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Between the Lines

December 15, 2003

Not with a bang, but a whimper

Have we actually cut the head of the snake or is he just an idiot hiding in a hole?
-- A U.S. intelligence official

Saddam Hussein looked more like a bum who’d been sleeping under a Tigris River bridge for the last six months than the psychopathic strongman whose depredations reduced the dreams of a once-proud nation to dust. But his capture closes one chapter of the war with Iraq. It’s too early to know the event’s real meaning. But it certainly is a moment to savor. And just about everywhere you turn, someone is doing some savoring. Here’s a roundup:

John Burns of the New York Times has the big picture:

"BAGHDAD, Iraq, Dec. 14 — As Iraqis struggled to grasp the impact of Saddam Hussein's humiliating capture in a darkened spider hole near Tikrit, it was the television images of the fallen leader that kept replaying in their minds throughout the day on Sunday, just like the images played on their television screens.

"The videotape taken by his American captors showed a disheveled old man, more like a hapless, disoriented vagrant than the tyrant whose quarter of a century in power bludgeoned 25 million people into cringing submission. A mythic strongman, so feared that his name set people trembling until only a few months ago, was suddenly reduced to piti able, mumbling impotence.

"On the streets of Baghdad, and across Iraq, people who danced out of their homes with paper American flags and raised their rifles for staccato bursts into the clear winter air paused to tell one another again and again what they had seen. They acted as if ceaseless repetition would make real what many called a dream, as if testing their sanity by checking that others had also experienced what they had seen.

"Long into the night, the images replayed on televisions at kebab houses and grocery stores, in homes and hospitals. They showed the captured dictator opening his mouth obediently to an American doctor's beam, sitting passively as his unkempt hair was searched for lice, patting his face as if to identify an aching jaw or troublesome teeth, pulling on his straggly beard as if pondering his fate.

"As the mocking shouts grew louder in a thousand Baghdad streets, and across almost all Iraqi towns outside the sullen precincts like Tikrit that are still loyal to Mr. Hussein, it was possible to believe that Iraq's nightmare had finally ended."

Saddam: disoriented and foul-mouthed:

Four members of the U.S.-installed Iraqi Governing Council visited Saddam’s cell to verify that the man there was, indeed, the dictator.

"The world is crazy," said Mowaffak al-Rubaie, a Governing Council member in the room on Sunday after Mr. Hussein was captured near his hometown, Tikrit. "I was in his torture chamber in 1979, and now he was sitting there, powerless in front of me without anybody stopping me from doing anything to him. Just imagine. We were arguing, and he was using very foul language."

Saddam’s arrest leads to others

When Saddam was arrested, U.S. soldiers also seized a briefcase containing information on some fromer members of his regime, who may have been involved in anti-coalition bombings. Some of them have been arrested.

‘ … a tramp getting a physical’

Baghdad blogger Salam Pax says Saddam “ … looked like a tramp getting a physical and for some reason you expected him to bite that soldier's finger a la Hanibal Lecter. But he just sat there.”

But for decades, he was a horrific despot

Juan Cole reminds us of the monster Saddam is:

“… I remembered the innocent Jews brutally hung in downtown Baghdad when the Baath came to power in 1968; the fencing with the Shah and the Kurds in the early 1970s; the vicious repression of the Shiites of East Baghdad, Najaf and Karbala in 1977-1980; the internal Baath putsch of 1979, when perhaps a third of the party's high officials were taken out and shot, so that Saddam could become president; the bloody invasion of Iran in 1980 and the destruction of a whole generation of Iraqi and Iranian young men in the 1980s (at least 500,000 dead, perhaps even more); the Anfal poison gas campaign against the Kurds in 1987-88; Halabja, a city of 70,000 where 5,000 died where they stood, their blood boiling with toxic gases, little children lying in heaps in the street; the rape of Kuwait in 1990-91; the genocide against the Shiites that began in spring of 1991 and continued intermittently thereafter; the destruction of the Marsh Arabs; the assassinations, the black marias, the Fedayee Saddam.”

The impact on U.S. politics

It’s also too soon to know the impact of Saddam’s capture on U.S. politics – but that certainly hasn’t hindered the assertion and speculation.

At the National Review Online, Mac Owen says this is bad news for the “pro-Saddam wing of the Democratic party” – whoever that is. Owens really ought to stick to military affairs, which he knows something about.

Also at NRO, James Robbins thinks that though Saddam did not go down shooting when U.S. soldiers uncovered his rat hole, he will at this trial:

He thinks he has a chance to come out of this alive. Slim, certainly, but he is a fighter, he will give it his best shot. The trial is just another arena for him, another chance granted by providence to work his will upon events, another opportunity, perhaps his last, to bend the world to his intractable ego.”

Fred Barnes of the Weekly Standard says Saddam’s capture is great news for Bush and bad news for Howard Dean. “No one is boosted more than President Bush, the beneficiary of so much good news this fall (surging economy, 10,000 Dow, Medicare drug benefit). For him, only one more thing has to fall into place to assure re-election. That's a sharp turn for the better in the twilight war against the Baathist diehards and their motley allies in the Sunni triangle of Iraq.”

Could Saddam have been a prisoner?

Of course, no event of this magnitude would be complete without conspiracy theories. The Israeli site, DEBKAfile, known for trial balloons and disinformation from Israeli security -- and sometimes for breaking big stories -- posits the interesting theory that Saddam has, in fact, been a prisoner for some time.

In this connection, it’s worth remembering that a couple of weeks ago, a Louisiana congressman, who’s a member of the House Intelligence Committee, told a local newspaper that Saddam’s capture was imminent.

Asked if he knew something the rest of us didn’t, Rep. Ray LaHood said, “Yes.”

Posted by tbrown at 11:54 AM

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Not with a bang, but a whimper


Blogs to watch

Abu Ardvark
Andrew Sullivan
Atrios Eschaton
Best of the Web
Drudge Report
Joe Conason (subscription required)
Josh Marshall
Kaus files
No More Mr. Nice Blog
Real Clear Politics
The Corner
The Volokh Conspiracy
The Whiskey Bar

Mideast blogs

Salam Pax (Iraq)
G. in Baghdad
L.T. Smash (U.S. military in Iraq)
Lady Sun (Iran)

City blogs

L.A. Examiner

Africa blogs

Cathy Buckle

Media blogs

Dan Gillmor's eJournal
Media Whores Online


Newspapers online (guide to papers on the web)
International Herald Tribune
The Guardian U.K.
New York Times (free registration required)

Economy blogs

Brad DeLong

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