Monday, December 15, 2003

This morning the Coalition Press Information Center press desk announced a 3 pm press conference. Because we had to be seated by 1:30 pm, we knew it had to be the top military or civilian commander in Iraq, or a Governing Council member (they have been targeted for assassination and have similar security procedures).

It was unusual that the press desk wouldn't say who the speaker would be; they added cryptically that it was a "very substantial announcement."

By 1:20, as I was arriving at the convention center after nearly an hour in traffic, reports that Saddam Hussein had been caught had begun to spread and were already airing on Arabic television. The US soldiers and Iraqi security guards at the convention center gates all had big smiles on. As we got searched, we could hear the beginnings of celebratory gunfire in the capital.

Shortly after 3 pm, a tired-looking Ambassador L. Paul Bremer strode to the podium and announced Saddam Hussein's capture at 830 pm Saturday, Baghdad time, to a packed crowd of journalists, soldiers and coalition workers.

"Ladies and Gentlemen, we got him," said Bremer, flanked by the top American military commander, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, and the next president of Iraq's Governing Council, Adnan Pachachi. There were loud cheers from the soldiers and coalition workers who packed the auditorium.

But some of the most emotional moments came from members of the Iraqi media. Several of them stood and shouted as a videotape of Saddam was shown. One said she was too emotionally overcome to ask a question. Another, Fatah al Sheikh, a journalist with Ishrakat al Sadr newspaper (owned by the Sadr organization, a Shi'ite group), sobbed loudly, collapsed in his seat and was comforted by his colleagues.

“Long Life for Iraq!” they shouted, along with "Death for Saddam!" and "We want punishment for Saddam!"

My translator and driver were excited at first, then dumbfounded, then a little confused and a little sad. Then happy again. We went from the convention center through the streets of Baghdad, from Shia neighborhoods to Sunni strongholds, talking with men and women about their reaction to news that many thought would never happen.

"At first I was really excited. Something inside of me felt like things are going to change for the better," Omar said.

But after he heard the applause that greeted Bremer's announcement and the passionate cheering from the Iraqi journalists, Omar said he felt very sad.

"For a democracy, you need a neutral and free media and what that journalist said was crazy," Omar said. "Death to Saddam?"

Omar wasn't the only person in the room who was uncomfortable with the cheering. "It was unprofessional. We were working. It was a news conference. It wasn't supposed to be theater," a photographer said.

Omar also admitted that it was sad seeing someone once so strong look so weak, especially as the videotape showed an Army medic doctor feeling Saddam's head and pressing down on his tongue with a wooden stick.

"I hate Saddam, I don't like him, but he's an Iraqi and for the Americans to find him living in a hole ... and it looks as though they're treating him like an animal," said Omar, who is Sunni.

Hassan, my driver, who is Shia, was less upset about that, saying Saddam looked healthy and didn't seem to be being mistreated. But he too said, "Really, it's difficult. First I am happy but now I don't know if I am angry at Saddam or sad for him. After all that talk, all that you did Saddam, you hide yourself in a hole and they capture you like a mouse?"

On the street, reaction was mixed.

A blue pickup truck cruised through the streets of al-Eskan honking its horn and carrying more than a dozen young men hanging out of its doors and windows. Abbass Ibrahim Abbass, 23, a cloth factory worker, shouted, "I'm happy because they catch Saddam. Damn the Tikritis!"

But as darkness fell in Adhimiya, a man with a black scarf wrapped around his head fired a Kalishnikov into the air as he led about 200 young men through the streets chanting "Long Live Saddam!" Some of the men in the crowd carried posters of Saddam. An older man watching from a side street muttered, "They're just kids."

Abdul Adim, a 45-year-old employee of the Ministry of Housing who would only give his first name, said:

"Saddam is a Muslim man and the infidels have caught him. I wish the Iraqis themselves caught him because the Iraqis should rule their own country, not the infidels," he said. "I prefer the Iraqis kill Saddam themselves rather than let the Americans catch him. We are Muslims, we should fight occupiers, we should fight for our lands, this is a part of our religious belief."

There are now many reasons for anti-American hostility.

Almost no one we talked to thought the violence would end.