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President George W. Bush first got word from Rumsfeld on Saturday afternoon in a call to Camp David. "We think we may have him," Rumsfeld announced, and the President said to keep him informed. The President had already planned to return to the White House early to avoid a snowstorm descending on the mid-Atlantic coast that could have prevented his attending a special Christmas show taping the next day. Bush called Adnan Pachachi, the acting president of the Iraqi governing council, to congratulate him; as they were trying to get him on the cell phone Pachachi was with Bremer at Saddam's holding location. He couldn't take the phone immediately because he was berating the fallen dictator.
"Ladies and gentlemen, we got him," Ambassador L. Paul Bremer, tears in his eyes, told the news conference, which erupted in cheers. "Iraq's future, your future, has never been more full of hope. The tyrant is a prisoner." From the first moment the American video of Saddam in custody began rolling, Iraqi journalists stood and screamed. Some yelled, "Kill him! Kill Saddam." The people of Baghdad caught the spirit of hope and pain, firing bullets into the sky and throwing candy, lighting firecrackers in the street. "They got Saddam!" "The devil is gone." It was like a wedding day, or perhaps more a birthday. "We will be friends with the Americans because of this," said a delighted Syed Hassan al Naji, the Baghdad commander of gadfly cleric Moqtada Sadr's militia, the Army of Mehdi. In his white turban and long robes, Al-Naji beamed with pleasure in his neighbor's house in Sadr City as the news came out over the Arabic news channels. "This is a great day."
Hashim Kamal al Naami, a 78-year-old political exile living in Ukraine started crying when he heard that the rumors of Saddam's capture were confirmed. "I can't believe it," he said over a satellite phone to his son in Baghdad. A lawyer and retired staff brigadier for the Iraqi Army who was openly critical of Saddam's regime, al-Naami finally concluded that it is now safe to return, after more than a decade of living abroad. "There's no need for me to stay away anymore," he said over the phone. While he was speaking, his Iraqi friends were planning a celebration in the Yalta town hall for the hundreds of Iraqi political exiles who live in the area. "It's not only the living Iraqis that are celebrating," he said. "Even the dead Iraqis are celebrating in their graveyards."
There was no celebration in Tikrit, Saddam's home town, and elsewhere former regime members were sullen and glum, looking for further proof, refusing to believe even when word came that the confirmation went beyond the local authorities, beyond the CIA and the Pentagon, down to the level of his scars and his cells, a DNA test. According to Senator Pat Roberts, head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, the U.S. had some of Saddam's senior aides driven to Tikrit to view him and confirm it was him. A shopkeeper there named Basim al-Tikriti said, "I am shocked. I cannot move my body. I feel like I am frozen."
Does this mean that the attacks on U.S. soldiers every day, the roadside bombs and downtown ambushes and mortars fired at headquarters would die away? There never was good evidence that Saddam was controlling the insurgency, and the circumstances in which he was found hiding in a hole, accompanied by an entourage of only two suggest he was too isolated to play any central role. However, his arrest could still profoundly rattle the resistance. The Pentagon estimated that nine of 10 insurgents were former regime loyalists. To the extent they were driven by a rational agenda restoring the old regime to power they are now deprived of their end goal. The insurgents are, for the most part, Baathists, and throughout his rule Saddam was the party and the party was Saddam."I think it will let the wind out of the sails," says Russell. "And if not, these people who continue to support him are completely stupid."
There are practical reasons to think Saddam's capture may help quell the resistance. For one thing, even if Saddam's leadership was not central to the insurgency, his money likely was. Many of the resistance fighters the U.S. has picked up were essentially mercenaries, former criminals or jobless men who were paid to strike U.S. forces. His arrest increases the chance that Iraqis will feel safe to turn in other insurgents, as happened after the siege that ended in the deaths of Saddam's sons Uday and Qusay.
There remains, however, the resistance fighters who have no loyalty to Saddam but fight for other, larger causes. They will likely be affected in different ways: the jihadis are not known to have yet established in Iraq their own infrastructure for fighting. Rather, they are thought to have joined up with Baathists, who can provide them the intelligence, the money, the munitions and the vehicles to deliver them in their attacks. To the extent the Baathists are hurt, they may be hurt too.
At the same time, no one is expecting the conflict to end abruptly, especially the military commanders who work out of one of Saddam's ornate palaces overlooking the Tigris River in Tikrit. "We expect a spike in enemy activity," says Captain Mitch Carlisle. "We're more focused on alert than ever. We're not letting our guard down at all."
The news meant that the man George Bush vowed to hunt down was now at his mercy, and so he has choices to make. He could declare victory and go home, but nothing in his reflexes or rhetoric suggests that, having placed Saddam in a cage, he is inclined to leave his other promises unfulfilled. And so the latest in the series of tests of a President's instincts and motives comes to this: Does he trust the people he says he went to war to free to do the right thing? If a sense of justice is the necessary rock on which democracies stand, how can anyone other than his countrymen have a greater right to put him on trial? But how would that work, who leads the prosecution, who defends him, and what laws apply? "There's an Iraqi catharsis that has to take place," says one senior State Department official. "The nation has to see it on their TVs and they have to feel like they did it."
That the Americans captured Saddam alive spares Bush the problem he faced after Saddam's sons were killed last summer: even after camera crews were allowed to film the dead bodies of Uday and Qusay, many Iraqis remained unconvinced it was them. Given the depraved legacies of the sons, it was like trying to convince the Iraqis that the devil had been killed. This time, the devil is in custody, walking, talking, clearly himself. "I imagine he was almost relieved," a Pentagon official said. "I mean, he lost his power, his country, his sons and he lost his freedom in a lot of ways before we got him."
It's equally significant that the devil, at least so far, isn't spitting fire. Had Saddam been taken in a pressed shirt, well-groomed, standing tall, spouting defiance, the Americans would have a new problem on their hands. A dignified Saddam being manhandled by imperialist troops could well have become a rallying figure not just for former Baathists, but for Arab nationalists in Iraq and outside it. Whatever posture Saddam takes in whatever tribunal he appears in, he will likely never live down that image of him scruffy, defeated, opening his mouth for the doctor like a good boy. "It's like he's a goat," one Iraqi delighted, watching the images of Saddam being searched on TV.
With Saddam at last captured one mystery is solved, but others now simmer. What happened to his weapons, his money, his remaining allies? What were his plans? Will all the Iraqis who have never learned what happened to their brother, their uncle, their neighbor now get the maps to the rest of the mass graves? Will they find a way toward reconciliation, Sunni and Shi'a, Arab and Kurd, as every hopeful official set as a necessary step on a path toward true peace? The world waits for a new chapter and history prepares, once again, to turn on a dime.