The Capture of Saddam


For Saddam Hussein his capture is the moment of supreme humiliation. He has always portrayed himself as the Arab hero who would fight to the last bullet and die surrounded by the bodies of his enemies. Instead he has fallen alive into the hands of US troops after successfully evading them for over half a year.

Saddam will wonder who finally betrayed him in exchange for $25 million. It may be that there was no betrayer and US soldiers were simply following up leads. But, going by the paranoid way his mind worked during his long years in power, Saddam will be thinking about the identity of the traitor who led his enemies to his last hiding place.

The former Iraqi leader had put great efforts into avoiding the American dragnet. He cut himself off from his senior lieutenants at the time of the fall of Baghdad in April. Just as US troops were entering the city he told his two sons Uday and Qusay, later killed in a gun battle, that it would be safer for him to go on the run by himself.

He probably envisaged blowing himself up with a grenade at the last moment or being shot dead by US troops in a final struggle. Instead, unlike Uday and Qusay who died with guns in their hands, he will be presented by Washington as a symbol of its military victory in Iraq and a sign that America is winning the war despite its mounting casualties.

In the months since he fled his capital Saddam has been preoccupied with avoiding capture. He has not had time for much else. Hoshyar Zebari, the Foreign Minister of the interim Iraqi government, told me several weeks ago: “Saddam is very isolated. That is the only way he can avoid being captured. He is not able to organise the resistance. He dare not communicate with other people because he is frightened they will betray him.”

From his hiding place Saddam was able to send out cassette tapes which were delivered anonymously to foreign media organisations in Baghdad. In these he called for continuing resistance to the US, but he gave little sign that he was organising guerrilla attacks himself. The CIA confirmed the voice was probably his. They were probably right. Certainly he spoke with same long-winded vagueness which made his speeches so tedious when he was in power.

What was Saddam Hussein thinking about in his hide-outs in and around Tikrit, the dusty city by the Tigris where he first began to make his mark forty years ago? He cannot have been too surprised by his new life-style. A remarkable aspect of Saddam’s life when he was the supreme power in Iraqis was that he always behaved like a criminal on the run expecting arrest by the police. His guards were executed for giving a hint of his whereabouts. Three exactly similar convoys would leave his presidential palace at the same time to confuse assassins who would not know which vehicle to shoot at.

Saddam will feel himself uniquely unlucky. He almost kept his grip on power despite his disastrous invasion of two of his neighbors,Iran and Kuwait. Three years ago there seemed to be no reason why he should not rule in Iraq for as long as he wanted. But the attack on the World Trade Centre in New York in 2001, with which there is no evidence that Saddam was connected, increased the influence of the those US leaders who had always wanted to get rid of him. There was not a lot he could do to stop them.

Saddam Hussein always lived in something of a fantasy world. He believed in his own star and divinely guided fate which had led him to rise from being an orphan in an obscure village to supreme power in Iraq. Even in defeat he remained an optimist always hoping that the political wind in Iraq might change in his favour.

But he was also a fatalist. He once told King Hussein of Jordan that ever since he had escaped after trying to assassinate a former Iraqi President in 1959 he had treated every day as a gift from God. Over the next forty years he escaped so many attempts to kill him that his belief grew in his divine mission.

The Iraqi leader has always had a deep hunger for publicity and in captivity he may seek to exploit this. He will feel humiliated by being captured alive but if he is brought to trial – and it will be the trial of the century – he will once again have a platform from which to speak to the world. For him this may have advantages over the dark cellar in Tikrit where he has been hiding. The capture of Saddam Hussein is the end of era in Iraq but his capture may only expose further how difficult and dangerous it is to govern Iraq. The glee in Washington today resembles that felt by the US administration in April when Baghdad fell more easily to American tanks than any of its critics had supposed.

This is not to say that the US will not be boosted by taking their main enemy prisoner. There is not only the propaganda value abroad but it will impress Iraqis in the street with the belief that the US does have a measure of control. When the first audio tapes of Saddam Hussein speaking were broadcast on television a few months ago I remember there was almost a physical sense of apprehension in the streets of Baghdad.

Saddam Hussein himself probably had very littler control over the guerrillas who have killed or wounded so many Americans and their allies in the last two months. The resistance cells seem to be loosely organised and mostly home grown in the towns and villages of central Iraq. There is also the lesson of three wars – the Iran-Iraq war in 1980, the invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the war earlier this year – that Saddam Hussein had peculiarly bad military judgment.

His capture does have one benefit for the US and its allies. It is the first real success they have had since the fall of Baghdad and it will puncture the atmosphere that the US administration in Baghdad was a sort of Inspector Clouseau figure, making mistake after mistake while confidently claiming victory at every turn.

But the imprisonment of the former Iraqi leader does not solve the most serious US problems in Iraq which is that it does not have local allies with sufficient strength to run the country. It is this which has sabotaged the US efforts to pacify the country.

The only powerful allies of the US in Iraq are the Kurds. They are the smallest of country’s three dominant communities – the other two are the Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims – and they are not strong enough for the US to rely on in future.

The US has had great difficulty in escaping the consequences of its initial mistakes in Baghdad. It failed to stop the looting though this was predictable. The Pentagon’s main priority seems to have been to make sure that the, whatever else happened, the influence of the US State Department was kept as small as possible.

The second great error was to dissolve the Iraqi army and security services – together with their families perhaps two or three million people – without working out how these people would survive in a country where the unemployment rate is about 70 per cent. The US then began to target members of the Baath party without distinguishing between those were leadership positions and those who had been compelled to join the party because they held minor government jobs as doctors or teachers.

Sometimes the US has tried to reverse these mistakes, but the American administration in Baghdad is a strange lumbering beast which usually only reacts very slowly to events around it. For instance a centre piece of present US policy is to create a new Iraqi army and police force loyal to the new regime. It is then quite extraordinary that somebody decided to pay the soldiers $70 a month for an exceptionally dangerous job.

Indeed the headquarters of Paul Bremmer, the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad, is one of the more bizarre institutions ever seen in the Middle East. It is wholly divorced from the world around it. The last time I was there I was stopped by a friendly Gurkha soldier who was happy to talk about Katmandu but otherwise was determined to let nobody into the building. Then a security officer from Texas, so far as I could tell from the accent, stopped me belligerently saying: “Journalists are always assassinating people. We are not letting you in.”

The US troops and commanders scattered around Iraqi provincial cities and towns seem to have a much better idea of what is happening in the country. They have told anybody who was listening for months that the Iraqi resistance was locally organised and not controlled from the top, either by Saddam Hussein or his aging acolyte Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri.

In theory the US should be winning this war. Its weakness – and this will continue despite the capture of Saddam Hussein – is that they do not quite understand the nature of the war they are fighting. The guerrillas are not very strong. But they can inflict immense political pain in Washington with very limited means and they know it.

One of the curiosities about US and British attitudes to political events in Iraq is that it is often based on the belief that ordinary Iraqis do not know what is happening. In fact they are politically very sophisticated. For over a decade many of them have had nothing to do but listen to foreign radio broadcasts in Arabic from the BBC,Monte Carlo and Voice of America. The quality of news they listen to is probably higher than that viewed or heard by most people in Europe or the US.

Iraqis learned from an early stage after the fall of Baghdad that the only thing that had an impact on policy makers in Washington was physical violence. This does not mean that they all favoured or would take part in guerrilla war. Very few regretted the departure of Saddam Hussein. But they knew that moderate opposition to US policy would get nowhere. This is an important point. Many Iraqis were rather in the position of Roman Catholics in Northern Ireland in the 1970s who strongly disliked the IRA, but had also noted that Westminster only listened to the grievances of their community when it was accompanied by violence.

The problem for the US is that it has always made concessions too late. “They were drunk with victory,” said one Iraqi leader closely allied to the US. It conceded power to the interim Governing Council only when the guerrilla war had got underway. As it has intensified Washington has agreed to a provisional government by the middle of next year.

But it is still unclear who this provisional government will represent. The indirect elections by local caucuses would be open to fraud in any country in the world but particularly in Iraq. For instance tribal leaders would play a role. But nobody knows who is the leader of many of the tribes because the sheikhs were often chosen by Saddam Hussein.

It would be much better from the US and British point of view if regular elections were held using a franchise based on the lists for food rationing. This is not perfect but it is less flawed than anything else.

An election under such rules would probably produce an administration dominated by members of the Shi’ite community answering their religious leader Ali Sistani. The US will not like this. It will not be a regime friendly to the long term presence of the US and Britain in Iraq. But at least it will be a government can claim to have mass support and has legitimacy — something which neither Saddam Hussein or the present occupation has ever possessed.

If the US and Britain react, as Tony Blair seemed to do yesterday, by exaggerating the impact of the capture of Saddam Hussein then none of these fundamental problems in ruling Iraq will be solved and the guerrilla war will only escalate.


Patrick Cockburn’s past columns can now be found at The I. Patrick Cockburn is the author of War in the Age of Trump (Verso).