Hussein's fall sends ripples through Mideast

Dictator's capture amplifies American power in the region, even as President Bush says use of force is a 'last resort.'

When President Bush said "good riddance" to Saddam Hussein after the deposed Iraqi dictator's capture, he could have been speaking for Arab leaders and governments.

As many Arab experts note, nobody in the region ever liked the guy.

But at the same time, Arab leaders are responding to the definitive fall of one of the region's longest-lasting leaders in a nuanced manner. And that, experts add, means fallout in the region is likely to unfold slowly - and be carefully camouflaged to obscure any suggestion of being in response to something accomplished by the occupier of an Arab country.

"If leaders from the region have been largely silent on Saddam, it's because they really have no good options in terms of a public position to take," says Mark Palmer, a vice-chairman of Freedom House and a specialist in the mechanics of dictatorships. "If they welcome it, they seem to be encouraging these overthrows. But if they're negative about it, they look like they're siding with [Mr. Hussein]."

The Iraqi despot's qualifications for "most tyrannical" outstrip those of other autocrats in the region. Still, there must have been some musings on the order of "Could that ever be me?" as the video of Hussein's disheveled hair and beard being inspected by an American doctor ran on Arab satellite channels.

"This is a juncture for the leaders in the region," says Musa Shteiwi, director of the Jordan Center for Social Research in Amman. "Those who are falling farther behind in the development process will have to think about the way they are running their societies ." Dr. Shteiwi says pictures of jubilation among many Iraqis will remain with Arab leaders and "will add to other elements that are redefining their relations with their constituencies."

At the same time, Arab leaders have to deal with the humiliation, often keenly felt by their people, of having an Arab leader brought down in so ignobly.

"There is a surreptitious embarrassment that this fellow who was a problem for so many was allowed to be a leader for so long, and that his downfall had to come from the outside," says Clovis Maksoud, a longtime Egyptian diplomat and now Middle East expert at American University in Washington.

For the region's leaders, he adds, "It was a reminder that these days, dealing with the US means being humbled."

For US, force remains a 'last resort'

Yet for Arab regimes that keep a close eye on Washington - virtually all of them - there must also have been some sense of relief in words spoken by Bush. At his press conference last week - in reference to whether North Korean leader Kim Jong Il should take a lesson from Hussein's fall - the president said that military power is his "last choice.... I'm reluctant to use [it]."

That will have been noted particularly in Syria, some experts say, where the regime of Bashar al-Assad was shaken by a "Syria's next" tone that flowered in some segments of the administration after Hussein was run out of Baghdad last spring.

"The case of Bashar is specific to Syria, but it is also typical in that the response is complicated by mixed motivations," says Michael Hudson, director of the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University in Washington. "He didn't like Saddam. But the Syrians also feel they were double-crossed by the US after the Iraq war."

Syria has been providing Washington with useful intelligence on Al Qaeda, Mr. Hudson says. "They hoped to get off the terrorism list, but instead they find themselves in more trouble with Washington," with the passage of a Syria Accountability Act this fall that requires punishing measures against Damascus.

Regional ripple effects

Saddam's capture is likely to reinforce the priorities and preoccupations that others of Iraq's neighbors were already watching out for, experts say, including:

• Iran, favoring the emergence of a stable and geopolitically nonthreatening Iraq, will continue to maneuver for a friendly - and Shiite-dominant - regime to result from its neighbor's transition. In what was perhaps the quickest response among Iraq's neighbor's, Iran said last week it wants any trial of Hussein to take up Iraq's war crimes. The Iranian government said it wanted an international tribunal to take up "the crimes of the dictator," adding that besides the Iraqi people, others have grievances to take up in an international venue.

• Saudi Arabia is worried that Hussein's capture and trial could further tarnish the image of Iraq's Sunni Muslims - who have ruled the country despite their minority status - and weaken their claims to an important role in the country's future governance. The Saudi regime, which had already responded to Hussein's fall by loosening the tight reins it keeps on the kingdom's Shiites, shudders at the thought of a pro-Iranian Shiite regime next door. But Saudi rulers will have been heartened, experts say, by calls from some US officials and commentators to now draw Iraq's Sunnis away from the chimera of the old regime and into the promise of a new Iraq.

• Hussein's capture by US forces - and any sense in the region that his trial will be orchestrated by the US - will reinforce the reluctance of Iraq's neighbors to deal with the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council. That reluctance, some experts say, is one more factor prodding the US to speed the transition to full Iraqi sovereignty.

The US wants Iraq's neighbors to facilitate the transition. For example, the US sees reducing Iraq's international debt as crucial to its economic stabilization and growth. This was exemplified last week by special US envoy James Baker's trip to secure commitments from European nations to forgive or restructure Iraqi debts.

But Arab countries hold a much larger slice of the Iraqi debt - about two-thirds of $120 billion - and will be key to making any debt reduction meaningful.

Spread of democracy?

Freedom House's Mr. Palmer says his experience in Eastern Europe tells him that the spread of democracy in the Middle East will accelerate because "the fall of one dictator in a region unavoidably sends ripples through" neighboring countries.

But American University's Mr. Maksoud cautions that a transition benefiting the region could be slowed if democracy and economic reforms are perceived as following American orders.

"Even among pro-American governments the US is seen as having lost the art of persuasion and having replaced that with the power to dictate," he says. "Saddam's demise alerts them to steps they have to take. But they won't admit it," he adds, "especially if looks like its driven from the outside."

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