As Iraqis struggled to grasp the impact of Saddam Hussein’s humiliating capture in a darkened spider hole near Tikrit, it was the television images of the fallen leader that kept replaying in their minds throughout the day on Sunday, just like the images played on their television screens.
The videotape taken by his American captors showed a disheveled old man, more like a hapless, disoriented vagrant than the tyrant whose quarter of a century in power bludgeoned 25 million people into cringing submission. A mythic strongman, so feared that his name set people trembling until only a few months ago, was suddenly reduced to pitiable, mumbling impotence.
On the streets of Baghdad, and across Iraq, people who danced out of their homes with paper American flags and raised their rifles for staccato bursts into the clear winter air paused to tell one another again and again what they had seen. They acted as if ceaseless repetition would make real what many called a dream, as if testing their sanity by checking that others had also experienced what they had seen.
Long into the night, the images replayed on televisions at kebab houses and grocery stores, in homes and hospitals. They showed the captured dictator opening his mouth obediently to an American doctor’s beam, sitting passively as his unkempt hair was searched for lice, patting his face as if to identify an aching jaw or troublesome teeth, pulling on his straggly beard as if pondering his fate.
As the mocking shouts grew louder in a thousand Baghdad streets, and across almost all Iraqi towns outside the sullen precincts like Tikrit that are still loyal to Mr. Hussein, it was possible to believe that Iraq’s nightmare had finally ended.
That is what President Bush proclaimed. The hope, as fervent among millions of Iraqis, was that the shadow Mr. Hussein cast for a generation over the Iraqi soul had passed, never to return.
Yet Americans may be wise to restrain hopes that Mr. Hussein’s capture will generate an early downturn in the insurgency that has taken the lives of more than 190 American soldiers since May 1, the day Mr. Bush proclaimed an end to major combat operations. At the same time, many more Iraqis have died.
And listening to the voices in Baghdad’s streets on Sunday suggested that the end of Mr. Hussein’s months as a taunting fugitive may not contain the other forces that have eroded American popularity. Mr. Hussein’s capture brought a surge in popularity for Mr. Bush and the American occupation, yet the inflexions in what the revelers said often sounded like a warning that the tide could just as easily break on the stony shores of unfulfilled Iraqi expectations.
The scenes that played out across much of Iraq were replicated in the celebrations that greeted the American capture of Baghdad, and the toppling of Mr. Hussein, eight months ago.
This time, American troops have done more than help topple a statue, having caught the man himself.
But few who witnessed the statue falling could have imagined the speed with which Iraqi opinions began to turn against the Americans as problems accumulated with failing electricity supplies, looting and lawlessness on the streets and lines outside gasoline stations that have stretched into days. Judging from the undertones in what many people said on Sunday, there was little reason to think that something similar could not happen again.
Read the rest of Mr. Burns’ long piece here.