Does Saddam still have cards to play?

Where do matters stand following the capture of Saddam Hussein? Let us first examine the position of his unswerving enemy, George W Bush. There is no doubt that the capture of his elusive nemesis is an important political victory for the American president which he will certainly use to improve his chances of re-election.

Until this week, the results of the war in Iraq were inconclusive. Saddam Hussein was still at large, as was the main target of America’s earlier war on Afghanistan, Osama Bin Laden. Daily attacks on coalition forces belied claims that the war had ended, and the alleged arsenal of WMD’s which the war had been launched to dismantle had not been found. With only ten months to go before the US presidential elections, Bush badly needed a political success. With polls consistently showing that over 60 per cent of Americans consider the capture of Saddam Hussein vitally important for the war to be rated a success, last week’s dramatic capture of the deposed Iraqi leader is bound to give his chances for reelection a massive boost.

One of Bush’s main preoccupations is how to endow the war he waged against Iraq with legitimacy. In the eyes of many great powers, the US abused its interpretation of Security Council Resolution 1441 by launching the war independently from the United Nations and without its approval. Moreover, the justification he gave for going to war, namely reliable intelligence reports confirming that Saddam possessed a hidden cache of weapons of mass destruction, turned out to be false.

How to make the war legitimate, even retroactively? Can it be said that ousting Saddam from power and forcing him into hiding are enough to endow his capture and the war that led to it, with legitimacy? Certainly Bush will use Saddam’s trial as a forum to argue the case for the legitimacy of the war, although how successfully remains to be seen.

On the other hand, Saddam will try to use the weakness in Bush’s argumentation to improve his line of defence. He will take advantage of the contradictory stands adopted by the various great powers in the Security Council over whether the war should have been launched or not, with US, Britain, Spain and Italy standing on one side and France, Germany and Belgium on the other. Much, of course can be said about the hundreds of thousands, possibly as much as a million, Iraqis who have been murdered by Saddam, but according to international law, that is an internal affair. Outside intervention in such a case violates state sovereignty.

Moreover, the trial of Kurdish leader Occalan, who was captured and deported to Turkey, and Serbian leader Milosovic before an international tribunal for his war crimes in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo, proved that political defendants can benefit from the protection available to them under the law when their trials are conducted in the open and in the presence of legal experts capable of exposing any irregularity.

Saddam was not always an enemy of the West, even if the West did not regard him as a friend. During the Iraq-Iran war in the 1980s, the west felt closer to the Baghdad regime than to Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution in Tehran. The possibility of secret military deals involving banned weapons between Saddam and foreign capitals can not be discounted. This could explain the insistence of some of them that Iraq still possess weapons of mas destruction. Such secret arms deals, if they did in fact exist, can be used by Saddam to embarrass prominent Western figures, blackmail them and put them on the defensive.

The situation following Saddam’s arrest is rife with possibilities. Three scenarios in particular are worth considering:

Scenario One assumes that Arabs can conflict the victory Bush realised by closing ranks and coming up with a unified stand which lays the full blame of the deplorable state of affairs in the Arab world on Saddam’s shoulders. Can Saddam become the scapegoat whose elimination from the scene could be an incentive to overcome the many conflicts now dispersing Arab capabilities?

We must remember, however, that Arab regimes cannot afford to adopt the attitudes of the West in general and of America in particular towards Saddam, whatever their reservations about his policies. For a start, they have no interest in backing Bush’s candidacy over those of his Democratic rivals. It was believed for a long time that the Democratic Party was closer to the Zionist than to the Arab side. But that was before Bush embraced the policies of Israel’s extreme right more wholeheartedly and consistently than any other former American president.

That is why the Arab street, with all its various component elements can not stand on America’s side. Indeed, Arab hostility towards America has reached a climax following the wars it has waged against a number of Islamic states under the pretext of fighting terrorism. In these conditions, no Arab regime can afford to be identified too closely with US policies.

Scenario Two, which is in a way the opposite of the previous scenario, assumes that even in captivity Saddam could play a role in foiling Bush’s chances of re-election. Many factors, including America’s volatile economic situation, are still shrouded in much uncertainty. The trade deficit has reached unprecedented heights. And on the military front, pulling out of Iraq is a highly complex enterprise. Indeed, Bush has not achieved a victory decisive enough to justify an immediate pull-out and keeping US troops stationed in Iraq could be seen as an undeclared failure.

Saddam’s trial will most certainly cast light on many of his crimes but it will make it possible for him to remind the world that at one time he had friends outside Iraq, not only in the Soviet Union, but also in the Gulf area and the West. This can embarrass quite a number of prominent figures, such as Jacque Chirac and Donald Rumsfeld.

Saddam sees himself as a new Saladin, the Arab hero who valiantly stood up to the Crusaders, and will in all likelihood try to project this image at the trial. He will also probably raise the question of why those who later opposed him once supplied him with military, diplomatic and technical support.

Iraq’s main arms supplier was the Soviet Union, which sent Baghdad some of its best equipment: Mig 29s, T72 tanks, artillery, gunboats, Scud missiles …etc. Not all these sophisticated weapons have been paid for Iraq still owes Russia billions of dollars.

France too was a major weapons supplier to Iraq. In his capacity at the time as France’s prime minister, Chirac visited Baghdad in 1974. Saddam reciprocated by visiting Paris the following year, where he negotiated Iraq’s purchase of two French nuclear reactors. One of them was destroyed in an Israeli air raid in 1981, under pretext that Iraq was developing nuclear arms. Later, France provided Iraq with 133 Mirage F1 jets. It is estimated that during the Iraq-Iran war, 40 per cent of France’s arms exports went to Iraq.

In the 1980s, many Western governments, including the United States, Britain, West Germany and Italy, also helped Iraq with equipment and expertise, both civilian and military, and with finance.

Rumsfeld, as a secretary of defence under Reagan, also visited Baghdad.

Iraq was seen as "progressive" and "secular", while Khomeini was the bogeyman who had humiliated America by seizing its embassy and holding its staff hostage for more than a year. Iraq’s Arab neighbours in the Gulf, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia in particular, saw "revolutionary" Iran as a threat and poured money into Baghdad.

Scenario Three assumes that Saddam’s capture will not put an end to the Iraqi resistance to American occupation, which will eventually acquire the features of protracted civil war.

It is not inconceivable that the absence of a central Iraqi authority in Baghdad and the continuation of US occupation will inflame ethnic conflicts in Iraq, particularly between the Shi’ites, Sunnis and Kurds. In such a case, it will be difficult to accuse Saddam of instigating the violence from inside prison. What is more likely is that a new generation of Iraqi political figures will emerge from outside the hegemony of Iraq’s previous traditional leaderships. With two concomitant occupations; the American in Iraq and the Israeli in Palestine, it is difficult to imagine that conflict, as it reaches boiling point, will not spill over into other Middle East arenas.