A long year ahead
The capture of ousted Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein gave a huge boost to US President George Bush and dealt a temporary blow to his opponents, Khaled Dawoud reports from Washington
There were no local stories on all US television channels on Sunday. No follow ups or heated debates on Michel Jackson's case, the Washington sniper trial or that of prominent African- American basketball player Cobe Bryant accused of raping a white woman. Only pictures of the 67-year-old former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, bewildered, tired, dirty, looking like a cave man with a long beard, submitting to orders of an American military doctor to open and close his mouth while using a tongue depressor.
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Top: Saddam Hussein with his late sons, Uday (l) and Qusay. From left: Hussein meeting with Crown Prince Saad of Kuwait on a visit to Iraq during friendlier times in 1977; the doomed dynamic duo -- Saddam and his top aide, Tareq Aziz; Hussein family photo, 1990s
White House spokesmen said President George Bush first learned of the news on Saturday afternoon while at his ranch in Camp David. US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld gave his commander-in-chief the initial good news. Bush decided to exercise maximum caution, totally unwilling to raise expectations or repeat the "Mission Accomplished" fiasco when he landed in military gear on USS carrier Abraham Lincoln on 1 May to declare victory against Iraq, only to be followed by fierce resistance against US occupation troops. Bush only telephoned Vice President Dick Cheney and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, delegating them to call other members of his close circle, while he decided to return to Washington and sleep early on Saturday. Rice telephoned the president at 5.15 AM on Sunday, confirming the good news: Saddam Hussein is in US hands.
Bush then rushed to his office at the White House, making phone calls and spreading the good news to close allies: British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Spanish Premier Jose Maria Aznar, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, President Hosni Mubarak, Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, US Central Troops Commander Maj Gen. John Abu Zeid, and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director George Tenet.
And yes, Bush the son said he received a call from his father, congratulating him for the great news. In his speech to the United Nations in September 2002, and in at least another reported occasion, Bush confirmed that he could not forget that Saddam, "tried to kill my dad." Bush the son was referring to charges that the former Iraqi regime tried to assassinate the former US president, George Bush, while on a visit to Kuwait in 1992. US observers and commentators repeatedly pointed to the personal aspect in the relation between Saddam and the US president, with the later saving no words to express his detest and despise of the former Iraqi president. One broken record-like line which all commentators made in reaction to the news on Saddam's capture, was how Bush the son managed to finish up the job his father failed to carry out after ousting Iraq from Kuwait in 1991.
One of the first moves US soldiers carried out after occupying Baghdad on 9 April was to remove a mosaic on the ground depicting George Bush the father which all visitors to the Rashid Hotel in Baghdad had to step on, one way Saddam reflected his deep hatred of the former US president. And when the young Bill Clinton managed to defeat George Bush in 1992, Saddam personally came out on television firing his rifle in the air in his own infamous way to celebrate the news.
White House spokesmen confirmed the president and his close advisors carefully considered how to react to Saddam's capture, and decided to let the news come out first from Iraq, saying the arrest of the former president was primarily an Iraqi issue. One unconfirmed report said Bush decided to cancel a scheduled visit to a church on Sunday so that the first picture of him after the news on Saddam's arrest would not be misinterpreted in the Arab world, fuelling charges that the born-again Christian president was leading a religious war against Arabs and Islam.
Finally, and after more than three hours of the news conference held in Baghdad to announce Saddam's arrest, the White House declared Bush would deliver a brief statement at noon. In the statement, he was clearly careful to deliver a hopeful message, mainly to Iraqis, to whom he hoped Saddam's capture would confirm the end of an era in which they were ruled by a brutal dictator who will never make a come back. But there were no words of vengeance, jubilation, or direct references to the miserable condition in which the former Iraqi President was found after his arrest. Reportedly upon advice from traditional Arab allies in the region, Bush recognised the need to avoid the humiliation of a former Arab president and the extremely negative reaction that would lead to in the region.
While many US commentators pointed out that the humiliating pictures of Saddam being medically examined were clearly aimed at dealing a severe psychological blow to his supporters, the US administration was careful not to overdo it, and decided not to display pictures of the Iraqi president while being led in handcuffs or mistreated and insulted by his captors.
But when, on Monday, asked about his message to the Iraqi leader after his capture, Bush could not but vent out some of his feelings: "Good riddance. The world is better without you, Mr Saddam Hussein. I find it very interesting that when the heat got on, you dug yourself a hole and you crawled in it. And our brave troops, combined with good intelligence, found you. And you'll be brought to justice, something you did not afford to the people you brutalised in your own country."
Feelings of revenge, overjoy and jubilation could not be more obvious on the US television networks that trumpeted Saddam's capture, describing it as a personal and political victory for Bush. Non-stop references were made to the "hole" in which Saddam was dug in "like a rat" in comparison to the lavish lifestyle he led in his numerous palaces while in power for more than 22 years. All correspondents for major television networks on Monday aired reports by their correspondents showing their audience how difficult it was to get in and out of that deep hole in which Saddam had to lie down for at least two hours while more than 600 soldiers and Special Forces conducted a thorough search of his hideout in a farm south of his hometown, Tikrit. They went through his personal belongings, books, new boxer shorts and socks, and even the leftovers of his food, all to make the point again and again on the contrast with his previous life as a feared brutal dictator heavily protected in his palaces.
Feeling the heat, nearly all Bush's opponents, including the nine Democratic candidates seeking to compete against him in the upcoming presidential elections in November 2004, issued statements welcoming the news, and conceded that the US president deserved to be congratulated. Similar congratulations came from France and Germany, staunch opponents of the war against Iraq.
But when the main Democratic opponent, Howard Dean, pointed in a speech on Monday that Saddam's arrest "will not make America safer" and that he continued to oppose the war in Iraq, he was simply hammered by the fervently pro-Bush media, wondering how he dared to make such a statement, and accusing him of being dug up in a hole similar to that in which Saddam was captured.
Now is the time for celebration, and not to ask the serious questions on whether Saddam's capture will actually end the insurgency the United States has been facing in Iraq. US military commanders repeatedly stated they did not believe that Saddam was the main figure behind the resistance attacks, and that separate cells of loyalists without a national command mainly carried them out. However, US officials said they were also aware that some of those who were fighting against US troops still held the hope that the former Iraqi president might make it back to power. They also claimed that after three decades of heavy-handed rule in which torture and killing was a common practice against opponents, many average Iraqis continued to fear Saddam and were convinced that he has supernatural skills that would make him able to restore his rule. Now that Saddam is in US hands, cooperating, though not providing useful information to his captors or confessing his possession of weapons of mass destruction, all Iraqis should be now certain that he will never make a comeback, and accept to cooperate with the United States.
President Bush, and as a precaution, warned he did not expect attacks in Iraq to immediately decrease. On the contrary, he said he expected an upsurge as Saddam's loyalists would seek to prove they were not fighting for the former president, but because they opposed the occupation of their country.
Other pundits, meanwhile, said they now expected the Shi'ite majority in Iraq to openly join demands for an immediate end to US occupation, now that Saddam has been captured. They added that many Shi'ites shied away from joining demands for an immediate end to US occupation, fearing that would only play in Saddam's hands.
Whether attacks in Iraq will rise or fall, one issue US analysts point to is that there remains to be a long year ahead until President Bush is due to seek his re-election for another four years. During this period, it is definitely impossible to predict how the battle for the White House will go, depending on developments at home, Iraq, and the wider war against terrorism.
But after Saddam's capture, Bush has evidently already decided what his main theme in seeking re-election would be: that he's the best to protect America's security, a man of vision and a sense of mission who vowed never to forget the lessons of the 11 September 2001 attacks. And the main lesson, as Bush said in his news conference on Monday, was that you cannot wait for emerging threats to accumulate and wait for the danger to hit at home, but you have to go on the offensive and hit the enemy first.
In case the situation improves in Iraq the way Bush hopes, the US president would not only be confident that he will be re-elected, but his doctrine on preemption and claims of a mission to spread freedom in the Middle East to stop the export of hatred and terrorism, will also gain an unprecedented boost.