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One year on, the capture of Saddam Hussein can be seen as a false dawn for Iraq

By Patrick Cockburn in Baghdad

13 December 2004

A year ago yesterday, a bedraggled Saddam Hussein was dragged from a hole in the ground to a chorus of self-congratulation from US officials claiming his capture was a turning point in the Iraq war.

"In the history of Iraq, a dark and painful era is over," declared George Bush the day after the former Iraqi leader was seized. "A hopeful day has arrived. All Iraqis can come together and build a new Iraq."

The optimism of US military commanders was extraordinary. Major General Ray Odierno, whose 4th Infantry Division was credited with arresting Saddam, declared a month later that the insurgency was "on its knees" and only "a sporadic threat". He went on to assure the press in Washington that "in six months you are going to see some normalcy".

A year later, American casualties showed how little the war was affected by the imprisonment of Saddam. Of the 1,283 US soldiers who have died in Iraq since the invasion in March 2003, 821 of them were killed since his capture.

Six months on, the US fully controlled only islands of territory in Iraq. All the main roads leading out of Baghdad were unsafe. The resistance felt strong enough to openly establish checkpoints around the capital.

Why did Saddam's capture accomplish so little compared to the expectations of the White House? It believed much of its own propaganda about the resistance being orchestrated by remnants of Saddam's regime.

But it was never likely that Iraqis who failed to fight for Saddam when he was in power were doing so after he was overthrown.

During the invasion last year, the roads of Iraq were choked with abandoned tanks and armoured vehicles. Most of the Iraqi army, including the supposedly elite Republican Guard, simply went home.

Saddam was a highly convenient enemy for Washington. He was easily demonised. He was also militarily incompetent.

The very fact that his hiding place was betrayed and he was captured alone shows that he had no secret infrastructure for a guerrilla war after he fled Baghdad. His sons Uday and Qusai were also betrayed to the US army.

At the heart of the US miscalculation of the impact of Saddam's capture was ignorance about the simple reason for the rising strength of the Iraqi resistance: outside Kurdistan the great majority of Iraqis, whatever they thought of Saddam, were against the US occupation.

This is true of the majority Shia Muslims, as well as the Sunni Arabs who have risen in rebellion. A main demand of the Shia electoral list, likely to attract the most votes in the 30 January election, is for an end to the occupation.

The famous pack of cards showing the senior members of the former regime - Saddam was, of course, the Ace of Spades - is now something of an embarrassment. Most have been caught or given themselves up, but it has not affected the uprising.

At first, it appeared possible that Saddam would play a role in the US presidential election in November. His trial could have been portrayed as evidence of the victory of the administration in Iraq. But his appearance in court last July largely backfired.

US officials failed to turn off the sound equipment of television crews in the court. As a result, instead of the beaten and bewildered Saddam of seven months before, Iraqis saw a pugnacious figure decrying his judges as US dupes.

At the same time the Iraqis in charge of the trial, notably Salem Chalabi, the nephew of Ahmed Chalabi, once favoured by the Pentagon, had themselves been purged. Now men loyal to Iyad Allawi, the interim Iraqi Prime Minister, will be in charge of the proceedings.

But the arrest anniversary was marked by some of Saddam Hussein's old lieutenants, among them Tariq Aziz, who went on hunger strike over access to lawyers and fears of being handed over to Iraqis.