oppressed." The paper says thus, "it cannot be right that the Iraqis alone, before they have a sovereign government and before they have an established democratic legal system, should decide Saddam's fate."

The former Iraqi strongman "should be tried in Iraq and at least in part by Iraqis," says "The Independent." "But it would be sensible for the Iraqi tribunal to operate under the auspices of the UN, with some international judges."


Writing in the "Frankfurter Rundschau," Karl Grobe says of Hussein's capture that the occupying forces are now "breathing a sigh of relief; one aim of the war has been achieved."

In spite of a prevailing sense of triumph at the moment, Grobe points out that the former leader's successful detention "does not alter the fact that the unelected members of the Iraqi Governing Council and the Anglo-American occupying forces are resented whenever they have exhibited arrogance. That is to say, almost everywhere," says Grobe. "If there is not a significantly quick economic recovery, if the Iraqi people fail to regain confidence in economic prosperity and national dignity, then Saddam Hussein might yet become the hero he never was." His image would "stand between the people and their future; then everything would be lost as far as freedom is concerned." And then only one future would remain -- occupation and more polarization among Iraqis.


Commenting in the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung," Klaus-Dieter Frankenberger says, "Perhaps it was really just a question of time until the Iraqi despot, who has on his conscience a lost generation and more, was apprehended." It was high time for some success for the occupying powers, since reports of Iraqis rejoicing yesterday gave governments in Washington and London some belated vindication of their actions.

U.S. President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair will find it easier now to deal with their adversaries, says Frankenberger. But adds that "there are two sides to this coin. It is yet to be seen how Iraq's Arab neighbors react to the shattering of the myth surrounding the former dictator of Baghdad, and how they will come to terms with the new realities."


In a contribution to "The Wall Street Journal Europe," Eliot Cohen of Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies says any trial of Hussein "must take place in an Iraqi courtroom; it must be fair, [and] above all it must be thorough and public."

He compares a possible trial of the former Iraqi leader with the Nuremberg trials of the Nazis following World War II, saying the courts at Nuremberg were important not necessarily because they did justice, "but because they told a story, left a legacy, and provided a warning."

The "massive documentation" provided by Nuremberg continues to offer "insight into the workings of [Adolf] Hitler's government; no less important was the impression upon the public mind of the detailed description of one of the great evils of human history." Cohen says, "Now too it is essential that the full tale of Saddam's cruelties, from the gassing of the Kurds to the massacres of the Shiites, from the diabolical tortures he ordered to the beating deaths he administered with his own hands, be laid before the world."

The legacy of the Nuremberg tribunals "was the promise that those who commit truly monstrous crimes will be found out and pay for them." As flawed as the courts were, "they demonstrated some effort to reclaim humanity's moral sense in the face of human beings' capacity for brutality of the most horrific type."


Writing in Britain's "Financial Times," professor of war studies Lawrence Freedman of Kings College in London discusses the persistent insecurity in Iraq in the wake of Hussein's capture. Continuing violence against occupation forces has many causes, he says. "Much of the violence is apolitical, the result of armed criminals exploiting a general lawlessness." This is why "for many ordinary Iraqis, the vital test remains their ability to go about their business in safety and see some measure of reliability in essential services." Even those insurgents "who claim to be acting politically have mixed motives, from Islamic militants furthering their global jihad to Iraqi nationalists," which Freedman says probably comprise the majority.

The Iraqi resistance movement "is not a movement with evident coherence or central direction, or even a shared political agenda other than persuading all foreigners, especially the Americans, to leave," he says. Therefore it is unlikely that Hussein's capture will put an end to the violence.

The more "aggressive" military posture assumed by coalition forces in recent weeks seems to be having an effect in stemming attacks, Freedman says. In this sense, the capture of Hussein may help reinforce this trend, "eroding the morale of the insurgents." One test will be whether in the days following the arrest there is "an upsurge of attacks by those acting out of fury, anxious to prove their movement is not dead."


An editorial in France's "Liberation" says the 13 December capture marked "the end of Saddam Hussein, but not of the Iraq question." The arrest of the bloodthirsty dictator, responsible for 35 years of terror and misfortune, was welcomed by the majority of Iraqis and around the world. The humiliating way the former leader was plucked out of a hole, putting up no resistance, may have finally shattered the myth surrounding the former leader. Even if his role in planning attacks against the U.S.-led coalition remains undetermined -- and even if not all resistance fighters are necessarily Hussein supporters -- his arrest will discourage those bent on violently resisting the occupation.

But Iraqis' resistance to the occupation of their country, the frustrations arising from the slowness of reconstruction, and the pervasive ethnic and religious divisions in the country continue. Nevertheless, the paper says that Hussein's arrest has given U.S. President George W. Bush a way out of the morass into which he stumbled. Bush could use the opportunity to accelerate the transfer of power to Iraqis or internationalize the reconstruction of the country by handing over power to the UN. Above all, Bush must ensure that Hussein is tried and judged "for the crimes of which he is guilty" by an Iraqi court that has been guided by international law.


In today's "Sueddeutsche Zeitung," Peter Muench describes Hussein's life as a battle and says, "he has lost the last one." This is an extremely important victory for the United States and for U.S. President George W. Bush both abroad and at home. Muench says the whole world, which had been divided by the Iraqi war, can now share in a sense of joy. The U.S., its allies, the antiwar coalition and, above all, those in Iraq who were oppressed by Hussein's dictatorship are thus united in the anticipation that at the end of Iraq's terrorized path there will actually be a new and hopeful beginning.

(Dora Slaba contributed to this report.)