After the capture

December 21, 2003|By Fawaz A. Gerges

IF THE CAPTURE of Saddam Hussein serves as a catalyst for fresh thinking and enlightened new policies, it could provide a limited window of opportunity for internal reconciliation and healing in Iraq and represent a psychological breakthrough for Iraqis.

It lifts the veil of fear and puts to rest any lingering doubts Iraqis had about Mr. Hussein returning to power. By removing Mr. Hussein's overwhelming shadow over Iraq, it will likely demoralize his diehard Baathist supporters and other members of his intelligence apparatus.

But it's critical to keep his capture in perspective, given the deteriorating security situation and the expansion of the armed resistance, and the difficulties involved in the complex process of sociopolitical and economic reconstruction.

There is a consensus among U.S. military commanders in Iraq and observers that Mr. Hussein did not have operational control over the armed resistance, mainly because he was preoccupied with his survival. It thus remains to be seen if the insurgency will intensify or expire as a result of Mr. Hussein's arrest. The initial evidence is not reassuring.

Independent analysts note the armed resistance encompasses a wider spectrum of political and ideological forces, not only Mr. Hussein's diehard supporters but also indigenous Iraqi Islamists, nationalists, ordinary citizens who have become dissatisfied with the U.S.-led military occupation and a few hundred Arab fighters who have entered Iraq and joined the insurgency.

The likelihood exists that the resistance could intensify in a way similar to what occurred after the killing of Mr. Hussein's sons in July. Far from being a turning point for the better, their deaths plunged Iraq deeper into the throes of violent upheaval and turmoil.

The struggle for influence and power could potentially unleash devastating shocks in the next few months. In this sense, one has to be careful about making definite statements about the effects of Mr. Hussein's capture on the security situation in Iraq. The mood and conditions of Iraqis are very volatile. With Mr. Hussein's exit, their anger and wrath could easily be directed against the U.S. occupation.

The critical variable that will ultimately tip the balance in one direction or another depends on the willingness of the United States to legitimize the process of social and political reconstruction in Iraq. How can the United States convince Iraqis that it does not plan to stay for too long, that it is genuine about their political empowerment, that it does not intend to exploit their resources and that it does not wish to create a puppet government in Baghdad?

Legitimizing the process of political reconstruction requires the Bush administration to show vision and courage and to implement concrete policies.

First, all Iraqi communities, including the Sunnis who feel marginalized as a result of the collapse of the Sunni-dominated Baathist regime, must have a stake in the new order being constructed in Iraq

Second, there's an urgent need to fully internationalize the Iraqi reconstruction project and involve the United Nations and the world community in reassuring Iraqis and giving them time and space to debate, argue and struggle over the future of their country.

Internationalizing the process of political and social reconstruction will not just lend it credibility but will also convince Iraqis that the United States does not have any designs on their country. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most influential Shiite cleric in Iraq, has demanded that the United Nations supervise the process by which a new government is established, and certify the result as well.

Finally, the question of what to do with Mr. Hussein is highly critical for future stability and peace in Iraq. The challenge facing the new Iraq and its occupying power is how to provide Mr. Hussein with a fair, open and transparent trial that is regarded as legitimate by most Iraqis and world public opinion. This requires strong international oversight and supervision of any Iraqi tribunal. It is worth noting that the justice system in Iraq is just beginning to function after 50 years.

At this stage, Iraq does not possess the legal infrastructure to conduct high-profile, complex trials. Nor does it have an independent, sovereign government. In the eyes of many Iraqis and world public opinion, the United States, being the occupying power, calls the final shots.

Therefore, a combined tribunal with Iraqi judges and international jurists would go a long way to heal the deep wounds festering in the Iraqi body politic and serve the process of internal reconciliation.

Although Mr. Hussein will likely have his day in court and will try to expose his past connections with the U.S. foreign policy establishment, the advantages of an open and fair tribunal outweigh any disadvantages.

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