Saddam Bagged, Bizarre Baghdad Doesn’t Bug Out

BAGHDAD-If you didn’t know the devil himself had been put behind bars, you never would have guessed.

It was the night of Dec. 14, barely six hours after U.S. administrator Paul Bremer fired the six words heard ’round˜the world:

“Ladies and gentlemen, we got him.”

The jig was up, the news was out, the DNA was in, the dictatorial hair had been probed for lice on international television …. Yet, to all outward appearances, the streets of Baghdad did not know and did not care.

I had gotten into a car for a vivid, perhaps even dicey, ride through Saddam Hussein’s capital after its last piece of sky had fallen. It turned out to be a scavenger hunt for signs of anything at all.

I went to Firdos Square. Thanks to its proximity to the journalist-infested Palestine and Sheraton hotels, this square functions quite often as catharsis central; a convenient place for demonstrators to vent their rage and get on TV, too. It was empty, and the only hints of breaking news were the hallowed squares of camera light glowing into the night from rooms where correspondents were doing live stand-ups.

I went to Al Sadr City, the massively Shia, largely impoverished area where the resilience of sewage has long since tempered the euphoria of liberation-but where the waning of affection for America has, nonetheless, done little to dilute the venomous hatred of Saddam. There, the streets were quiet-but not, it bears noting, one murmur more quiet than usual. The shops that were always open late were open late tonight, and through their windows could clearly be seen one vignette after another of business as usual: a storekeeper putting cans on the shelves; a shoe salesman accepting dinar notes for plastic sandals.

“Thank God they catch Saddam; we are very happy, this is from our God,” Ali Al-Saadi, a 30-year-old day laborer, did tell me, and the friends standing around him nodded. These men were lit with elation, but they were not consumed by it. They were just milling around near a food stand.

I went to the area around Camp Marlboro, the nearby American base, in search of Iraqis shouting in praise or protest. During the day, the island in the road that runs along the camp’s barbed walls is a motion picture in living color-of smoking bonfires, braying donkeys, wheeling-and-dealing purveyors of propane. It was deserted. On the way home, on a flashier, busier thoroughfare, I came across a merry convoy of about a dozen cars with their horns blaring, full of singing, waving passengers. Sure enough, one of the passengers had a foot-high hair-do and a sugar-spun veil; it was a wedding procession.

Overall, then, the feeling was definitely a dash of beige where one expected a splash of red; a flick of the Bic where one expected the Fourth of July. In the absence of massive celebration, it seemed necessary to dig around for the cause of mass hesitation.

In context, after all, the insistence of normality seemed all the more bizarre. Iraqis, as the wedding indicated, are great markers of milestones. Weeks before, when their national soccer team had won a big game, these same people had erupted in celebratory gunfire that was so loud and lasted so long that I truly, if briefly, believed that the civil war had come at last. Moreover, since the occupation began, many Iraqis had given many indications that the capture of Saddam would be the biggest milestone of them all. For months, Iraqis had been saying-whispering, sometimes, as if a temporarily out-of-work agent of the Mukhabarat might overhear-that they could only turn the corner after the U.S. got Saddam, dead or alive, and thereby assured them that a) he really was not coming back, and also that b) he was really not off in Russia or Syria or Miami, basking in impunity.

Of course, there was at least one obvious reason: the Iraqis’ well-founded feeling that the capture of Saddam would do nothing to free them from the problems they have been facing. Fuel lines would still be long, electricity would still be erratic, jobs would still be scarce, the streets would still be clogged. But that just doesn’t account for the whole of it. Perhaps the Iraqis’ ambivalence now has less to do with what they are facing than with who they are-or who they think they are. And, in many of their own minds, who they are seems surprisingly hard to sever from who Saddam is.

Which is not to suggest that they don’t hate him and want him dead.

It’s complicated.

“What is complicated?” asked Ahmed Chalabi, the Pentagon’s favorite member of the American-appointed, pre-emptively marginalized Iraqi Governing Council. This was on Sunday afternoon, right after the announcement, and Mr. Chalabi was standing outside the marble headquarters of the 25-member council.

For all its amply chronicled infighting, decision-phobia and other elements of ridiculousness, the council is by no means void of talent, courage or good intentions. And in light of the constant, credible threats on its members’ lives, the fact that it is headquartered far back in the hermetically sealed, reality-free “green zone” that is the U.S. compound in Baghdad is not to be faulted. Nonetheless, given its immaculate landscaping and overpopulation with well-dressed, well-padded men wandering around in their sense of significance, the whole setting couldn’t help but call to mind a clubhouse just before tee-off time.

Anyway, Mr. Chalabi, along with several colleagues, had been wandering now and again out of the building to meet the gathering press. The complications he was dismissing were not emotional but judicial, and they were already bubbling up on the burner of What Next For Saddam.

“There is a process,” he said, referring to the war-crimes tribunal that had been set up. “There is an investigation.”

“There is going to be a trial,” an aide pointed out.

Given the young fellow’s excellent grooming and the perfect English in which he swirled such phrases as “phoner with Stephanopoulos” into his mobile telephone, it was hard to imagine that he and his boss had never heard of O.J. Simpson, and therefore of the potential for the trials of celebrities-let alone allegedly genocidal celebrities-to spin off in ways that were unpredictable, even dangerous, for society as a whole.

In any event, they would be learning about this phenomenon soon.

The complications arising from the spectacle of Saddam, captured alive and kept that way for months at least, range from the wildly colorful to the dry but defining. On one side of this spectrum, there is the wild, wild card of how Saddam plays as a defendant. If catching Saddam can have its public-relations perils for the Americans, it is foolhardy to assume that trying Saddam will not. Until Sunday, I must admit, I would have laughed at the notion of negative fallout from either one, except among those Iraqis who have supported Saddam all along.

Then the Americans pulled him out of a rat hole looking like hell, and televised him getting his tongue depressed and his tonsils lit up.

Although there were clearly good reasons for taking and showing such film-it clarified that it really was Saddam; that he wasn’t being tortured; that he was, for that matter, getting medical attention-the general reaction suggests that there were better reasons not to do so. It was partly due to those images that even Iraqis who hate Saddam very personally confessed to being happy and sad at his capture: happy that the animal was caged, as some literally termed the event, yet sad that “our president” (as they referred to him more often on Monday than I had ever heard them do before) had been brought so low. Fascinatingly, no matter what the regime had done to them or their relatives, almost no one I spoke to seemed to be reveling in his humiliation, and many seemed to feel that they somehow shared in it.

This does not mean that people don’t want him punished (see death-penalty discussion below), but it does suggest the possibility for public sentiment toward captive and captors alike to change in the coming months, depending on what is done with Saddam.

On the other, more scholarly side of the spectrum, there are the legitimacy and separation-of-powers implications of a judicial body being formed by a political body that was itself, in turn, formed by a foreign occupation force. In between, there are questions which include, but are not limited to, the questions of venue and punishment.

International human-rights organizations were arguing, not without reason, that it would be impossible for Saddam to get anything approaching a fair trial in Iraq. Yet the Iraqis I ran into deemed it unthinkable for Saddam to get a trial anywhere else. “We won’t accept it,” declared Qasim Jabor, a 33-year-old barber in Karrada, as he shaved the face and then clipped the hair of a customer. “No one has suffered like the Iraqis.”

As for the death penalty, the Coalition Provisional Authority has suspended it in Iraq, and members of the coalition have threatened to abandon ship if it is reinstated. Yet for Baghdadis rich and poor, educated or not, the issue on Monday seemed to be not whether Saddam deserved the death penalty, but how to go about making it bad enough for him.

“They must kill him 100 times,” said Hamza Sabat, 20, an unemployed electrical worker from Al Sadr City.

“Not only the death penalty,” concurred Qasim the barber. “Something stronger.”

Not even the people who helped formulate the war-crimes tribunal are clear on how it will work or what its limits will be. On Monday morning, Dara Nooraldin, a judge and a member of the Governing Council, gave an interview to three Western reporters.

“This is not a revenging court,” he declared, before spending several minutes saying all the right judicious things and using all the right judicial terms: fair court … evidence … eyewitnesses … documentation ….

Then one of the reporters asked whether the Iraqis might consider doing something along the lines of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, in which members and enemies of the apartheid regime fully confessed to their former crimes, in exchange for which many were pardoned.

“In South Africa, were the same crimes committed as were committed here?” he asked.

Well, some pretty serious stuff went on there, the reporter replied.

“Serious,” Nooraldin granted. “But not like the Ba’ath.”

Well, a political torture victim is a political torture victim, no?

“Did they used to bury them alive?” Nooraldin challenged. “Or kill children with poisonous gas?”

The reporter then allowed as how they used to stick tires around people’s necks, douse them in gasoline and set them on fire.

“And they were forgiven for these crimes?” asked the judge .

“Yes,” said the reporter-correctly or incorrectly, I don’t know. It was a colleague having the exchange, and what struck me about it had nothing to do with what the South Africans did a few years ago, but with something that official-type Iraqis (and not only this one) have been doing a lot lately, which was using terms such as “amnesty” and “truth and reconciliation” interchangeably with such terms as “must be punished” and “brought to justice.”

“Oh,” said the judge, and then paused for a moment, as if this revelation were a freshly formed cushion and he needed to sit back on it for a second. This he did.

“Maybe the same thing will happen here.”

And maybe, all present thought but did not say, it won’t.