Saddam Hussein: I am the President of Iraq and I am willing to negotiate.
Special Forces Officer: President Bush sends his regards.
A more farcical conclusion to the thirty-five year tragedy involving Iraq, its president, and the United States would be hard to imagine. Yet a very similar exchange must have taken place at least twice before.
First, in December 1983, when Saddam met President Reagans envoy Donald Rumsfeld and received American assistance in his war with Iran; second, in July 1990, when he met the first President Bushs ambassador, April Glaspie. That conversation left Saddam with the impression of American consent to his planned invasion of Kuwait.
On each occasion, Saddam was in a tight spot not unlike the one he was caught in this week. In 1983 the senseless war he had launched against Iran three years earlier was going badly wrong, in 1990 a million angry Iraqi soldiers were wondering why they had to spend eight years fighting it. With each turn of this loop Saddam was lurching from one military adventure to the other. Millions of Iraqis and others paid the price in death and misery.
Even in his last stand, if it could be called such, Saddam was true to form. His own bombastic rhetoric calling fellow-Iraqis to commit suicide fighting the occupiers was only matched by the fear and compliance oozing out of him in the presence of his captors. The president of Iraq was willing to negotiate to save his skin.
This latest instalment of this exchange does not come a minute too soon, for not only did Saddam emerge as a shadow of his former self from that hole in the ground. Iraq itself has been left on its last legs after decades of repression, wars and sanctions. So much so, that few Iraqis seemed to muster the energy and courage to celebrate the hated tyrants demise. There was something decidedly muted about Iraqis reaction to what is arguably the best news they have heard in decades. No wonder: on the same day, 18 policemen and bystanders were killed in Ramadi in the latest of the seemingly unceasing attacks on everything which could carry the promise of a better future. The counter-insurgency is taking its toll with an ever growing number of innocent victims, disruptions and humiliations.
Indeed, the capture of Saddam will be meaningless if the violence does not stop. It does, however, provide an opening to break this vicious cycle. The coalition could use the arrest as an opportunity to declare a ceasefire and an amnesty to those willing to lay down their arms. It could further accelerate the scheduled transfer of sovereignty to Iraqis now that the main mission of the war has been accomplished.
Iraqi political leaders should launch a campaign of national reconciliation to match their continuing if lacklustre campaign against the violence. The trial of the tyrant, conducted properly with UN backing, can provide the perfect background to both campaigns. We may even find out how those first two conversations went.
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