He won't be back

December 15, 2003

THE CAPTURE of Saddam Hussein is the best news out of Iraq in a long time, not because it will bring the attacks on American soldiers to an end -- it probably won't -- but because it will free ordinary Iraqis of the dread that he might come back to power.

He lurked like a specter in the consciousness of his nation, and he was a taunt to the American occupiers. Now he's just a disheveled old man, dragged like a vampire from a hole in the ground and out into the daylight, where his powers desert him and he can only await trial.

In the short term, his loyalists will most likely fight on. Religiously inspired mujahedeen, who despised everything he stood for, but hate the American infidels even more, will most assuredly fight on. But among those millions of Iraqis on the sidelines, Mr. Hussein's arrest should provide not only peace of mind but reason to believe that the United States just might be able to persevere and lay the groundwork for a happier future.

This triumphant moment -- this stake through the heart of the old regime -- opens a door to a deeper and broader success. The American experience in Iraq so far has been marked by bungling, infighting and wrong-headedness. Iraqis are exhausted by the strains of the occupation, fed up with crime and violence, and hard pressed by joblessness. The level of resentment directed toward a bunkered occupying authority has been rising; so, too, have the feelings of humiliation inspired by get-tough military patrols.

But now, with Mr. Hussein in custody, an opportunity presents itself to the United States: If the Americans in Iraq can move quickly to build on the moment, to demonstrate that conditions can improve, to win the faith and confidence of the population at large, all the travails of the past eight months will one day be forgotten, or at least forgiven. His arrest could be the morale-booster that gets this started.

But it will require energy, creativity, initiative and a certain amount of risk-taking -- nevertheless, it's worth the gamble.

Unfortunately, the capture of Mr. Hussein could have just the opposite effect. Many Americans will undoubtedly conclude, now that he's out of the way, that the job is done and it's time to get out of Iraq. With an election year approaching, that idea could gather considerable momentum. But as ill-considered as this war was, an abandonment of Iraq now would invite catastrophe. The United States has let loose dangerously destructive forces in the Middle East, irrespective of Saddam Hussein. A secure and stable Iraq must be a necessary bulwark against them.

The wickedness of Mr. Hussein was devastating, and the world was reminded yesterday that 300,000 Iraqis, perhaps more, died at the hands of his regime. And yet he is a has-been, yesterday's news. There is a great deal still to be done -- and urgently -- in an Iraq without him.

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