Much praise, but rifts over Iraq remain

U.S. remains at odds with European leaders over rebuilding of Iraq

The Capture Of Saddam Hussein

December 15, 2003|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON - After more than a year of disputes over the fate of Iraq, European leaders, including those most forcefully opposed to the war that deposed Saddam Hussein, finally had something to agree on yesterday: His capture is a victory for Iraqis.

The unanimous praise of the accomplishment, though, is unlikely to be a sign that rocky relations between the United States and Britain on one side and France, Germany and Russia on the other have somehow smoothed themselves, according to diplomats, scholars and political scientists.

"What you have here is good news for the Iraqi people and a boost for President Bush, and it gives him a psychological victory over President [Jacques] Chirac," said Dominique Moisi, senior adviser at the French Institute for International Relations. "For months, the French could look in the eyes of the Americans and say, `We warned you. We were right in our prudence.' Now the Americans can say, `At the end of the day, we caught Saddam Hussein and the Iraqis are cheering in the streets. Now who was right?'"

That answer, if it ever comes, is a long way off. Disputes between the leaders, though, are very much current.

France, Germany and Russia want greater United Nations involvement in the country and sovereignty returned to the Iraqi people sooner than Bush and his main European ally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, think that can be accomplished. The countries still have serious disagreements concerning the rebuilding of Iraq, which last week boiled into another full-blown dispute when the Pentagon said that French, German and other companies based in non-coalition countries would be excluded from bidding on reconstruction contracts.

"I'm glad Saddam Hussein was captured. Everybody should be glad," Moisi said. "But they should not be under any illusion that all the problems are now solved. Except for some bragging rights, the only benefit is there is one less obstacle to democratizing Iraq, but many obstacles remain."

Chirac issued a brief statement praising the capture as a victory for Iraqis that should aid the rebuilding of its government and help bring an end to the violence that has continued in the country more than seven months after Bush announced the end to major combat.

"This is a major event which should strongly contribute to the democratization and the stabilization of Iraq and allow the Iraqis to once more be masters of their destiny in a sovereign Iraq," Chirac said.

His prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, emphasized that Iraq would have a better chance to regain full sovereignty. His comments served as a reminder that France has criticized the American occupation, favoring instead an administration run by the United Nations. French television devoted hours of special programming to Hussein's arrest and a review of his career, including the warm diplomatic relations between Hussein's Iraq and France during the 1980s. France was for a time one of Iraq's major arms suppliers.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder sent a telegram to Bush, saying he heard the news of Hussein's capture "with great delight."

"I congratulate you on this successful operation," Schroeder wrote in his letter to Bush, released by the German government. "Saddam Hussein caused horrible suffering to his people and the region. I hope the capture will help the international community's effort to rebuild and stabilize Iraq."

In Russia, President Vladimir V. Putin made no public comments about yesterday's events in Iraq. Relations between the United States and Russia, which were strained when Putin sided with France and Germany before the war, have only worsened recently with the arrest of a Russian billionaire, Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky, and the alleged state manipulation of parliamentary elections.

Itar-Tass, the state-controlled news agency, treated the story almost as routine, carrying a terse statement by Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov. "We hope that the arrest of Saddam Hussein will contribute to the security in Iraq and boost the political and settlement process with the active role of the United Nations," he said.

Whatever the acrimony over the war, when balanced against the capture of a dictator who tortured and executed thousands of people, the leaders had no choice but to praise the mission, said Peter North, president of Jesus College at the University of Oxford.

But the disagreement over whether to invade Iraq was never about how long it would take to catch Hussein, he said, so the accomplishment should not be expected to have any effect on diplomatic relations.

"The lines between the coalition and the doubting Europeans were drawn over different issues, and this does nothing to erase them," North said. "I can't possibly see this leading to the French saying to the Americans, `Oh, you were right after all; we should listen to you more often,' or George Bush saying, `This settles things; now let's all get along.'"

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