- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Many asked the question last week: How is Iraq faring one year after the capture of Saddam Hussein? A Byzantine debate ensued immediately. To the natural answers praising the arrest by coalition forces in December 2003, many critics directed their fire at the current state of affairs in Iraq. Their argument reads like this: The U.S. arrested the former dictator a year ago, yet terrorism is on the rise, the Allawi government is weak and the international community is backing off from reconstruction. A further stretch of this argumentation would lead you to believe that Saddam’s capture is irrelevant and hence was not a victory. And to reinforce the equation, the critics — from the anti-intervention movement — focus on the problems to come because of this capture: the trial.

Amazingly, those who diminish the significance of the arrest of the Ba’athist dictator pretend that an open trial would lead the country to worse nightmares, like an ethnic-religious civil war. In reverse logic, had Saddam not been found and brought to justice, Iraq would be better off. And by deduction, had the United States not invaded Iraq, the Middle East would have been perfect, or almost so, according to the pessimists.

The legitimacy of the war in Iraq has been already debated and will continue to be by historians. Soon we will have more striking answers by Iraqis themselves as they reemerge from oppression and genocide.

For only the people suppressed by Saddam can historically legitimize the necessity of the military action against his regime. And for average Iraqis to express these views, they need freedoms and a state that can guarantee them. This is precisely what the Allawi interim government is trying to do: Conduct elections to bring about a legitimate, democratic institution — so that the bulk of the Iraqi population talks to the world. The real question a year after the arrest of Saddam is this: Did this event help the Iraqis to restore themselves as a civil society, initiate the process of a national democratic institution, and organize themselves to face the terrorists? I believe it did, and this is why: If the former dictator had escaped U.S. patrols and their Iraqi allies, the most natural developments to occur — and some of them have already taken place — would be as follows:

• Saddam would have linked up with Abu Musab Zarqawi through his lieutenants. The ties that were built in the early 1990s between Baghdad’s intelligence and the Jihadists would have become operational in a vast manner in 2004. But instead of having al Qaeda absorbing Ba’athists, there would have been two equally efficient networks, which would have rendered the emergence of an Iraqi state in the Sunni Triangle more difficult. The Saddam-Zarqawi alliance would have encouraged more Ba’athists to believe in and act on behalf of the “insurgency.”

• Saddam not being captured would have meant that thousands of men and women who were part of his Republican Guards would have joined his underground regime by fear or by hope. The anti-government terror would have been much wider.

• Arab regimes would have hesitated to recognize the Allawi government. Many would have called for a “reconciliation in Iraq” between the forces of the past regime and the ones against. Saddam knew too much about many Arab leaders to have them bury him alive, while he would have been able to reach out to the media and through his spy networks.

• The winter passage of the interim constitution would have been lacking enough internal support, as many feared Saddam’s power in the shadows. The June passing of power would have been precarious as long as a dictator ruled from the spider holes. And as a consequence, adding to popular fears, the January 2005 elections would have been portrayed as partial and illegitimate.

• With Saddam regaining control of Ba’athist networks inside Iraq, his envoys to Syria would form a “command in exile.” Syria’s Bashar Assad would have fed the former political foe of his late father to engage U.S. and coalition forces as a way to pre-empt Iraqi democracy from spilling into Syria.

• With Saddam free from justice, Iraq’s Shiites would have acted aggressively and many among them would have sought Iranian support. Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani wouldn’t have been able to convince his flock of the necessity of a multiethnic, multireligious Iraq. The Kurds would have clung to autonomy, and the Christians would have been in total despair. The few Sunnis who are opposing the Wahhabis would have been surrounded by two anti-Democratic forces: Saddam’s and Bin Laden’s.

Whatever the pronouncements of the critics are, most Iraqis converge in one direction. Saddam’s capture was a boost to Iraqi democracy.

Waid Phares is a professor of Middle East Studies and a senior fellow with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington.



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