Friends reunited in Iraq – but US’s capture of Saddam raises more questions than it answers

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The US’s apparent capture of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein on December 13 has enabled the Bush administration to end the year on a rather higher note than they can have expected, particularly after November had proved to be the worst month yet of the US occupation of Iraq. Saddam’s capture came at a time when there were more and more questions arising about the US’s decision to invade Iraq, about the grounds it claimed for doing so, and about its appalling mismanagement of the post-invasion administration of Iraq, even among Americans who had been force-fed a diet of misinformation and propaganda designed to persuade them that the US government had no choice but to "take out" a regime that was a major threat to the US. Once the immediate euphoria of Saddam’s capture passed, however, questions arose about the circumstances in which he was captured and what his fate will now be.

How was Saddam captured?

The initial pictures of Saddam after his capture, and the account of his capture given by the US authorities, stunned the world. For months the US had been telling the world that Saddam was alive, thriving in some luxurious hideout, personally overseeing the continuing attacks on American and allied forces. Now he was emerging as a bedraggled and humiliated figure from a hole in a cellar, with no luxuries, no communications with the outside world, and not even access to a barber or shaving kit. It soon became apparent, however, that this is not the whole story. Two alternative scenarios have since emerged, both more likely that the official version, and both unprovable without information that only the US has.

The first is that Saddam was not captured by US troops on December 13, but had in fact been captured some time before by the same Kurdish forces that had located his sons, Uday and Qusay, who were killed by US forces in a shoot-out on July 22. According to this account, the Kurds were upset that they had not received the credit or the rewards that they had been promised previously for arresting senior Iraqi officials, and this time held on until they could extract a ransom from the US. Some reports suggest that the Kurds received $25 million for Saddam and for allowing the Americans to claim to have captured him themselves. According to this scenario, based on information coming from Kurdish sources, the condition in which Saddam was displayed was a result of his captivity in Kurdish hands.

Another scenario, based on less evidence, is that the Americans themselves captured Saddam weeks (possibly months) earlier and had held him for interrogation for some time before announcing his capture at a convenient time. This conjecture is based partly on a photograph that apparently shows Saddam in US captivity with date palms in the background, which clearly suggest that the photograph was taken in the summer.

Whether either, neither or some combination of these scenarios is correct, the fact is that Saddam Hussein, undoubtedly one of the worst of the many appalling rulers to have blighted the Muslim world, is in captivity and no longer a serious threat to the Iraqi people whom he oppressed for so long. That is good news, although there is irony in the fact that he is held by those who have arguably caused more damage to Iraq and its people –” through their assault on Iraq’s infrastructure in the first Gulf War, their imposition of economic sanctions for over a decade, and now their occupation of the country –” than he himself ever managed.

What next for Saddam?

The next question is what will happen to Saddam now. That he should face some sort of justice for his crimes is undisputed; the question is, what justice? The Iraqis are desperate to try him themselves, in order to hold him to account for the many crimes against them committed by himself personally and by his regime during the last three decades. Some argue that it would be impossible for him to get a fair trial in Iraq, such is the hatred for him there, and that the only appropriate court would be an international one. This approach is favoured by the Americans, who say that only an international court can hold Saddam accountable for his breaches of international law, such as the invasion of Kuwait, his defiance of the UN for so many years, and his support for international terrorism. Islamic Iran, which suffered eight years of war after Saddam’s invasion in 1980, in which he used chemical weapons against Iranian troops and towns, has also expressed support for an international trial.

There are, however, problems with this approach. The first is that there is currently no international court to try such cases, and that if one is established under the auspices of the UN it could hardly be considered to be independent of the US, which effectively controls the UN, as was seen in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. Without any genuinely independent international order, the possibility of unbiased, non-political international justice must be remote. Islamic Iran can support an international trial for Saddam if it pleased; but it would not be surprising were the US then to use the precedent of Saddam’s trial to persecute other enemies, such as leaders of Islamic movements or even (Allah forbid) of Islamic Iran itself. Although the idea of Saddam being tried by a world court for his undeniable crimes appeals, it would be a mistake for Muslims to legitimise and validate the present international order in this way, knowing as they do that in truth it is little more than an instrument of US policy, albeit one the US cannot yet wield with absolute freedom. It would be far more appropriate for Saddam to be tried in Iraq, by a court that is answerable to the people of Iraq.

There are, however, two main reasons why this is unlikely to happen. The first is that there is no prospect of Iraq having a government capable of appointing such a court in the foreseeable future. In the present situation, no court appointed by any Iraqi authority could be any more independent of the US than one appointed by the UN. Secondly, the US is desperately worried about what Saddam might reveal in court if he were given the chance to defend himself. According to some accounts, Saddam had dealings with the CIA as far back as 1963, when he played a major role in the Ba’athist coup which toppled the military regime of Abd al-Karim Qasim. Certainly he had close links with the US from then, through the 1970s and 1980s, until his invasion of Kuwait in 1990, which may itself have been prompted by the US. For details of these links to come out now would embarrass the US severely, not least because Donald Rumsfeld, the current US defence secretary, himself travelled to Baghdad in 1984 to assure Saddam of American support against Iran, at a time when Saddam was being criticised for using chemical weapons in his war against Islamic Iran and against Iraqi dissidents.

For this reason many observers believe that the most likely outcome is a plea bargain in which Saddam would agree to spending the rest of his life in jail rather than facing a death sentence, in return for keeping quiet about his previous links with the US.

Saddam’s capture and the US’s occupation of Iraq

The final question that arises is, of course, what impact Saddam’s arrest will have on the US occupation of Iraq. The answer is not much, simply because it was never true that the resistance to the US was pro-Saddam. Paul Bremer, the US’s pro-consul in Baghdad, admitted as much last month when he said, in a particularly surreal moment, that resistance operations can be expected to increase and that such an increase will prove that the US’s policies are succeeding. The simple fact is that Saddam has been irrelevant to Iraqi politics since Baghdad was captured. The mess Iraq is in is entirely caused by the US’s inability or unwillingness to restore its shattered infrastructure. Such is the chaos that some now suspect that the US is actually happy to keep things as they are in order to justify the continued American presence and refusal to transfer any real authority to Iraqis.

It is perhaps not a coincidence that the only aspect of the US occupation that is going as well, or even better, than had been planned, is the "restructuring" of the country’s economy; in other words its opening up to US "investment"; in other words again, its take over by the US corporate interests that are the Bush administration’s closest domestic political allies. There is ample evidence that the US’s main aim is to secure and plunder Iraq’s economic resources; see for example, the speed with which the US moved to privatise the Iraqi economy, just weeks into the occupation, allowing 100 percent foreign ownership of almost all industry and the removal of profits from the country. Considering the progress the US is making in these areas, one must wonder whether it is really as incapable of progress in other areas –” the restoration of the electricity and water supplies it destroyed during the war, for example –” as it seems to be.

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