Saddam’s Capture

15 December 2003

Saddam’s Capture: Will It Make Any Difference?

By Gwynne Dyer

If the only reason that some Iraqis have been resisting the American occupation was that they wanted Saddam Hussein back in power, then presumably they will now lose all hope. But that is as blinkered a view of what is really going on in Iraq as the notion that Saddam was personally directing the resistance from his basement hideout near Tikrit.

Even among dedicated Baathists who retained the movement’s original socialist and Arab nationalist ideas, there were few who actually wanted Saddam back in power. Nobody has killed as many Baathists as Saddam, or so comprehensively perverted the movement’s values: he was the Stalin of Baathism. But Stalin’s death did not make devout Communists abandon their faith. On the contrary, it gave them new hope.

By the same token, a Baathism freed of Saddam’s malign influence is likely to be stronger, not weaker: as the only mass political movement in the Arab world that has never knelt before American power, it retains some credibility in Iraq even now. But while the stalwarts of the Baath party are doubtless a key factor in organising the attacks on American and other foreign troops, they are not the main reason that the US occupation faces such strong opposition in Iraq.

The basic problem facing US viceroy Paul Bremer and his collaborators is mistrust: a profound belief among almost all Iraqis that the Bush administration’s motives in invading Iraq were not altruistic. This is not just anti-Americanism. It comes from a perfectly rational conviction that great powers never act out of pure altruism. Indeed, Americans themselves would be outraged if they thought that their soldiers were dying in Iraq for reasons having nothing to do with US national interest, which is why Mr Bush has to keep saying that it is also part of the ‘war on terror’.

Iraqis, however, know that there were no terrorists in their country before the US invasion, and if they weren’t sure before that Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction, they know it now. So they are left to puzzle out what Washington’s true purposes in their country are — and none of the answers they come up with are reassuring.

The simplest answer, of course, is ‘oil’ — and while that is generally too simplistic an answer, Iraqis are not wrong to believe that they would not have been ‘liberated’ by American troops if they grew carrots for a living instead of pumping oil. They are also aware that the United States had to get its troops out of next-door Saudi Arabia, their main base in the region for the past decade, and that it has now transferred that base to Iraq. So it is assumed in Iraq that any new government created by the Americans will have to defer to US interests on both these issues.

If what Iraq gets in return is a stable and prosperous democracy, many Iraqis would be inclined to pay the price anyway, but as they watch plans unfold for the mass privatisation of the Iraqi economy and see Iraqi contractors frozen out of the reconstruction bonanza in favour of American corporations, their suspicions mount. They also know (because various members of the Bush administration have said so in speeches to American audiences, forgetting that everybody else can hear them too) that Washington intends the new Iraqi democracy to make peace with Israel.

An Iraqi government that does America’s bidding on oil, gives the US military bases, opens the country to American business domination and cozies up to Israel is not one that will enjoy much popular support in Iraq, so Iraqis assume that their new democracy is going to be of the ‘guided’ variety. That is why most Iraqis are sitting on their hands, neither fighting nor welcoming the American occupation. Those who have already taken up arms against the occupation forces, paradoxically, are those who fear that there might really be a genuine democracy in Iraq: the Sunni Arabs.

For many centuries the Arabic-speaking Sunnis who live in central Iraq have been the politically dominant elite of the country, even after the growth of Shia Islam in the south of the country turned them into a relatively small minority (now not much more than 20 percent) of the population. The Turks confirmed them in their position, Iraq’s British rulers took them over wholesale, and their domination of the Baath party kept them in power right down to early this year. But they would lose that role in a genuinely democratic Iraq, where Shias would dominate and Sunni Arabs would be even less influential than the Kurds.

Whether Baathist or not, the Sunni Arabs who comprise the great majority of the current Iraqi resistance fighters are not fighting for Saddam. For those who feared that a successful resistance movement would merely pave the way for Saddam’s return, his capture is as likely to galvanise them into open resistance as to reconcile them to the American occupation.

What we are likely to see in the short term, therefore, is a spike in the violence as the resistance leaders try to show they are still in business, followed perhaps by a lull as they try to exploit Saddam’s capture to broaden their popular base, and then a resumption in the steady rise of attacks on occupation troops. The likeliest long-term outcome, once the US has given up and gone home, is still a civil war and the partition of the country.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 6. (“During…Revolution”; and “These three…United States”).