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A Gut Punch to Loyalists

Times Staff Writer

The gasps that arose when Iraqis first saw Saddam Hussein humbled, bedraggled and in American hands could be the sound of the air leaving the insurgent movement.

The former soldiers and intelligence officers who were the backbone of the guerrillas in Iraq have suffered a stunning blow to their morale. Ordinary people who have been sitting on the fence may now be less likely to aid the insurgency or to believe that it can succeed. Some Iraqis may even be emboldened to cooperate with the U.S. vision for a new Iraqi state.

The capture of Hussein means that an important source of inspiration -- and perhaps cash and leadership -- for the insurgency has been neutralized, suggesting that U.S. troops and Iraqis who cooperate with them could eventually be safer.

Nevertheless, the opposition should not be underestimated. Before Hussein was caught, military officials had been unanimous that the resistance was getting stronger, not weaker. Almost coinciding with his capture, a suicide car bomber in the Sunni Triangle town of Khaldiyah mounted one of the deadliest attacks in weeks, killing 17 Iraqi police officers and wounding dozens more. Another U.S. serviceman lost his life Sunday trying to disarm an improvised bomb.

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Even if the Hussein loyalist component of the insurgency fades, the U.S. will still be challenged by Al Qaeda and affiliated radical Islamic networks, which now are believed to be operating inside Iraq as well as elsewhere around the globe.

These groups never cared for Hussein anyway -- considering him an apostate -- and their outlook will be undeterred by his capture because they are motivated by jihad, or holy war, against the Americans.

As many as 5,000 fighters from Saudi Arabia, Syria, Yemen and a host of other countries reportedly have streamed into Iraq this year, and they are still plotting major attacks against U.S. and coalition interests, said counter-terrorism and intelligence officials interviewed Sunday.

“Of the two problems, the foreign bad guys and Saddam loyalists, the Saddam loyalists are the bigger problem. But groups like Ansar al Islam and Al Qaeda still want to hurt us in Iraq,” one official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “So you have done something good to suck the air out of the bigger problem. But is the overall problem gone? Absolutely not.”

In the short term, U.S. forces and their allies may be well advised to brace for a counterstrike because insurgents may feel compelled to mount dramatic assaults to underscore that they are not yet finished.

Nevertheless, the significance of the capture may be what it did to diminish Hussein and demoralize his loyalists.

If Hussein had used the pistol he kept at his side to attack the Americans who discovered him hiding in a hole in the earth, or even to kill himself, it might have served as more of an inspiration for his Baath Party cohorts. But his failure to do either, like his ignominious flight from Baghdad without a fight April 9, will probably leave longtime followers cold and disillusioned.

Although most ordinary Iraqis had already dismissed the possibility that Hussein would ever regain power, at least some Baathist members have hoped for a restoration if the Americans could be driven out by the insurgency.

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Other Iraqis retained a deep and abiding fear of Hussein, conditioned by years in which any disloyalty to the leader was tantamount to death.

For 35 years, Hussein and his minions ruled by force and intimidation, portraying themselves as lions and reducing their enemies to mere objects to be ground down, humiliated and destroyed.

So the tables-turned video presented Sunday by the U.S. military -- showing Hussein as a disheveled, compliant prisoner, bending submissively as an American doctor searches his wild, shaggy hair and pokes a tongue depressor into his mouth -- will resonate among his followers.

Rather than fighting on to avenge him, many supporters probably will feel contempt for his surrender and despair for their cause, observers said.

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“The capture will have a demoralizing effect on his supporters and loyalists, and the number of attacks will be reduced dramatically,” predicted Hoshyar Zebari, the ethnic Kurdish foreign minister of Iraq’s interim government.

“In the long term, I think they have lost,” he said of the Baathist insurgency during an appearance on CNN. “That is the nature of all dictators -- they are cowards.”

Lt. Col. Eric Nantz, a U.S. battalion commander in northwest Baghdad, expressed optimism that Hussein’s capture would change the dynamic in the country.

“I hope that those that expected him to return will now come forward and begin to assist with the rebuilding of a new Iraq. My view is that 30 years of terror has created a population that is afraid to step forward,” he said.

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The circumstances of Hussein’s capture, discovered in a “spider hole” with no evident means of communication with the outside world, suggested that he had little direct control over the insurgency, U.S. officers theorized. He appeared very much just as U.S. officials had been portraying him for months -- a man on the run with little or no ability to do anything but tend to his safety.

“I think he was more there for moral support,” said Maj. Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of the 4th Infantry Division in Tikrit.

But the $750,000 found with Hussein was another piece of circumstantial evidence that he and the insurgency still had large sums of cash to spread around.

The question is whether -- with Hussein detained -- such money will still be available for hiring people to wage war against the coalition, or whether it will simply be pocketed by whoever now has access to the former president’s secret cash caches and bank accounts. Given the opportunistic and mercenary characteristic of many Baath Party officers, the latter seems plausible.

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Over time, it appears likely that many Baathists will see the handwriting on the wall for their outlawed party and not risk their money and lives on a struggle for a man and his dynasty never returning to power. And some strongly anti-American Sunni Muslims could see a better chance to secure their rights through negotiation rather than guerrilla warfare.

Meanwhile, the capture should be a boost to President Bush’s prestige in the region. He accomplished his goal to capture or kill Hussein in a region that admires strong leaders.

He should be able to use that capital to influence events inside Iraq and compel Iraq’s neighbors and even European countries to become more supportive of the transition to elections and Iraqi sovereignty, now targeted to take place in mid-2004.

But the success in seizing Hussein also could have a destabilizing effect on Iraq’s political process.

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Shiite Muslims, who want power transferred from the occupying coalition to Iraqis at a faster rate than Washington envisions, now could have more leeway to agitate to get U.S. forces out sooner -- or even actively resist the Americans -- because the threat of a Sunni Baathist resurgence is diminished.

Similarly, there could be increased domestic U.S. political pressure on Bush to remove American troops rapidly now that the chief object of the invasion -- Saddam Hussein -- is no longer a threat.

But as soon as a U.S. withdrawal appears imminent, the shaky consensus in the Iraqi Governing Council is likely to fray and the contradictory goals of some of its members may erupt into a serious competition that could also undermine stability.

Those problems, though, are still a long way off. And there will be no disputing the tremendous feeling of joy and relief among the country’s Shiite majority and its Kurdish minority, both of which suffered disproportionately under Hussein.

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