Should Saddam Be Killed or Captured?

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A Dictator and His Boys: Saddam with Uday and Qusay

If it is Saddam Hussein, he sounds like a man who knows his end is near. In a taped address to the Iraqi people broadcast on an Arab cable news channel on Tuesday, a man believed to be the fugitive dictator acknowledged the death last week of his sons Uday and Qusay, proclaiming them martyrs in a "jihad" that would ultimately defeat America. But the tape may turn out to be an auto-epitaph by a man U.S. commanders confidently proclaim will very soon be within their sights. Saddam's top bodyguard was captured near Tikrit on Tuesday, and U.S. commanders have suggested they may be only 24 hours behind a dictator. Once they catch up, the question becomes: Will Saddam be taken alive and tried, or killed like his sons?

The U.S. hopes his elimination will help end the resistance that has plagued U.S. forces since Baghdad fell in April. Some ten U.S. soldiers have been killed in the week since Uday and Qusay were shot dead at a house in Mosul, and it's not clear that their slaying has had the desired effect. Of course even if the deaths of Saddam and his sons would end the insurgency, the effect might take some time to filter down. But U.S. commanders on the ground in Iraq say they're facing a multi-layered, decentralized fight, and aren't betting that it will necessarily be subdued by the decapitation of the old regime.

The reported response among ordinary Iraqis to the death of Uday and Qusay Hussein was wildly mixed, with some simply refusing to believe it (although Saddam's mournful message would presumably diminish their number), some welcoming the news, and others criticizing the U.S. for having killed them rather than capturing them and allowing Iraqis to put them on trial. There was also criticism of the U.S. for parading the bodies in a sometimes macabre media ritual, and for failing to observe the Muslim tradition of burial within 24 hours. Those comments, as well as the calls for trial rather than summary execution, reflect a resentment of occupation even among many Iraqis who had loathed Saddam — the fact that it took an American invasion and occupation to get rid of him deepens their humiliation, and hasn't necessarily endeared the U.S. to them. That sense of alienation may be reinforced by incidents a raid Sunday on a Baghdad house where U.S. forces believed Saddam was sheltering, during which four innocent Iraqis were reportedly killed and a number wounded in the course of U.S. efforts to secure the location. U.S. officials say the victims were in two cars that ran a roadblock, although that account disputed by locals. In a city where the locals are inclined after weeks of lawlessness and deprivation to believe the worst of the Americans, that's an unfortunate discrepancy.

Key U.S. allies in Iraq last weekend suggested that capturing Saddam and putting him on trial would be preferable to killing him. Britain's UN ambassador, Sir Jeremy Greenstock, who takes up his post as deputy to U.S. administrator in Baghdad Paul Bremer in September, argued strongly in a BBC interview that Saddam should be taken alive and brought to court. That call was echoed by Ahmed Chalabi, once the Pentagon's most-favored Iraqi exile and now serving on the Bremer-appointed Governing Council. Putting Saddam on trial would allow Iraqis to own the process of their liberation from his regime, he argued. And it would involve systematically stripping the former dictator of his power to terrify Iraqis, denying him the legend of "martyrdom" and forcing him to account for his crimes.

Of course, Saddam's fate may be in his own hands. He could refuse to be taken alive. Then again, if he's been following the trial of former Yugoslavian president Slobodan Milosevic — which has been anything but plain sailing for his accusers — Saddam may be tempted to fight on from within the dock. After all, Iraqis and most Arabs haven't exactly bought into the U.S. narrative of the war. Conspiracy-minded Iraqis opine that, like Milosevic, Saddam could reveal uncomfortable facts about his dealings with the U.S. over the years. (There would certainly be major media interest in the Iraqi dictator's account of, for example, the conversations between himself and Don Rumsfeld, the current Defense Secretary who visited Baghdad in 1981 as an emissary of the Reagan Administration.) On the other hand, Saddam has always had delusions of grandeur in which martyrdom is his ultimate fate, which would not fit well with a trial that sees him humiliated and held to account for manifold crimes against humanity.

And given the disposition of the U.S. forces currently after him, to make it to court Saddam would likely have to surrender pretty soon. Given his track record for miscalculating, if the Pentagon futures market in Mideast events was up and trading, it would have been a relatively safe bet that Saddam won't be taken alive.

Undersecretary of State Richard Armitage said Monday that Saddam should be killed if his capture meant risking U.S. lives. And Rumsfeld last week said the decision had been left up to commanders in the field. For Bremer, the precise nature of Saddam's fate was less important than its timeframe: ''The sooner we can either kill him or capture him," he told U.S. TV audiences last Sunday, "the better.''

The response of Iraqi insurgents to the deaths of Uday and Qusay has been to escalate their attacks on U.S. forces. But the question of whether these are a Baathist swan song or part of an expanding guerrilla war will only be answered in the months ahead, particularly if Saddam is taken out of the equation in short order. U.S. analysts certainly believe that remnants of Saddam's regime are playing a central role in the resistance, but it's not clear whether they're dependent on the same central authority that held them together before the regime was toppled. There is evidence that some of the attacks on U.S. forces may emanate from previously dormant Islamist and nationalist elements, and foreign jihadis from other Arab countries. For both Bremer and the military commanders, the bet appears to be that subduing the insurgency will depend less on eliminating Saddam and his heirs than on aggressive counterinsurgency tactics combined with urgent improvements on the delivery of basic services to Iraqis.

While most of the resistance thus far has been confined to Iraq's Sunni Muslim minority, there are worrying signs emerging among the Shiite majority. While the leading clerics and some of the Shiite organizations previously based in Iran have counseled moderation and working with the U.S. authority, the young firebrand Moqtada al-Sadr appears to be wrapping his own bid for supremacy among the Shia in an increasingly strident campaign to confront the occupation, reinforcing his claims to leadership of the streets by channeling popular sentiment over the heads of those taking a more moderate approach. Last weekend's clashes at Karbala, in which one Iraqi was killed and a number wounded in a demonstration sparked by false and probably deliberately fueled rumors that the U.S. had encroached on a Shiite shrine there — provoking further violent clashes the following day — may be a harbinger of things to come as the struggle for power among the Shiites heats up. That, in turn, could complicate the challenge facing the coalition.