At last some good news for a battle-weary PM

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It's hardly surprising that Tony Blair was the first international leader to confirm, and then publicly welcome, the momentous reports that Saddam Hussein had been captured alive.

For a Prime Minister whose political fortunes at home have been dogged by the fall-out of a war that was deeply unpopular in his own party, the seizure of Saddam Hussein is unreservedly the cause for celebration he described in his dramatic Downing Street statement yesterday.

After the killings, crises and failures in the aftermath of the Allies' military victory in April, this was unalloyed good news for Mr Blair. He was contemplating a torrid new year in which he would have to face further discontent among his own MPs over his backing for a deeply controversial US-led war.

Although swiftly prepared, his words in Downing Street were carefully chosen. His appeal for reconciliation among Iraqis partly reflects the hope that the political process can now more fully embrace representatives from the large Sunni minority from which Saddam came. His reference to a "coalition" success may contain an oblique implication that British intelligence played its part in the discovery and capture of the dictator.

There will no doubt be protracted international debate about the nature of the Iraqi trial that awaits Saddam. But Mr Blair's reference to his fate being in Iraqi hands suggests that while Britain disagrees with the US view that the death penalty is the right course, it will not stand in the way of execution if an Iraqi tribunal decides in its favour.

And obvious as it is, his point that Saddam isn't coming back isn't meaningless. No one who has visited Baghdad since April can doubt the depth of fear among many rank-and-file Iraqis that he would return one day, or at least find the means of continuing to exercise his lethal influence to stall political progress in the country.

Mr Blair's relative restraint is nevertheless understandable. Senior British officials do not expect the guerrilla warfare waged by Fedayeen, which has so regularly claimed the lives of US troops in past months, to suddenly cease.

Their fears are heightened by the much-discussed influx of foreign fighters, some of whom may be al-Qa'ida members, since the occupation began. But if the violence does not begin to diminish in at least the medium term, much of yesterday's euphoria among the Allies will be dissipated now that the bloodshed can no longer be blamed directly on Saddam. Second, if information pinpointing Weapons of Mass Destruction is not forthcoming from Saddam, or other regime captives who may feel inclined to talk now they know he is behind bars, it will be deeply troublesome for the Prime Minister considering their existence was his reason for going to war.

Mr Blair would nevertheless much prefer to contend with those problems than to have Saddam still at large.

Even the most vociferous opponents of the war cannot do other than welcome the seizure of the former Iraqi dictator. It doesn't end debate on the war - far from it. It will still take a political, economic and social transformation in Iraq to start removing the anger generated by an allied invasion. But that looks just a little more possible than it did 48 hours ago.

The seizure of Saddam is the biggest single development since April that suggests the still-beleaguered Prime Minister can begin to turn the argument his way.

There are terrible perils ahead. But the capture alive of the flesh and blood dictator is, if not exactly a closure, at least a result that the toppling of a mere statue on 9 April could never have been.