The year ended yesterday with Saddam Hussein in the grave. Alive, he wielded a personal power that defied understanding - he terrified and galvanized the Iraqi people, and he transfixed President Bush and the neoconservatives who came to see him as the devil incarnate. In the face of death he showed neither remorse nor fear, but a disturbingly fierce and self-possessed defiance. He was the conjurer who whipped up the forces that are consuming Iraq today, and that have plunged Sunnis, Shiites, jihadists, Baathists, Americans into war.
A conjurer: This was a man with no ties to al Qaida or 9/11, with no weapons of mass destruction. But the thinkers who devised the U.S. invasion of Iraq couldn't see that, couldn't believe it. Saddam Hussein's spell was such that they even forgot Osama bin Laden.
They were determined to remove the Iraqi tyrant from power, to sweep him off the stage. Now, finally, he's gone - and it's beside the point. The ideologies of death and revenge that he unleashed no longer needed him, anyway. Iraq is in agony; the American death toll reached 3,000 yesterday. How can anyone have thought the United States belonged there?
Millions of Iraqis were understandably thrilled by Saturday's hanging - because if it wasn't perfect justice it was certainly a satisfying act of vengeance. But the nearly four years that have passed since the American-launched war began have been cruel and bloody ones; no one who could avoid it would choose to live in the Iraq of today.
Sober analysis suggests that more Iraqis die each day now than under the Hussein regime, though it's impossible to know what the total numbers are because the country is in such turmoil. More money was stolen when Washington was running Iraq than when the scandalous oil-for-food program was under way before the war, and corruption remains endemic. There is less electrcity and less police competence and less of an ability for Iraqis of different sects to live together. There may be just as much torture, or more.
None of this excuses the gruesome record of Saddam Hussein. But his death by trapdoor serves as a jolting reminder that Iraq is convulsed by a civil war that owes its origins to decisions made in the Oval Office, and that those decisions were driven more by an eagerness to engage the symbols of evil than by a prudent understanding of reality. Now the chief symbol has been buried; the reality continues.