National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Behind the News
Issue Date:  December 26, 2003

Beyond Saddam

In the wake of his capture, lingering but seldom-asked questions remain

Editor’s note: The capture of Saddam Hussein is a striking development in the ongoing struggle in Iraq. Will it prove a turning point in the war or had Hussein, as one writer suggests, “ceased to have any real significance” since his overthrow? How is it possible to be both elated at the capture of this brutal dictator while opposed to the war that brought it about? The following includes interviews by NCR editor Tom Roberts with Kathy Kelly, head of Voices in the Wilderness, and New York Times writer Chris Hedges, author of War Is the Force that Gives Us Meaning, both of whom have appeared large on NCR’s pages in the past in opposition to the war.


It was just hours before the capture of Saddam Hussein turned into a political polling question in the United States. The results showed an uptick in President George W. Bush’s popularity.

That boost in confidence was reflected in commentary that foresaw the capture helping to diminish the resistance, leading to greater involvement of previously reluctant U.S. allies and ending with a display of jurisprudence in the dictator’s trial that would provide a model for the Arab world.

But just as quickly, the resistance, whoever it is, seemed determined to show that it was not folding quickly. Its response to the capture was massive truck bombings, assassination of an Iraqi leader and the killing of an American soldier in an ambush. How is it that the capture of Saddam Hussein did not, it appears, have an immediate and dramatic effect on the ground in Iraq?

“In and of itself, Saddam’s capture has little real effect on the ongoing Iraqi conflict -- it is an afterthought to the invasion and occupation of Iraq,” wrote William O. Beeman, in an opinion piece for Pacific News Service. “Saddam had ceased to have any real significance almost immediately after the first tanks rolled over the border from Kuwait. In subsequent months his sons and heirs had been killed, and his military infrastructure scattered in disarray.”

Beeman, who directs Middle East Studies at Brown University and is author of the forthcoming Iraq: State in Search of a Nation, continued, “Despite his terrible crimes, Saddam had been so weakened in the last decade that he was no longer a danger to the world, although he continued to oppress the Iraqi people.”

Even so, Saddam Hussein in shackles has a certain symbolic value, but Beeman wonders if trial in open court would contain a certain disadvantage for the United States. “Having him alive and talking to the world may implicate his captors in a particularly uncomfortable manner. The decade-long Iran-Iraq conflict of the 1980s is one particularly thorny event, in which the United States is complicit in supplying intelligence support -- and perhaps weaponry -- to Iraq. The conduct of current U.S. government figures, such as Vice President Dick Cheney, Richard Perle and, indeed, President George H.W. Bush during this period is especially problematic. Saddam can easily make the case that if he had not been boosted by the United States, he would never have been the international threat he was purported to be.”

Did the United States help make Saddam Hussein?

“That’s pushing it,” said Chris Hedges, reporter for The New York Times and author of War Is the Force that Gives Us Meaning. “We didn’t make him, but we certainly did not vigorously protest the campaign of genocide” against the Kurds, said Hedges, who spent time among the Kurds during his 15-year career as a war correspondent. “He used poison gas during the war with Iran and against the Kurds.” The United States, not wanting the Iranians to defeat Iraq, “gave him aerial intelligence,” Hedges said.

“We have certainly been culpable in the sense that when Saddam Hussein was carrying out his genocide, at the height of the butchery we not only did nothing to protest or stop it but we provided succor and assistance to the regime. And that’s not lost on the Iraqi people. We have not had a good track record in the Middle East.

“So now, to hear that high-blown moralistic sermonizing coming from the administration makes me nauseous,” he said.

Hedges, who approved of the 1991 Gulf War, has strongly opposed the most recent invasion and occupation. He said capture of Saddam did not provide justification for the war. “The destruction and daily maiming and death that are taking place in Iraq can’t be justified by the capture of Saddam Hussein. No one would like to see him tried for crimes more than myself. The question is, ‘How do you go about apprehending a criminal like that?’ ” The United States has supported other despotic regimes in the region, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia, “who refuse to provide the most basic human rights to their own people.” The “hypocrisy,” Hedges said, “is not lost on most Muslims, although it may be pretty lost on those of us here.”

Two days before she left for Baghdad Dec. 18, Kathy Kelly, cofounder of Voices in the Wilderness, said she had not changed her long-held conviction that other means could have been used to bring Hussein down.

Kelly, whose group actively opposed the sanctions for more than six years, argued that “had the sanctions been lifted and Iraq been able to make advances in its education, its communication and its social services, I think the Iraqi people would eventually have had the strength to remove Saddam.” She cited the toppling of the shah’s regime in Iran -- he “even had U.S. support” -- and of the Cold War dictatorship in Romania.

She pointed to a U.N. report several years ago that at least 500,000 Iraqi children under the age of 5 died as a direct result of the U.S.-inspired sanctions.

In the end, she said, “the economic sanctions solidified Saddam Hussein’s power, and Iraq became more isolated and more beleaguered.” In turn, she said, the U.S. public got a “cartoonized” version of foreign policy “where we had the idea that there was only one person in the whole country.” That person has been removed, she said, but there is no guarantee that the rest of the people in a country “brutalized by sanctions and brought to a standstill by U.S. warfare” will become compliant to U.S. wishes.

Kelly, who has taken more than a dozen trips to Iraq over the years and who was there during the height of the most recent war, said she is returning to reconnect with Iraqi citizens that Voices delegations have come to know. “We want to be faithful to people who have shown enormous hospitality to us over the years. We need to listen to them. We don’t want to allow governments to sever the bonds of friendship.”

National Catholic Reporter, December 26, 2003

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to: