Senior Arab government officials and analysts in the Arab world are discussing Sunday's announcement of Saddam Hussein's capture, including its emotional impact on Arab citizens and whether it might send a message to other dictators in the region. There is also intense interest in how the U.S. government will deal with the former Iraqi dictator.
While numerous Arab leaders have joined the chorus of international praise and appreciation for the U.S. capture of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, there are deeply divided emotions on the streets of the Arab world.
In the months leading up to the war to oust the former Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein made impassioned pleas for Arab nationalism to resist American intervention in the region.
And, although Arab leaders throughout the region were privately indicating the need for the Iraqi dictator to go, people in the Arab streets protested the impending war.
Consequently, for some Arabs, Sunday's announcement of the former dictators' capture was disappointing, because they viewed Saddam as the only Arab leader who stood up to the United States.
According to Arab affairs expert, author and lecturer Abdullah al-Ashaal, many Arab citizens are willing to overlook the alleged brutality of Saddam Hussein because, he says, in some respects they do not see much difference in their own countries.
"They need someone, even if he is a criminal, he should do something against the United States and against Israel," he said. "And, they know Saddam Hussein was harsh against his own people, but they say, Who is not? All the Arabs, all of them are Saddam, but in different clothes. So, I think Saddam still has, in the streets, a lot of support."
Mr. al-Ashaal says that because of deep-rooted suspicion of U.S. motives in the region, many Arabs will doubt that Saddam Hussein was really captured. Others, he says, will believe the capture was timed to produce political advantage for President Bush or raise the morale of American soldiers in Iraq who face daily attacks from anti-coalition forces.
But Arab public opinion expert Said Sadek Amin, who writes for several Arab newspapers, says he believes Saddam's capture will put an end to any support he may have had on Arab streets. He says the fact that Saddam was caught hiding in a hole looking tired and confused only suggested the former dictator was now weak and scared. He said in a matter of seconds, Saddam's image of being a powerful and fearless leader was gone.
Mr. Amin says he was personally elated to learn of Saddam's capture because he says he hopes it will send a strong message to other dictators in the Arab world. "I hope that other dictators will take a hint and re-examine their ideas about endless rule, even against the will of the people - rigging elections, refusing to reform, all the excuses that they bring so as not to bring democratization," he said. "The mask of lies has fallen."
Mr. Amin says despite the atrocities Saddam Hussein has allegedly committed, he has no doubt the Arab public will demand that he be treated fairly by the U.S. government.
The spokesman for the 22-member Arab League, Hossam Zaki, agrees. "The United States, now that it has him in custody, will have to be very cautious in how to treat him and what kind of laws it applies on him because this all has to do with the message the United States wants to get out in the Arab street, whether it is a force for justice, or a force just for the sake of it," he said. "A lot of people will be watching very closely how he is going to be treated and what will happen to him. And, how the Iraqis are going to deal with him and so on."
The spokesman for the Arab League said, based on the celebrations that took place Sunday in Iraq, following the announcement of Saddam's capture, Iraqis will want nothing less than the right to put their former leader on trial themselves.
While the legal fate of Saddam Hussein remains, for now, somewhat unclear, the U.S. administrator in Iraq, Paul Bremer, has said he would expect Saddam Hussein to face trial in Iraq for allegations of crimes against Iraqi citizens. In the meantime, U.S. officials say Mr. Hussein will be treated as a prisoner of war, with all the protections of the Geneva Conventions.