BAKU - The Christmas blockbuster from the Pentagon studios was a dream. This was the new Roman Empire at its peak - better than Ridleys Scott's Gladiator: a real, captive barbarian emperor, paraded on the Circus Maximus of world television. The barbarian was not a valiant warrior - but a bum. He was not hiding in a nuclear-proof bunker armed to his teeth - he was caught like "a rat" in a "spider hole". He was nothing but a pathetic ghost taking a medical for the world to see. What the bluish pictures did not show, though, is that former US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) asset Saddam Hussein is a reader of the great Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky. An Arabic copy of Crime and Punishment was found in a shack near the "spider hole" where he was captured.
Saddam surely now know very well what he needs to do. He won't be consumed with remorse like Dostoevsky's character Raskolnikov, who committed murder. For the moment Saddam may be "taking the Fifth" - in the words of an American interrogator, referring the the fifth amendment of the US constitution under which a person has the right to remain silent until charged in court. But Saddam will wait until he gets some rest, a very good lawyer, and then he will start talking.
The capture of Saddam was the best Christmas gift that President George W Bush could expect from his foreign policy adviser - God. Or was it? AlJazeera television has quoted Egyptian writer Sayyid Nassar saying that "by shaving his beard, a symbol of virility in Iraq and in the Arab world, the Americans committed an act that symbolizes humiliation in our region". Revenge could be imminent - and it will pour in avalanches, not from Saddam of course, but from wounded Iraqi and Arab pride.
Holes big enough to accommodate armies of spiders remain in the carefully-choreographed Pentagon screenplay. Suppose Saddam - well versed in the treachery levels in the Arab world and well aware that a close family friend had denounced his sons Uday and Qusay - had indeed chosen to hide in a hole in the ground only a few hours before his capture. It's still remarkable how the "rat" managed to elude capture when thousands of American soldiers were combing every inch of the Sunni triangle for months. And if he really had US$750,000 with him in $100 bills, it wouldn't take a lot of human intelligence to just follow the money.
It's also remarkable that someone who foiled all sorts of assassination plots chose to be holed up in a farm near his hometown - the most obvious place where he could be found - and without any protection. Only two of his cousins from the al-Douria tribe were with him at the time of the arrest. Unlike the Pentagon version, sources tell Asia Times Online that they were simply peasants, not Saddam's bodyguards. Where were the protecting hordes of paramilitary Fedayeen of Saddam, and the still-loyal Mukhabarat intelligence agents?
Not only one of his daughters, but local villagers, are absolutely convinced that he was drugged before the capture, a vital element in the Pentagon choreography to show to the world - especially the Arab world - the picture of a disoriented bum. Saddam was carrying his pistol. So no one will ever know whether he had any intention of using it - against his attackers or against himself. The "documentation" found with Saddam is also very suspicious, as it might conveniently contain a list of names of people leading the Iraqi resistance in the Sunni triangle.
But all of this is speculation. The reality is that Saddam is in US custody, so what now? From Saddam's point of view, he has a better chance to tell his side of the story - including the real circumstances of his capture - now that his legacy as a courageous Saladinesque warrior facing up to America is in ruins. Living the rest of his life as a nightmarish remake of The Fugitive was definitely not an option. He may not have chosen it, but he may not regret public humiliation in an American commercial instead of doing a James Cagney in White Heat under a hail of bullets.
Only three months ago, this correspondent met scores of people in Baghdad and the Sunni triangle whom were absolutely convinced that former CIA friend Saddam and Washington were still involved in some sort of secret deal. Now European, Asian and Arab diplomats and businessmen are commenting off the record that there's every possibility that the CIA, or even Bush himself, may have struck a deal with his number two embodiment of evil - number one being the still elusive Osama bin Laden. They are all suspicious of the impeccable timing: and if a deal was not in the cards, then the CIA knew exactly where Saddam was for days or weeks, and were just waiting for the moment of maximum impact. Saddam was captured exactly when Halliburton was under extreme pressure for effectively swindling American taxpayers. Bush himself said on the record that if there was any proof of wrongdoing - and there is conclusive proof of overcharging - the company would face consequences. It didn't: the story - too dangerous, too close to vice president and former Halliburton boss Dick Cheney - simply disappeared from the news.
Whatever his ghastly criminal record, already debated to exhaustion, Saddam understands power extremely well: that's how he managed to keep it for three decades. He had plenty of time to prepare his exit - before the "fall" of Baghdad - and he certainly had plenty of time to prepare his re-entry in case he was caught. He may well have piles of compromising documents to use in his defense in what will certainly be the trial of the centuries - current and previous.
World leaders are now falling over themselves calling for a fair trail, in Iraq, under international standards. The Iraqi occupation is absolutely illegal, so Washington will not even consider trying Saddam in the Hague, like Slobodan Milosevic.
Unlike George W Bush - whose Texas state allowed executions when he was governor - United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan was quick to say that the UN never sets up a court which carries the death penalty. Amnesty International insists that Saddam should "not be subjected to torture or ill-treatment" and must "receive a fair trial". An Iraqi version of the post-World War 2 Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals will be totally illegitimate and a political disaster for the Americans. So the consensus is moving towards a public trial, in an Iraqi court, conducted by Iraqis, with some international judges, and meeting international standards. The Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) is also in favor of this latter option. But there's a huge problem: a tribunal in Iraq, like everything else at the moment, will have no legitimacy in the eyes of the Iraqis and the Arab world because it will be subservient to the occupying power. One can already see the daily guerrilla attacks outside the courtroom. The trial will only make sense if there is a real representative Iraqi government in place, which will not happen until June next year at the earliest.
Saddam then will finally have an international platform. Everybody knows in advance the heinous crimes of which he will be accused. But at least then he could finally expose the hypocrisy and double standards of the West as a whole, and specifically America.
With the help of a battery of legal eagles, he can prove that there were never any weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and he can prove there's no evidence to support Bush's claims, last March, that he had "trained and financed al-Qaeda".
He can expand on how, in February, slightly before the onset of "shock and awe", his negotiators were delivering everything to Washington on a plate: free access to the Federal Bureau of Investigation to look for WMD anywhere in Iraq; full support for the American-penned road map in the Middle East; and the right for American companies to exploit Iraq's oil. The neo-conservative "Prince of Darkness" Richard Perle, who had been calling for an invasion of Iraq for years, was one of the contacts of Saddam's negotiators. The defense will certainly call Perle to testify.
On March 17, Bush said that "should Saddam Hussein choose confrontation, the American people can know that every measure has been taken to avoid war". Bush lied - and it would be very easy for Saddam to prove that he did everything to find a diplomatic alternative, while Washington did everything to prevent it. He can prove that Bush and his European allies - Britain's Tony Blair, Silvio Berlusconi in Italy and President Jose Aznar of Spain - lied to a world public opinion which was overwhelmingly against the war.
He can talk of endless collusions with Washington, right up to the day he invaded Kuwait in August 1990. Still today, nobody has told the real story preceding the invasion of Kuwait. He will say how at the time Washington led him to the conclusion that an invasion was "acceptable". The defense will certainly call April Glaspie, the American ambassador in Baghdad and the last American official to see Saddam eye-to-eye five days before the invasion. She was "retired" by the State Department and has been conveniently silent ever since.
Using equipment bought from National Security Council chief Brent Scowcroft's company, Kuwait was involved in slant-drilling in Iraq in 1989, and was pumping out something like US$14 billion in oil from underneath Iraqi territory. The territory from which Kuwait was drilling had indeed been Iraqi territory. Saddam will say that Glaspie told him the US was neutral in the dispute. Saddam will also say that in 1989, while the CIA was advising Kuwait to put pressure on Iraq, a CIA-affiliated think tank was advising him to put pressure on Kuwait. And at the same time, Bush senior's administration was issuing a secret directive that resulted in billions of dollars of arm sales to Saddam.
He can talk about how, why and by whom the Shi'ite intifada was betrayed after the end of the first Gulf War in 1991. He will give American names. He will detail the American deal under which the US was to have helped the Shi'ites. He will prove that those exhumed bodies incriminate the Anglo-American alliance as much as himself.
He will keep talking all the way back to 1989, to the famous meeting on December 20, 1983 in Baghdad with his friend Donald Rumsfeld, now Pentagon chief. The fuzzy photo of Rumsfeld eagerly shaking hands with Saddam Hussein, observed by foreign minister Tarik Aziz - which simply vanished from corporate media - will be one of the stars of the trial. Rumsfeld was sent by then president Ronald Reagan to mend relations between the US and Iraq only one month after Reagan had adopted a secret directive - still partly classified - to help Saddam fight the Islamic revolution in Iran. Saddam will detail how this close cooperation led to Washington selling loads of military equipment and also chemical precursors, insecticides, aluminum tubes, missile components and anthrax to him. Of course he will be condemned for using the lot to gas Iranian soldiers and then civilian Kurds in Halabja, northern Iraq, in 1988. But he will also prove that the selling of these chemical weapons was organized by Rumsfeld.
He will prove that American - and European - companies exported biological viruses for at least four years to various Iraqi government agencies and other companies, with licenses from the US Commerce Department, and thus helped him to build up his crude weapons of mass destruction program - totally dissolved after the first Gulf War.
He will prove that Washington was perfectly aware at the time that he was using chemical weapons. He will remind anyone how, after the Halabja massacre, the Pentagon engaged in a massive disinformation campaign, spinning that the massacre was caused by Iran. He will prove how Dick Cheney, as Pentagon chief from March 1989 onwards, continued to cooperate very closely with him. He will prove how the military aid - secretly organized by Rumsfeld - also enabled him to invade Kuwait in 1990. He will remind anyone again of how, between 1991 and 1998, UN weapons inspectors conclusively established that the US - as well as British, German and French firms - had sold missile parts and chemical and bacteriological material to him.
He will recall the Iran-Iraq war in great detail, and how, during the war, the CIA always sent him a team to deliver battlefield intelligence obtained from Saudi AWACS surveillance planes. The defense will call CIA officials who signed documents sharing US satellite intelligence with both Iraq and Iran - so Washington could be sure of a permanent military stalemate.
Incriminating evidence against all levers of power in Washington will be immeasurable. There will be a non-stop roll-call of civilian deaths and non-stop supply of arms. It will go all the way back to 1959, when a young Saddam was part of a CIA-authorized six-man squad which botched the assassination of then Iraqi prime minister General Abdul-Karim Qasim.
Saddam on his way to the courtroom does not mean democracy has arrived in Iraq. Let's make it absolutely clear. The last thing that the White House, the euphemistic Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and the ICG (dubbed "the imported government" by Iraqis) want is real democracy in Iraq. Shi'ite and Sunni alike are in the streets shouting "free elections now!" - leading to the formation of a constituent assembly. The occupiers and their local collaborators know very well that an elected constituent assembly would naturally demand what the overwhelming majority of Iraqis want: the immediate end to the occupation, total Iraqi control of Iraqi oil and first choice for Iraqi companies in the rebuilding process.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the top Shi'ite religious authority, also wants direct elections. In an unprecedented move for someone as "beyond politics" as Sistani, he accused the CPA of being non-democratic. Sistani is totally supported by Shi'ite leader Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, one of the rare members of the IGC not suspected by ordinary Iraqis of being a crook. Al-Hakim's official position is that a provisional national assembly should be elected by the Iraqi people, and this assembly should choose the government. The credibility of the IGC is less than zero. Iraqis, Shi'ite and Sunni alike, are convinced there is absolutely no difference between Saddam's former thugs and the current, power-hungry majority of IGC members.
"When the heat got on, you dug yourself a hole and you crawled in," said Bush of his public enemy number two. Like Shi'ite and Sunnis all over Iraq, former CIA asset Saddam Hussein is also plotting his revenge. One can bet he is sure that when he talks he may be able to hurl George W Bush all the way back to his ranch in Crawford - along with Saddam's close collaborator Dick Cheney and Saddam's old friend Donald Rumsfeld.
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