Saddam Hussein had been president of Iraq for nearly 24 years when he was toppled in the wake of the Western alliance's invasion in April 2003. He was on the run for eight months before US forces discovered him hiding in a farmhouse near his home town of Tikrit. He was tried and found guilty of crimes against humanity, and hanged in December 2006.
The capture of Saddam Hussein is the end of era in Iraq, but his capture may only further expose how difficult and dangerous it is to govern that country. The glee in Washington today resembles that felt by the US administration in April when Baghdad fell more easily to American tanks than any of its critics had supposed. But the subsequent occupation was harder than many predicted.
This is not to say that the US will not be boosted by taking their enemy prisoner. It will impress Iraqis with the belief that the US does have a measure of control. When the first tapes of Saddam were broadcast a few months ago I remember there was almost a physical sense of apprehension in Baghdad. That should end.
However, the Americans must now understand that Saddam himself probably had very little control over the guerrillas who had killed or wounded so many Americans and their allies in the last two months. The resistance cells seem to be loosely organised and mostly home-grown in the towns and villages of central Iraq. There is also the lesson of three wars – the Iran-Iraq war in 1980, the invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the war earlier this year – that Saddam had peculiarly bad military judgement.
His capture does have one benefit for the US and its allies. It is the first real success they have had since the fall of Baghdad and it will puncture the image that the US administration in Baghdad was a sort of Inspector Clouseau figure, making mistake after mistake while confidently claiming victory at every turn.
But the imprisonment of the former Iraqi leader does not solve the most serious US problems in Iraq, which is that it does not have local allies with sufficient strength to run the country. It is this which has sabotaged the US efforts to pacify the country. Their only powerful allies are the Kurds. They are the smallest of country's three dominant communities – the others are the Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims – and they are not strong enough for the US to rely on in future.
The US has had great difficulty in escaping the consequences of its initial mistakes in Baghdad. It failed to stop the predictable looting. The Pentagon's priority seems to have been to make sure that, whatever else happened, the influence of the US State Department was minimised.
The second great error was to dissolve the Iraqi army and security services – together with their families, perhaps two or three million people – without working out how these people would survive in a country with 70 per cent unemployment. The US then began to target members of the Ba'ath party without distinguishing between those who were in leadership positions and those who had been compelled to join the party because they were doctors or teachers.
Sometimes the US has tried to reverse these mistakes, but the administration in Baghdad is a strange lumbering beast which usually only reacts slowly to events around it. For instance, a centrepiece of American policy is to create a new Iraqi army and police force loyal to the new regime. It is then extraordinary that somebody decided to pay the soldiers $70 (£40) a month for an exceptionally dangerous job.
Indeed, the headquarters of Paul Bremmer, the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad, is one of the more bizarre institutions ever seen in the Middle East. It is wholly divorced from the world around it. The last time I was there I was stopped by a friendly Gurkha soldier who was happy to talk about Katmandu but otherwise was determined to let nobody into the building. Then a security officer from Texas, so far as I could tell from the accent, stopped me, saying belligerently: "Journalists are always assassinating people. We are not letting you in."
The US troops and commanders scattered around Iraqi provincial cities and towns seem to have a much better idea of what is happening. They have told anybody who will listen for months that the Iraqi resistance was locally organised and not controlled from the top, either by Saddam or his ageing acolyte Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri.
In theory the US should be winning this war. Its weakness – and this will continue despite the capture of Saddam – is that they do not quite understand the nature of the war they are fighting. The guerrillas are not very strong. But they can inflict immense political pain in Washington with limited means, and they know it.
One of the curiosities about US and British attitudes to events in Iraq is that it is often based on the belief that ordinary Iraqis do not know what is happening. In fact, they are very sophisticated. For over a decade many have had nothing to do but listen to foreign radio broadcasts in Arabic from the BBC, Monte Carlo and Voice of America. The quality of news they listen to is probably higher than that heard by most people in Europe or the US.
Iraqis learned from an early stage after the fall of Baghdad that the only thing that had an impact on policymakers in Washington was violence. This does not mean they all favoured or would take part in guerrilla war. Very few regretted the departure of Saddam. But they knew that moderate opposition would get nowhere. This is an important point. Many Iraqis were rather in the position of Roman Catholics in Northern Ireland in the 1970s who strongly disliked the IRA, but had also noted that Westminster only listened to the grievances of their community when it was accompanied by violence.
The problem for the US is that it has always made concessions too late. "They were drunk with victory," said one Iraqi leader closely allied to the US. It conceded power to the interim governing council only when the guerrilla war had got under way. As it has intensified, Washington has agreed to a provisional government by the middle of next year.
But it is still unclear who this provisional government will represent. The indirect elections by local caucuses would be open to fraud in any country, but particularly in Iraq. For instance, tribal leaders would play a role. But nobody knows who is the leader of many of the tribes because the sheikhs were often chosen by Saddam.
It would be much better from the US and British point of view if regular elections were held using a franchise based on the lists for food rationing. This is not perfect but it is less flawed than anything else. An election under such rules would probably produce an administration dominated by members of the Shi'ite community answering their religious leader Ali Sistani. The US will not like this. It will not be a regime friendly to the long-term presence of the US and Britain in Iraq. But at least it will be a government that can claim to have mass support and legitimacy – something which neither Saddam nor the occupation has ever possessed.
If the US and Britain react, as Tony Blair seemed to yesterday, by exaggerating the impact of the capture of Saddam then none of these fundamental problems in ruling Iraq will be solved, and the guerrilla war will only escalate.Reuse content