WILTON, CONN. — Saddam Hussein as prisoner of war is no longer a direct threat. But he remains a predicament for the United States as it stumbles forward in Iraq.
His last act as a menace was trying to rally resistance to American occupation. By simply evading capture he cast a shadow over the new regime. He aimed to frighten off Iraqi cooperation with the Coalition Provisional Authority by suggesting that he and his fearsome Baathist hard-liners would return to deal with collaborators.
The picture is now different. The squalid circumstances of the ex-dictator's survival are bound to have an effect. There may well be more violence against coalition forces, especially Americans and foreigners assisting the occupation, but driven more by local tensions than central design.
Hussein suffered painful losses in his war with Iran in the 1980s and again in the Gulf War of 1991. Washington's material support in the first instance and American forbearance in the second kept him in power. An enormous security apparatus and the money to maintain it, together with a propaganda monopoly built him up as a demigod. His flattering portraits and statues were everywhere.
This past Sunday, however, he was shown as a tired, bedraggled loser. Pictures of him under medical examination, mouth open wide, his hair being searched for lice, shattered the image.
Amplifying this personal deflation is the story of his ignoble capture. Having called on his country to fight to the death against the invader, he was found face down in a "spider hole." Although armed with a pistol he surrendered quietly, describing himself as president of the republic, giving this bit of history a touch of farce. It could be that Hussein hopes somehow to come back from this defeat, too. Ironically, much depends again on what the US does to him and for the people of Iraq.
In a sense, Washington now faces challenges it failed to meet or even to understand at the end of March. American forces, successful in winning the war, had few instructions for consolidating peace. The incredible nationwide looting while soldiers looked on marked a general rise in crime in a destabilized Iraqi society. The grievances of a sorely troubled people, feeling humiliated, were directed at the US. They led to violence that grew more serious and more clearly political, aimed also at foreigners and Iraqis associating themselves with the occupation.
Coalition forces now are better trained. A new wave of attacks is unlikely. But if the demands for security, law, jobs, and income are not met, disappointment could again lead to extremes.
And, Hussein is once more on the scene, in the hands of his captors to be sure, but obviously casting himself in the role of leader and symbol of his nation. If he were thought to be suffering humiliation he might awaken sympathy together with the nationalism that has always been his stock in trade. Washington must decide what becomes of him - and without unreasonable delay. President Bush says he will be brought to justice. Certainly, Hussein must be tried for war crimes and crimes against humanity. The tribunal cannot be American nor one formed by the US-led coalition or it will be said to dispense "victor's justice." It can hardly be an Iraqi court. Iraq will not have a constitution, let alone a respected justice system for years. It must be a recognized, legitimate international panel.
The newly established International Criminal Court is available for just such a case. Yet, the US, under the present administration, bitterly opposes it, on the mistaken grounds that it might be used to victimize Americans. In the present structure of international law only the United Nations General Assembly can start the process of forming this kind court for Iraq, as it has done for major Yugoslav and Rwandan criminals. And the Bush administration's negative view of the UN is well known.
Beyond the problem of Hussein, that of Iraq remains. How is its assortment of tribes, ethnic groups, religious communities, and traditionalists and modernizers to be shaped into a working whole that accepts both majority rule and minority rights? Is it to be a federation or a looser confederation? How can it gain acceptance by, or at least backing against, potentially mischievous neighbors?
The capture of Hussein opens a new chapter in the American adventure in Iraq.
Washington could use this occasion to review its brittle, sometimes incoherent, policy. Instead of demanding ultimate authority, which entails full responsibility, it might genuinely internationalize the effort. That would mean bringing in more than just token partners, namely those who share the same goal and would contribute the brains, money, and muscle to achieve it.
• Richard C. Hottelet is a former CBS correspondent.