‘The tyrant is now a prisoner’

So they got Saddam at last. Unkempt, his tired eyes betraying defeat; even the $750,000 in cash found in his hole in the ground demeaned him.

Saddam in chains; maybe not literally, but he looked in that extraordinary videotape yesterday like a prisoner of ancient Rome, the barbarian at last cornered, the hand caressing the scraggy beard. All those ghosts – of gassed Iranians and Kurds, of Shias gunned into the mass graves of Karbala, of the prisoners dying under excruciating torture in the villas of Saddam’s secret police – must surely have witnessed something of this.

“Ladies and gentlemen – we got him,” crowed Paul Bremer, the American proconsul in Iraq. “This is a great day in Iraq’s history. For decades, hundreds of thousands of you suffered at the hands of this cruel man. For decades, this cruel man divided you against each other. For decades, he threatened to attack your neighbours. These days are gone for ever … the tyrant is a prisoner,” he said.

Tony Blair said: “Saddam has gone from power, he won’t be coming back. That the Iraqi people now know, and it is they who will decide his fate.”

It took just 600 American soldiers to capture the man who was for 12 years one of the West’s best friends in the Middle East and for 12 more years the West’s greatest enemy in the Middle East. In a miserable 8ft hole in the mud of a Tigris farm near the village of Ad-Dawr, the president of the Iraqi Arab Republic, leader of the Arab Socialist Baath party, ex-guerrilla fighter, invader of two nations, friend of Jacques Chirac and a man once courted by President Ronald Reagan, was found hiding, almost certainly betrayed by his own comrades and now destined – if the Americans mean what they say – to a trial for war crimes on a Nuremberg scale.

For weeks, US forces had prowled the countryside along the Tigris river, arresting former Baathist functionaries, questioning former bodyguards, blasting away at the guerrillas of Tikrit and Samarra and Mosul and killing civilians along with them.

But yesterday was, beyond a doubt, an American military victory – if, and only if, this ends the insurgency against the Americans.

In Baghdad, the occupation authorities showed, over and over again, those images – far more haunting for his victims than for us Westerners – of the Beast of Baghdad.

If they were Che Guevara’s eyes, the beard belonged to Fidel Castro. There was even a kind of crazed Karl Marx in the face. Brutal, of course. They all are, the Middle East’s dictators, in a place where cruelty can be praised as strength. Tribal, most certainly.

But one impression there was that conquered all others. This was revolution gone to seed.

The ironies were extraordinary. In his youth, in 1959, Saddam had tried to assassinate an Iraqi president and, with a bullet in his leg, had hidden in the Tikrit countryside not far from the place where, almost half a century later – this weekend – he was captured by the Americans. He had – the video images at least suggested this – tried to return to his youth. Saddam the Monster had reverted to Saddam the Warrior, fighting against overwhelming odds, an Iraqi patriot rather than an Iraqi dictator.

“Talkative and co-operative,” the Americans called him after his capture. I’m not surprised. Suddenly, he was important again, a war criminal to be sure – but no longer a man in a hole. And it was difficult yesterday, looking at those pictures of the Lion of Iraq – for this is what he called himself – to remember how royally he had been toasted in the past.

This was the man who was the honour guest of the city of Paris when Mr Chirac was mayor and when the French could see the Jacobins in his bloody regime. This was the man who negotiated with the UN secretary generals Perez de Cuellar and Kofi Annan, who had chatted over coffee to none other than the now US Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, who had met Ted Heath and Tony Benn and a host of European statesmen.

But is it really the end of the nightmare? Certainly, the broken creature in the American videotape was not going to run the movie backwards. His days were, as they say, over. There was a kind of relief in his face. The drama had ended. He was alive, unlike his tens of thousands of victims. Was a volume of memoirs in his fatigued mind? The final indignity of having his hair yanked by an American doctor might have been assuaged by the memory of all those French surgeons who once attended to his family’s needs. For no Iraqi doctor ever dared operate on the Tikritis.

Sure, you could watch the gunmen celebrating yesterday, the shoals of bullets soaring into the night sky over Baghdad. The killer of their fathers, brothers, sons, wives, mothers, was at last in chains.

I was amid the slums of Sadr City – once Saddam City – when a cascade of rifle fire swept the streets. I was sitting on the concrete floor of a Shia cleric who had been run down and killed by an American tank, amid Iraqis with no love for the Americans, and the gunfire grew louder. A boy walked from the room and ran back with news that Iraqi radio was announcing the capture of Saddam. And faces that had been dark with mourning – that had not smiled for a week – beamed with pleasure.

The gunfire grew louder, until clusters of bullets swarmed into the air amid grenade bursts. In the main street, cars crashed into each other in the chaos.

But this was momentary joy, not jubilation. There were no massive crowds on the boulevards of Baghdad, no street parties, no expressions of joy from the ordinary people of the capital city.

For Saddam has bequeathed to his country and to its would-be “liberators” something uniquely terrible: continued war. And there was one conclusion upon which every Iraqi I spoke to yesterday agreed.

This bedraggled, pathetic man with his matted, dirty hair, living in a hole in the ground with three guns and cash as his cave-companions – this man was not leading the Iraqi insurgency against the Americans. Indeed, more and more Iraqis were saying before Saddam’s capture that the one reason they would not join the resistance to US occupation was the fear that – if the Americans withdrew – Saddam would return to power. Now that fear has been taken away. So the nightmare is over – and the nightmare is about to begin. For both the Iraqis and for us.

I met him once, almost a quarter of a century ago. We shook hands before a Baghdad press conference in which he tried to explain the finer points of binary fission. He was keen, at the time, to develop nuclear weapons. He wore vast double-breasted suits at the time, the kind that Nazi leaders once wore, overlarge, floppy coats that gleamed too much. All I can remember was that his hands were cold and damp.
Courtesy Raja Mattar

Correspondent for the Independent, Robert Fisk is resident in the Middle East and comments on events unfolding there