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Iraq: Neighboring Countries' Response Generally Positive, If Muted, To Hussein's Capture

The reaction of Iraq's neighbors to deposed President Saddam Hussein's capture has been generally positive. But some observers say regional leaders should consider new strategies if they want to avoid the same fate.

Prague, 16 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Governments and commentators across the Middle East welcomed with varying degrees of intensity the capture on 13 December of ousted Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

The most vocal reaction came from Kuwait, which was invaded by Iraq in 1990. Kuwaiti Prime Minister Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah was the first Arab leader to respond to Hussein's detention, calling it a "fair judgment for Kuwaitis who suffered at the hands of Saddam."

Referring to those tortured, killed, or jailed during the seven-month occupation, he added, "Thank God for the justice bestowed upon the Kuwaitis who lived to see Saddam in this condition."

Iran fought a bloody and destructive eight-year war with Iraq in the 1980s. Yesterday in Tehran, Iranian government spokesman Abdullah Ramezanzadeh told reporters, "We are certainly happy that a big dictator has been arrested, and we hope that in the future we will not see any such dictators in any part of the world."

The Iranian government and judiciary are expressing the desire to see Hussein put on public trial for his crimes, including those committed against the Iranian people. "We naturally expect that this dictator's crimes will be heard and judged in all fairness by an international tribunal. Such a tribunal should show which powers supported and equipped this dictator who caused turmoil in our region," Ramezanzadeh said. About 300,000 Iranians were killed in the Iran-Iraq war, including thousands in chemical weapons attacks launched by the Iraqi Army.

Touching on the political implications of Hussein's capture, Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi said it provides the perfect opportunity for the U.S.-led authorities in Iraq to now hand back power to the Iraqis.

Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa, speaking on 14 December in Cairo, expressed a more reserved opinion. "The former system collapsed," he said. "It was only a matter of time. Everyone thinks that the arrest of former regime officials -- of course, Saddam Hussein -- is an important event in the current situation in Iraq."

Meanwhile, Syrian President Bashar Assad, who is on a three-day official visit to Greece, avoided direct comment on the fate of the former Iraqi leader, who was considered to be a bitter political rival of Hafez Assad, his late father.

Assad said only that "the chaos and ambiguity Iraq is witnessing makes its future fraught with dangers that will affect its stability and territorial integrity." He also dismissed suggestions that his country -- accused by the United States of being a state sponsor of terrorism -- could next be targeted by the United States. "Syria is not Iraq," Assad said. "We are a nation that has relations with countries around the world. We are a nation which participates in international efforts for peace and fighting terrorism."

Jordan's response to Hussein's capture was muted, apparently in recognition of public sentiment that once saw the toppled Iraqi leader as a hero. Jordan's King Abdullah on 13 December only pledged to support efforts to rebuild Iraq. "Our efforts are focused on helping the Iraqi people secure their independence and run their own affairs," he said. "And Jordan will provide every possible assistance to facilitate the work of humanitarian organizations in Iraq."

Jordanian government spokeswoman Asma Khodr said in a statement that the Iraqi people should be able decide their own future as soon as possible.

Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States tried to downplay concerns over the implications of Hussein's ouster. Prince Bandar bin Sultan said yesterday that "there is a basic misconception that democracy would be offensive" to Saudi Arabia. "If Iraq is stable, if Iraq begins to reconcile their differences and heal their wounds, and if they are democratic, that is the better for us, not the worse," Bandar said.

Khaled Batarfi is managing editor of the Saudi "Al-Medinah" newspaper. He expressed relief over the news. "We are happy that a dictator like Saddam, who was an enemy of Saudi Arabia, has been caught and is not a menace anymore to the region, his people and to Saudi Arabia," he said.

Some Arab experts and analysts see in Hussein's end an opportunity to redraw the political map of the region and restrain leaders thinking of challenging U.S. interests. "The sight of Saddam's capture on television was terrifying to his colleagues, the Arab rulers," said Sateh Noureddine, managing editor of the Lebanese daily "Al-Safir." "It could make them reconsider their calculations, the way they deal with America, the way they confront it and the way they reject its demands."

Former Jordanian Deputy Prime Minister Ayman Majali said governments in the region should take note. "Saddam's capture is a lesson to others who should know that democracy is important...but unfortunately, many leaderships in the Arab world are distanced from their people, and those should know that their fate may be like Saddam's," he said.