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The Dallas Morning News July 03, 2003

Iraqis not giving up the ghost as Hussein haunts U.S. efforts

American assurances do little to quell fears that leader could return

By Jim Landers

WASHINGTON - Saddam Hussein is still haunting the Bush administration.

Three months after Baghdad fell to U.S. soldiers and Marines, the Iraqi leader's loyalists are using the mystery of his fate to terrify Iraqis and frustrate cooperation with American occupation forces.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says that's "unhelpful." Secretary of State Colin Powell concedes that the missing dictator has left "a degree of uncertainty in the country." Presidential envoy L. Paul Bremer says "it's important that we either catch him or kill him."

Mr. Bremer, who heads the occupation authority in Iraq, told the BBC on Sunday that Mr. Hussein's ghost is hampering his plans for reconstruction.

"There is no doubt that the fact that we have not been able to show his fate allows the remnants of the Baath regime to go around the bazaars and villages and say Saddam will come back, so do not cooperate with the coalition," he said.

Twice during the war, the military hit sites where Mr. Hussein was believed to be. But after each attack, there was no sign of the Iraqi leader or his two sons, Uday and Qusay.

For months, White House officials said his fate was of little consequence compared to the overthrow of his regime. President Bush insists Mr. Hussein's regime was smashed and will not be allowed to return. Some Iraqis are not so sure.

Hassan Mneimneh, a director of the Iraq Research and Documentation Project that archives the human rights violations of Mr. Hussein's government, said the Baath Party dictator controlled his country with fear. He said Mr. Hussein's reputation was magnified when he survived defeat in the 1991 Persian Gulf War and then crushed a nationwide uprising.

"This is someone who has built himself into a god image," Mr. Mneimneh said. "The fact that he is not caught leads many to feel he is alive and directing these attacks on Americans. He's a spectre who haunts most Iraqis who are afraid of the nightmare of 1991."

Destroying backbone

Republic of Fear, a portrait of Mr. Hussein's psychological hold on the Iraqi people, was published under a pseudonym in 1989. Its author, Brandeis University lecturer Kanan Makiya, said recently the dictator had to be caught or killed for the war effort to succeed.

"It's crucial to destroying the morale and ideological backbone of the Baath Party inside Iraq and weakening the radical Sunni [Muslim] claim to power and critique of the occupation," he said.

Reports from Baghdad say some Iraqis suspect Mr. Bremer is using fear of Mr. Hussein as an excuse for the failings of the occupation authority. If Iraqis are shooting at U.S. soldiers or not cooperating, they said, it may have as much to do with confusion and mistakes by American officials.

John Pike, director of the analytical firm globalsecurity.org in Alexandria, Va., said the dismissal by Mr. Bremer of 400,000 members of the Iraqi military could account for much of the violence.

"I suspect it's unclear de-baathification policies, and that it's too many young men with too many guns as opposed to a pervasive belief that Saddam's lying low and will pop up in a few months when the Americans go home," he said.

Mr. Bremer restored the pay of more than half the dismissed army members last week, and 2 million Iraqi civil servants are also on the payroll.

Dual problems

Abbas Mehdi, an Iraqi exile in St. Cloud, Minn., who formed a political group opposed to Mr. Hussein's rule, said fear of him and missteps by the occupation authorities were both playing a role.

"It's very important to catch him, for psychological reasons," Dr. Mehdi said. "It would be a huge, huge relief for every Iraqi person. And those individuals fighting now on his behalf, this would be a great psychological blow to them.

"But other people are just frustrated with the U.S. soldiers and other things," he said. "No electricity, no water, no security. U.S. soldiers treating people very harshly in their homes. These things are very, very difficult for the Iraqi people."

Mr. Mneimneh agreed that U.S. authorities have to involve Iraqis in policing, self-rule and planning their own future - but he also puts the hunt for Mr. Hussein high on the list of priorities.

Mr. Rumsfeld said that reconstruction efforts are winning over more Iraqis every day but that the Pentagon continues to hunt for Mr. Hussein and his sons.

"Our first choice is to find all three of them," he said Monday. "I think that the absence of closure is unhelpful in two respects. No. 1, there are some who hope that they might come back, because they were privileged during the period they were there; they were part of the Baathist hierarchy. There are also those who are fearful that he'll come back or they'll come back.

"They're not going to come back, that's for sure," he said.

Copyright 2003, The Dallas Morning News