Santa Claus gift for Bush and Tony?

Just eleven days ahead of Christmas, on 14th December , Saddam was nabbed by Col. James Hickey, who commanded the code-named Operation Red Dawn .There could be no better Santa Claus gift for Bush and Tony, their cronies and allies. Yes, the ‘Ace’ is a captive now, but his capture is not only met with aloha, but with a mixture of revolt and dismay, in the Arab world. Whether pro-American or anti-Israeli, moderate or militant, few in the volatile region expect the arrest would do much to promote peace.

The capture of the man viewed as both hero and menace of the Arab world is seen as anti-climactic, after the American-led invasion of Iraq. Other than in Iraq and Kuwait, which Saddam invaded in 1990, most Arabs across the region appeared dismayed and embarrassed over how U.S. troops arrested the bedraggled Saddam near his hometown of Tikrit.

"There is disappointment in nationalist circles in the way he was captured, that he didn’t commit suicide so he wouldn’t undergo an embarrassing interrogation," Victor Nahmias, an Arab affairs expert, said on state-run Israel Radio. "Here was the symbol of heroism and here is an American non-Muslim (tugging) at his beard. It’s hard for proud Arabs to take."

That may explain why many Arabs ignored the event. In Nablus, residents turned out to watch thousands of Hamas members march through the streets in a parade marking the militant organisation’s anniversary. They carried fake weapons: bombs, rocket-propelled grenades and Qassem rockets.

Saddam’s arrest appeared unlikely to ease the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which did abate at the end of the first Persian Gulf War, in 1991. Sunday, Israeli authorities issued 42 warnings of imminent terrorist attacks, and militants in Gaza fired 17 mortar shells at Jewish settlements.

The widely hated Iraqi dictator had become a hero to average Arabs in recent months, a symbol of resistance to America’s military might in the region since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The demise of his regime — once the banner of pan-Arab unity — came to symbolise Arab weakness.

Iraq is a diverse nation of 25 million people constituting of three important ethnic groups, Arabs 75-80 percent, Kurdish 15-20 percent, Turkoman, Assyrian or others 5 percent. It will need all its political energy and goodwill to deal with the fallout of the power shift, which leaves the once powerful Sunnis on the sidelines and promotes the Shiites to the forefront as the country’s most dominant group. Under an agreement signed Nov. 15, the U.S.-led coalition will hand over sovereignty to a provisional government by July 1. But with 16 months left until Iraqis hold their first free general election, the country remains entangled in a web of uncertainty.

The long-oppressed Shiites are eagerly waiting to translate their numbers into political power. Sunnis are struggling to maintain relevance while the Kurds are trying to ensure that autonomy for their northern homeland survives.

Radical religious groups, meanwhile, are trying to influence the process, and the small Christian minority says it’s concerned about the growing presence of Muslim militants. This means an ethnic and sectarian violence to brew.

Across the Arab world, the ambiguity that has shadowed the entire American effort to replace Iraq’s totalitarian government was reinforced by the indignity of Saddam’s capture.

While Arabs harbour no particular love for the deposed dictator or similarly oppressive governments, they despair when they see that an outside power can humiliate the Arab world by capturing such a significant figure with relative impunity, underscoring their own impotence.

Palestinians were angry when the Americans toppled Saddam’s regime last spring, said Mohammed Horani, a legislator from Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s Fatah party. "It’s a symbolic thing that happened today, although as a Palestinian, I can say no Arab man would like to see an Arab president arrested in this way."

"On the one hand, we are very happy, relieved that this man is out of the picture," said Khaled Batarfi, managing editor of Al Madina, a newspaper in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. "On the other hand, to see him so humiliated — he is an Arab president after all," he said. "Whether you love him or hate him, he is still a member of the family. He did not fight like his sons; he went like a dog or a cave man, so they feel sorry more for Arab pride than for the man himself."

Elsewhere, though, many Arabs said that at a minimum they would have preferred. "It is a shameful day in the history of the Arab nation when a prominent Arab president is caught by foreign occupiers and not the Iraqi people," said Abu Khaled, a Damascus taxi driver who gave only his nickname.

"In the absence of Saddam, the Americans will have no excuses; they will not be able to explain away the resistance as something related to him," said Abdel Bari Taha, a Yemeni political analyst. "The Americans will come to realise that resistance is coming from the Iraqi people, not his followers or the Baath Party," he said. (NY Times, 16 Dec.)

Many had hoped the capture of Saddam Hussein would put an end to the insurgency that has been carrying out deadly attacks against US troops and Iraqi targets. But any such wishfulness was swiftly crushed when suicide bombers killed eight Iraqi policemen and injured at least 30 civilians in two suicide bomb attacks in Baghdad (16th December). It may well be a clear indication that the resistance to US occupation will continue despite the capture of the former Iraqi leader.

Jordanian political scientist Labib Kamhawi said it served as a warning to other Middle Eastern dictators who cast their lot with the United States, as Saddam once did. "Most of them are friendly to America," Kamhawi said. With Saddam gone, America’s fight is no longer against him, but the Iraqi people, he added. "Americans will be looked at now exactly as the Israelis, who are occupying the West Bank."

The region’s only glowing response came from Jerusalem, where Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon lauded the capture as a "great day for the democratic world, for the fighters of freedom and justice and those who fight against terror."

Most Arab governments, now fearing a backlash from their constituents, whose anti-American sentiment has grown since the occupation of Iraq, didn’t issue any statements about the arrest.