In December 1996, Uday, the eldest son of Saddam Hussein, was driving in a white Mercedes through the al-Mansur suburb of Baghdad when three men waiting in ambush opened fire with Kalashnikovs, killing the driver. Uday cowered down behind the dashboard. One of the gunmen fired eight bullets into him at almost point blank range. Much to the disappointment of Iraqis, Uday survived after prolonged surgery, but ever afterwards walked with a pronounced limp. It was the nearest any assassins, despite many attempts, had come to killing a member of Saddam's immediate family, of whom Uday was unquestionably the most hated. Not surprisingly, the news of his death, along with that of his younger brother Qusay, was greeted with fusillades of joy in Baghdad.
The White House showed almost equal enthusiasm. It is, after all, the first really good news that the US administration has had out of Iraq since the fall of Baghdad on 9 April. Suddenly the great lumbering American army in Iraq is shown to be doing something effective. It will also have an impact within Iraq for the same reason. The great majority of Iraqis may be fairly sure that Saddam is not coming back. But when the first tape recordings of his voice started being broadcast a month ago one could sense a mood of caution growing in Baghdad. That Saddam was demonstrably still alive increased the sense that the US was not quite in control.
At the same time, the fact that Uday and Qusay could not find secure hiding places shows the lack of the support for the old regime. They were found staying in the house of a man who claimed to be a relative and who was therefore likely to be under surveillance. Other senior members of the group who ruled Iraq under Saddam have either given themselves up or been captured in their own houses. There is no sign that they remain organised or capable of resisting the occupation.
It is therefore by no means clear that the killing Uday and Qusay by US troops in Mosul - even if it is followed by the death of capture of Saddam himself - will end or seriously affect the escalating guerrilla war against the US occupation. There is no evidence that the attacks were being orchestrated by Saddam or his two sons. Paul Bremer, the chief US official in Iraq, says they are not being centrally co-ordinated. Though at the same time he has repeatedly claimed that the assaults are being carried out by the last "desperate remnants" of the old regime.
This is a little misleading. No doubt many of of the increasingly sophisticated ambushes are the work of former members of the Iraqi security forces, the Republican Guard, army and the Baath party. But this is a reflection of the US attempt, in the over-confident days immediately after the fall of Baghdad, to marginalise these powerful groups which, together with their families, number two or three million. They are fighting for their own interests and not necessarily to restore Saddam to power.
The guerrillas have many motives. There is outraged Iraqi nationalism, sometimes allied to Islamic militancy. So far, at least, this is only beginning to spread to the Shia majority. But this could develop quickly if the Shia clergy decide that the US will not let their community take power through free elections. There is also the natural friction between ordinary Iraqis and the American and British occupation forces. Neither has really come to terms that, for all the ferocious authoritarianism of Saddam Hussein, much of the Iraqi population is traditionally armed. US soldiers drawn from the Florida National Guard even managed to shoot two Iraqis in Baghdad celebrating the death of Uday and Qusay by firing their guns into the air.
For the guardsmen from Florida, Iraq must seem a very strange place. Not only does every Iraqi home have a sub-machine gun, but the family arsenal also often contains a rocket-propelled grenade launcher or a mortar. In the early 1990s, Saddam tried to buy back some of the heavy weapons held by the general population. One tribe in southern Iraq even turned up with three tanks which they had secured during the Iran-Iraq war.
Looting has never really died away since the fall of Baghdad. Iraqis feel the need for personal weapons more than ever. Many taxi drivers in Baghdad now carry pistols, which they never did before. In the countryside farmers often keep all their wealth quite literally under the bed since they have not trusted banks ever since the currency collapsed in 1991. One Iraqi pointed out to me that "if you robbed a house in Los Angeles you would be lucky to find $500 in cash. If you did the same in Iraq you would often find up to $30,000 in hundred dollar bills."
If a US soldier knocks on the door at three in the morning he is likely to be greeted by a farmer with a gun in his hand. Not surprisingly he opens fire, and the farmer is added to the grim statistics issued at the end of search operations of Iraqis killed while resisting the occupation, with the implication that they were fervent supporters of Saddam Hussein. Some of this friction between occupied and occupier is natural in any country. But it is worse in Iraq. It is an extraordinary diverse country. Each town has its own traditions. For instance robbers frequently stop cars at gunpoint just outside the town of Ramadi on road between Amman and Baghdad. This may look as if it has something to do with the present political situation, but in fact Ramadi has been a stronghold of highwaymen for well over a century.
The US and Britain - not that British influence is very noticeable in the councils of the ruling Coalition Provisional Authority - will only gain control of Iraq if they can create a credible provisional government. In the triumphal atmosphere in April and May the US wanted to delay such a council's formation and give it only advisory powers. It was only as guerrilla attacks intensified in June that prospective council members noticed US officials showing any enthusiasm for a council with real powers.
It might work, but it will not be easy. Iraqi police in Falluja have already staged a protest march demanding that US troops leave the town as a condition for them going back to work. Paul Bremer is still saying that the capture or killing of Saddam Hussein is his main priority. Clearly this would be a boost to George Bush and Tony Blair. But it also has disadvantages. Ever since he invaded Kuwait, Saddam Hussein has been almost the perfect enemy against whom it was not difficult to rally support. His ostentatious cruelty was easy to demonise.
This was true internationally and also in Iraq. In the three-week war which overthrew him in March and April, most of the Iraqi armed forces - including the supposedly élite Republican Guard and Special Republican Guard - refused to fight. Many Iraqis who dislike the occupation still prefer it to the old regime. But the death or capture of Saddam would remove this threat and a central justification for US and British troops staying in the country.
The writer is co-author of 'Saddam Hussein: An American Obsession'Reuse content