Out of a Hole

The Arab world is shocked by Saddam Hussein’s capture.


The capture of Saddam Hussein has been met with mixed reactions in the Middle East. For Iraqis, who can look forward to seeing their feared dictator brought to justice, an era of terror has drawn to a close. For the wider Arab world a dangerous and destabilizing neighbor has been taken, definitively, out of commission. But the joy and relief are conditioned in some cases by a sense of defeat and humiliation at the sight of yet another Arab humbled by the West, however much he had it coming.

Despite Hussein’s legacy of terror and blatant human rights violations, the man has long been a symbol, in some quarters, of Arab resistance to “western imperialism.” The images shown around the world on Sunday reveal a defeated Saddam, a man cowering in a hole, passively surrendering to American forces and allowing himself to be poked and prodded and examined. This new disheveled Saddam does not match the triumphant commander who swore he would save the last bullet for himself. As Moroccan journalist, Khalid Jamai writes, the image of a humiliated Saddam will not be easily forgotten by the Arab world.

“No Arab and no Muslim will ever forget these images. They touched something very, very deep…It was disgraceful to publish those pictures. It goes against human dignity, to present him like a gorilla that has come out of the forest, with someone checking his head for lice.”

The man so deeply feared by the Iraqi people turned out to be a coward, who ultimately couldn’t turn a gun on himself. Such a discovery, writes Saudi commentator Tareq al-Hamed, would ends Saddam’s tough façade. “What we saw was the televised unveiling of 30-year-old lie. A leader surrendered without fighting, the Arab street is stunned, and the Arab media appear to be in a state of shock,” Hamed wrote.

The media might be in shock, but the official word from Iran, Jordan, Egypt, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Afghanistan was one of relief. The official statement from Egypt’s foreign minister, Ahmed Maher, shared the Middle East’s general sense of deliverance. “I don’t think anyone will be sad over Saddam Hussein…. His arrest does not change the fact that his regime was finished, and it is the natural consequence of the regime’s fall.”

Hold off on the celebrations, says William Safire in the New York Times; Saddam still has some cards to play.

“I think Saddam is still Saddam — a meretricious, malevolent megalomaniac. He knows he is going to die, either by death sentence or in jail at the hands of a rape victim’s family. Why did he not use his pistol to shoot it out with his captors or to kill himself? Because he is looking forward to the mother of all genocide trials, rivaling Nuremberg’s and topping those of Eichmann and Milosevic. There, in the global spotlight, he can pose as the great Arab hero saving Islam from the Bushes and the Jews.”

Maybe Saddam will use his moment in court to once again espouse the evils of the West, Zionism and the American occupation. This time around, though, his people have a choice about whether to stomach the rhetoric.

As many commentators have noted, the capture of Saddam, however welcome, doesn’t necessarily spell an end to violence and chaos in Iraq. Iraqis need no longer fear their dictator’s eavesdropping thugs, but they have reason to worry about marketplace bombings and late-night searches by the occupation forces. Even with Saddam’s apprehension there is little hope that the violence in Iraq will subside. Just one day after a surprised American soldier found Saddam in his hole, two bombings in Baghdad left six Iraqi officers dead. Iraq’s interim foreign minister, Hoshiyar Zebari, told the press that the capture would surely convince the resistance to surrender.

“This is the happiest news, the best news. We have waited for so long. This will have a tremendous effect on the morale of his loyalists who may have been under the illusion that he would reappear. The people will be more willing to work together to reconstruct a democratic Iraq.”

Sure, Iraqis are happy that Saddam is behind bars — especially the much persecuted Shias. But, as Jen Banbury reports, even the celebratory gunshots over Baghdad were a little muted.

“I could hear gunfire from rooftops around the neighborhood, but in general people were acting a lot more subdued than I imagined they would. They seemed dazed by it all. Then, too, a lot of people who hate Saddam now hate the Americans almost as much. Saddam’s capture feels very much like an American victory. It’s a lot for Iraqis to take in right now.”

The word from Baghdad is essentially this: it’s good Saddam is gone, but the streets are violent, there’s no electricity, and our country is occupied by foreigners. Ali Hussein, a 29 year-old owner of a Baghdad stationary store, told Reuters that Saddam’s imprisonment doesn’t end his troubles.

“I hope that we get the chance to try him our way, to let everyone who suffered make him taste what he had made us …But whether he’s in a hole or in jail, it does nothing for me today, it won’t feed me or protect me or send my children to school.”

As Ghassan Charbel writes in Beirut’s Dar al Hayat Saddam’s legacy will take a while to loose its grip.

“He is the man who killed his country twice. Once, the day he came to power, and the second the day he facilitated with his recklessness the fall of his country under occupation. It is the tragedy producer of tragedy. The master of toughness, under whose reign the bullets rained, but who was stingy when it came to putting a bullet in his head. He will enter history as the man who made Iraq bleed, soiled the water of Tigris in blood, and made the pines weep.”

    Members like you

    Mother Jones is a nonprofit, and stories like this are made possible by readers like you. or to help fund independent journalism.