The Arab press reacts to Saddam's capture.

The Arab press reacts to Saddam's capture.

The Arab press reacts to Saddam's capture.

What the foreign papers are saying.
Dec. 15 2003 2:43 PM

A Coward Caught

Did Saddam's weekly chats with his second wife lead the Army to his spider hole?

From a reading of the Arab press Monday morning, it is doubtful former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein will soon overcome the ignominious circumstances of his capture—"caught like a rat," to quote Maj. Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of the 4th Infantry Division, whose troops found Saddam hiding in an underground cellar.

The London-based Al-Hayat headlined its front page, "He Didn't Resist … He Didn't Regret." Below the headline was a photograph of Saddam opening his mouth to an American doctor so that swabs could be taken for DNA testing. The paper referred to Saddam's failure to resist his captors, despite the fact that he was carrying a pistol, but also to his reported lack of remorse when meeting with members of the Iraqi Governing Council. Beirut's Al-Safir, which has been highly critical of U.S. actions in Iraq, was more ambiguous in its own banner headline, which played on the place the former Iraqi leader was caught: "Saddam Alone … in the Hole of Surrender to the Occupation." The London-based Saudi Al-Sharq al-Awsat also offered up a pun, reporting, "Saddam Arrested in a 'Spider Hole' Without Resistance," by which it also meant the coalition forces' spider web.

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Most Arab opinion writers had little nice to say about Saddam, even those known for their antipathy toward the United States. For example, Al-Safir owner and publisher Talal Salman, a noted Pan-Arabist, began his column: "It was an end worthy of a despot, an oppressor of his people, weak in the face of foreign occupation. The end was unexceptional: Every dictator is a coward, he kills but doesn't fight." Kuwait's Al-Rai al-Aam was equally disdainful, noting in a front-page editorial that "the most eloquent message in Saddam Hussein's arrest was its liberation of the Arab mind from the obsession of illusory heroism, even as [this mind] is a prisoner of impotence." And, looking ahead to what Saddam's capture and trial might mean for Iraq, the influential Lebanese journalist Ghassan Tueni wrote in Beirut's Al-Nahar: "The … despot leaves behind him tragedies—and [unsettled] accounts. This makes us regret [both] for him and for Iraq that he didn't die a tragic hero. … He didn't commit suicide like Adolf Hitler … and he wasn't 'killed' by the … doctors who hesitated for days before revealing the death of Stalin—who frightened them even after his death."

An interesting variation on the theme came from the London-based Al-Quds al-Arabi, whose editor Abd al-Bari Atwan has always been more sympathetic to Saddam than other Arab commentators. He penned a bitter commentary under the headline, "A New Insult to the Arabs," writing of the capture, "Yes, it is a great American victory … but it is also a temporary victory, because the celebrations that accompanied the fall of Baghdad evaporated with record speed thanks to the pugnacious resistance operations that spread to most areas of Iraq." Atwan's real regret was that Saddam didn't go down fighting. While pointing out that the public only had an American version of the capture, he added, "It was a shock to us, and an insult to millions of other Arabs watching … the Iraqi president submitting to the humiliating medical examination; we would have liked to see him fight to the end and die a martyr like his sons and grandson, or choose the death of Hitler by firing a bullet into his head or swallowing poison."

Saddam's only surviving son, Ali, did not die a "martyr," because he lives in Lebanon with his mother, Saddam's second wife, Samira Shahbandar. Al-Sharq al-Awsat ran a captivating story, based on an interview with Shahbandar Britain's Sunday Times fortuitously published Sunday, in which she noted that Saddam telephoned her on a weekly basis. The story is interesting because there were unconfirmed reports on Sunday that the Americans located Saddam by intercepting one such call. While U.S. commanders subsequently claimed his capture was the result of betrayal by individuals close to the former Iraqi leader, it was unclear whether other methods had also been used. Shahbandar said she last saw Saddam in April, just before she left Baghdad, and that he gave her $5 million. He also took her into a room before saying goodbye and started crying, after "affirming that the collapse of his regime was due to the betrayal of his closest collaborators."

Will Saddam's capture do much to end continued attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq? Syria's official Teshreen indirectly answered that question in a headline, observing, "American Forces Arrest Saddam Hussein South of Tikrit, and the White House Expects Resistance Operations To Continue." In an unsigned editorial, Lebanon's English-language Daily Star argued that Saddam's capture "creates both dangers and opportunity." The paper agreed that the news would boost the self-confidence of American forces, but warned, "The sight of Saddam in custody has to be a demoralizing blow for at least some of the organizations that have been resisting the occupation. It might also, however, embolden others who had thus far stayed out of the fight for fear of helping the former dictator in any way. Many will base their choices on America's behavior: They will be looking for signs of what, precisely, the superpower has in mind for Iraq and its neighbors."