That's One Problem Solved

Saddam's capture is a big break for the U.S. -- but the road to a stable Iraq remains long and treacherous

The subdued George W. Bush who faced reporters on Dec. 15 after the capture of Saddam Hussein bore scant resemblance to the jaunty leader in a flight suit who once reveled in the end of major military operations in Iraq. If there's one thing Bush has learned from his grand experiment in Arab democracy, it's that celebrations often prove premature while unforeseen snares are everywhere.

So when the President took note of Saddam's seizure two days earlier on the outskirts of Tikrit, he chose his words with care. To Iraqis who have suffered for years under Saddam's rule, he declared that "the nightmare of the Baathist tyranny is finally over." For Americans who have read the casualty reports from Iraq with growing alarm, Bush offered caution: "The work of our coalition remains difficult and will require further sacrifice."

BADLY NEEDED BOOST. The capture of the Iraqi strongman and the sudden success of big counterinsurgency sweeps in central Iraq represent major breakthroughs. And a White House hungry for good news intends to play the Saddam card to the hilt with Iraqis even as it downplays the news at home. By trumpeting the dictator's surrender, occupation authorities hope to weaken die-hard resistance in the Sunni Triangle. Already, there are signs that the changed climate in Iraq may spur some reluctant allies to come to terms with the U.S. on reconstruction and power sharing. Most important, the mood shift may alter the atmospherics of the troubled postwar period and head off the growing perception that the adventure was turning into a typical Mideast mess.

Yet Bush is working hard to dampen euphoria. By resisting the temptation to rejoice, he is steeling the country for the possibility of years of turmoil in Iraq. Given the huge challenges ahead, the stance was prudent. Even as the world marveled at pictures of a haggard Saddam, insurgents stepped up their guerrilla war in Iraq. In Sunni strongholds, pro-Saddam demonstrators took to the streets.

What's important to understand about Bush's new tack is that he isn't just playing the traditional game of lowering expectations to magnify future triumphs. A Bush team that once spun gossamer visions of a Mideast spurred to reform by the transformation of Iraq has begun to absorb the enormity of the task -- and the realization that moving toward democracy could itself create new turmoil.

LEFT OUT. In the post-Baath Party vacuum, jockeying among Shiites, Sunnis, and tribes of all stripes is intensifying. The Sunnis, who filled most top Baath Party slots, are convinced they will go from elite status to reviled minority. With a decentralized insurgency that doesn't rely on Saddam for orders, anti-U.S. attacks could actually get worse before they moderate. Confronted by the humiliation of Saddam's meek surrender, radical Islamists could redouble efforts to recruit suicide bombers.

That explains why, despite the brightening prospects opened up by Saddam's capture, U.S. officials are resigned to a lengthy stretch of hostilities. General Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters on Dec. 16 that U.S. troops will be in Iraq "through the next couple of years."

Yet Saddam's capture also presents many opportunities. On the ground, the U.S. can capitalize on intelligence advances now that Iraqis know Saddam won't return. Each new human link in the intelligence chain can weaken the insurgency. With CIA agents descending on Iraq in force, hit teams scouring the country for guerrilla leaders, and the 4th Infantry Division spearheading large-scale ground sweeps of rebel strongholds, some order could finally be restored.

Even a modicum of security would help with the slow slog of reconstruction, and could entice leery aid workers and entrepreneurs to head back to Iraq. "The capture of Saddam is a catalytic moment," says Christopher Hill, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics & Political Science. "Everyone in Europe agrees that it is in their common interest to stabilize the situation."

Snaring Saddam is already yielding dividends for Bush outside Iraq. Just two days later, a mission to Europe by special envoy James A. Baker III produced a French and German agreement on a U.S. call to reschedule Iraq's $127 billion debt. Russia, which has indicated it might also pitch in on debt forgiveness, is even mulling deploying troops to help ease the peacekeeping burden on the U.S.

Equally important is the insertion of the smooth and pragmatic Baker into the postwar policy mix. Hailed by Europeans as a flexible negotiator, the former Secretary of State could give Bush's Foggy Bottom diplomats a hand while easing hard feelings in the Western alliance.

In economic terms, the potential transition of Iraq from seething war zone to conventionally dicey Third World hot spot isn't a cosmic event. A more secure Iraq could pump more crude, helping to stabilize oil prices. But the big change, analysts say, is psychological. If the U.S. can show it's pacifying Iraq, fears of a prolonged occupation -- and a bigger U.S. deficit -- would recede in the bond market. "It certainly looks promising that we're not going down the [Vietnam] path," says Stuart Schweitzer, global markets strategist at JPMorgan Fleming Asset Management. "Confidence is everything."

NEED FOR REPAIRS. Inside Iraq, though, confidence can only be instilled the old-fashioned way: an end to lawlessness, accompanied by improved job opportunities and basic services. According to the Pentagon, electricity generation is running around 3,452 megawatts, still below the prewar level of 4,400 MW. Hospitals, clinics, and police stations are all starting to function around the country, but local leaders continue to complain about poor conditions. Water is pumping at 65% of prewar output. "We shouldn't get carried away with what a great victory [Saddam's capture] was," says former National Security Council official William B. Quandt. "We still need to get things working for everyday Iraqis."

To accelerate the rebuilding process, the Coalition Provisional Authority needs to go all-out on the $18 billion in prime contracts CPA leader L. Paul Bremer III envisions for public infrastructure projects. Only one problem: The Administration has limited bidding to nations that participated in Operation Iraqi Freedom. But with Baker on the case cutting deals, there is a possibility that the White House could relent.

In the wake of the good news from Iraq, President Bush's approval numbers jumped 6 points in early polls, putting him at a reelectable 58% for the first time in months. But although Saddam's capture left many Democrats off-balance, political analysts assert that Bush's bounce could be ephemeral if public fears about the lack of an Iraq exit strategy persist. "We're probably in a six-week period where we'll see a positive response" from voters, says Democratic pollster Stanley B. Greenberg. After that, Dems say, they'll still try to convince the electorate that even a semi-successful Iraq operation is a distraction from the more important goal of combating Osama bin Laden and the threat of global terrorism.

Meantime, scooping up Saddam is dramatically curbing public pessimism about the mission. In a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, 62% of respondents say the Iraq war has made America safer, vs. 32% who disagreed. In September, it was 52%-43%.

Bush's reelection prospects will largely hinge on "whether or not we are successful in stabilizing the economic and political situation in Iraq," says Representative Cal Dooley (D-Calif.), a leading party moderate. A lot of anguish, bloodshed, and disappointment could still stand between the President and the perception that stability is at hand. But it no longer seems like Mission Impossible.

By Stan Crock, Lee Walczak, and Richard S. Dunham in Washington, with David Fairlamb in Frankfurt, Kerry Capell in London, and bureau reports

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