On one level, the capture of Saddam Hussein means a great deal, potentially a pivotal triumph, for the U.S. occupation of Iraq. On another level, it doesn’t mean much.
The good news may be even better than it seems at first glance. The first glance, after all, might lead some to dampen hopes of peace. The news footage makes Saddam look like a pathetic nobody: trapped in a hole in the ground, not so much a rat (as some commentators have described it) but a gopher, de-clawed, de-fanged, nabbed without the slightest resistance. Clearly, he has not been running the violent insurgency. And so, the insurgency will persist in his absence. For the short term, surely in the coming weeks, the violence may escalate, as the insurgents seek to demonstrate that they remain a vital force.
However, in the medium-to-long term, the nabbing of Saddam could have powerful consequences. If any Iraqis still regarded him as an unconquerable god, they must have been severely shaken by the televised images of their erstwhile leader-for-life—the king of kings who was obsessed with cleanliness, refusing even to be touched—looking like a street bum, having his throat probed and his hair poked for lice.
Whoever the insurgents are, whatever their goals or allegiances, they have been abetted by the fear of ordinary Iraqis that the Americans might be driven out, that Saddam might return to power, and that he would punish those who helped the occupiers in his absence.
They have been completely reasonable in this fear. Saddam has been the dominating force in their lives for 30 years, surviving every assault.
Now he is definitively gone. The foundation of fear is shattered. The fear itself will soon evaporate. The insurgents are still there, raising frightening mayhem, but they stand for nothing larger than themselves. The ordinary people, who have been sitting on the sidelines, watching which way the wind blows, may now no longer tolerate—may no longer feel a need to tolerate—the armed rebels in their midst. They may be more willing—less afraid—to cooperate with the Americans in rooting out the bad guys.
This is the hope anyway, and there is some reason to believe it may actually play out that way. Last month, the CIA estimated that the Iraqi population was starting to lean toward the insurgents because they seemed to be winning, and the U.S.-led coalition appeared to be reeling. By capturing Saddam, the American forces may have reversed this popular perception in one stroke. They may appear to be not just competent but omnipotent, especially in the eyes of those who believed that Saddam could never be found or surely would never give up.
All this, by nature, is speculation—logical speculation perhaps, but logic has rarely governed the course of Iraq. By equal logic, the violence, as noted above, is likely to intensify in the coming days or weeks; the insurgents will be under great pressure to reassert their own presence. The American response to this escalation could determine the degree to which the optimistic scenario unfolds. If U.S. commanders step up Iron Hammer—bombing buildings and razor-fencing villages—they may alienate more and more Iraqis and, in fact, inspire an anti-occupation movement that swells in strength by explicitly having no alignment with Saddam. If the commanders keep their counterattacks more precise and discriminate—relying more on ground troops and intelligence, while also continuing to help with civilian projects (now is the time to pour in money)—they might truly build on whatever momentum or legitimacy is sparked by the taking of Saddam.
The capture is also likely to provide an objective boost to U.S. forces, especially Army forces, in Iraq. In the past few months of urban fighting, the 4th Infantry Division, whose soldiers took part in the capture, has acquired a reputation more for busting down doors and cruising in tank convoys than for executing successful fine-tuned raids. Task Force 121, the secretive special operations unit, which reportedly played a leading role, has been depicted as a wayward assassination squad, à la Project Phoenix. The act of taking Saddam alive will surely prove a morale booster—not just to the 4th ID and the special ops, but to all soldiers in Iraq, who have greatly needed a tangible triumph.
And yet, in the larger picture, Saddam’s final downfall—the flesh-and-bones sequel to the statue-toppling prematurely celebrated last April—is hardly the end of the story and may ultimately have little real impact.
The challenges of reconstructing Iraq remain: creating jobs, restoring electricity, repairing the oil industries, and, most critically, settling the rivalries and disputes among Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds—in short, building a new political order. Removing the final traces of Saddam—and the lingering fear that his old order might return—was the prerequisite to dealing with all these basic problems, but it in no way ensures a solution.
We have now taken Step 1 in establishing a genuinely postwar Iraq. Its significance is not to be minimized, but neither is the difficulty of the steps that remain.