Is Saddam's regime on the verge of crumbling? Developments over the past few days suggest it is. First, of course, are the obvious signs: the whopping defeat of the two main Republican Guard divisions on the southern approaches to Baghdad (predictable but faster than expected), the taking of the airport on the capital's outskirts, and the curious fact that the man himself has not been seen or heard from for a while. But there are some equally intriguing bits of circumstantial evidence.
The first emerged on Tuesday, when the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, renewed his offer of exile and safe haven to Saddam Hussein. Iraq's Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan responded by calling Prince Saud "a minion and a lackey," adding, "You loser, you are too small to talk to the leader of Iraq. … You failure, go to hell." The Saudis first made this offer last month, in an attempt to avert war. Might they have offered it again now, just as U.S. forces began to break through Iraqi resistance, in an attempt to evade the regional consequences of a total American victory? It's speculation, but such an attempt might reflect Saudi intelligence that Saddam's days are not just numbered, but shortly numbered. And would Ramadan have so crudely insulted the Saudis—and, by extension, the Arab League, which has favored Iraq with a collective anti-war stance—if he did not realize the end was near? Or—just as damning—his emotional outburst might reflect a depressed and desperate state of mind.
Yesterday, the Iraqi government kicked two reporters from Al Jazeera out of the country. Was that to prevent TV viewers throughout the Arab world from witnessing the impending defeat?
Then today, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who earlier this week had declared a fatwa against U.S. and British troops, suddenly reversed gears and instructed his followers not to obstruct the nice invaders. Few will fail to notice that the ayatollah's first statement came while under Iraqi house arrest, while the second came after the Marines had booted his captors out of town. His explicit backing of the Western armies also signifies—and will be read as such by all sides—that this major Shiite cleric, who knows to be leery of premature uprisings, now believes it is safe to come out against Saddam.
Also today, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder dropped his opposition to "regime change" as a goal of the Iraqi war, telling the Parliament in Berlin, "We hope that through the defeat of the dictatorship the Iraqi people can realize its hopes of a life in peace, freedom and self-determination as soon as possible." One night earlier, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer had told his British counterpart, Jack Straw, "We hope the regime will collapse as soon as possible." French government spokesman Jean-Francois Cope told reporters in Paris, "Naturally, we hope for the end of Saddam Hussein's regime." The leaders of Old Europe, too, have wetted fingers in the air, alert to gusts from one direction or the other.
Again, these events prove nothing definitive. They are, at most, signs, signals, tokens of shifts in the game of perceptions and the correlation of forces. They do not, by themselves, rebut the critique that the Pentagon overestimated the effects of "shock and awe" and sent in too few tanks and ground troops. However, they could suggest that these shortcomings merely delayed and complicated the U.S. offensive rather than bogged it down. For, if the signs do point to a real trend, and not just random coincidence, they might indicate that Saddam's regime will implode very soon.
Surely Saddam's allies shifting into neutral, neutrals relishing his downfall, and local foes moving into open opposition mean something. These shifts, along with the military facts on the ground and in the air, might be enough to convince Saddam or those around him that the game is up, that there's no way out, and that their best-case scenario—to fight the United States to a stalemate and hope that outside powers push for a negotiated cease-fire—is a non-starter. If these signs do mean all that and this dynamic takes hold (both big ifs), the war could be over before its fiercest chapter—the dreadful mess of urban warfare—gets underway.