U.S. has fresh chance to reach out

Posted: Wednesday, December 17, 2003

WASHINGTON Saddam Hussein's capture offers the Bush administration a fresh chance to improve relations with the Arab world and to persuade European nations to participate in Iraq's reconstruction.

But the administration has squandered international goodwill before, and much may depend on whether the capture leads to improved security and public safety in Iraq.

''The arrest of Saddam Hussein changed the equation in Iraq,'' a hopeful President Bush told a news conference on Monday as he basked in international cheers. Even world leaders who opposed the U.S.-led war congratulated Bush and expressed hope the arrest would bring greater stability to the war-ravaged country.

But continued attacks on Monday by insurgents were a reminder that Saddam's detention doesn't necessarily mean a lessening of violence or of anti-American sentiment.

''The first thing we have to recognize is that hatred for Saddam Hussein does not translate into love for America. We didn't learn that after toppling the regime last spring. And I think we must learn it now,'' said Shibley Telhami, a Middle East expert at the University of Maryland.

Instead of reinforcing an image of U.S. unilateralism, the United States should ''see this as a second opportunity to extend a hand to the Iraqi people and to the international community,'' Telhami said.

For the most part, Bush and other U.S. officials appeared to be resisting a temptation to gloat, reaching out to allies and emphasizing the importance of the role of Iraqis in determining their own future.

But the United States has a lot of lost ground to make up.

Outbursts of joy at Saddam's capture did not erase the resentment by Iraqis who continue to confront shortages and soaring prices under the U.S. occupation.

If Saddam's detention leads to a quicker turnover of power to the Iraqis, as some European leaders are advocating, it also could help persuade more countries to get involved in Iraqi reconstruction, analysts suggest.

The French foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, said Monday that his country and other European nations want to strike a deal on helping Iraq reduce its foreign debt next year. Bush's special envoy on the issue was headed his way.

And, if Saddam's capture results in fewer acts of sabotage against military and strategic interests including oil fields and pipelines it could enable Iraq to quickly boost its oil production, giving a huge boost to its economy and attracting more foreign investment. Iraq sits atop the world's second largest oil reserves, after only Saudi Arabia.

But there is still the question of whether attacks will increase or subside with Saddam in captivity.

''This resistance in some ways has taken on a life of its own,'' said Sheba Crocker, an expert on Iraqi reconstruction at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Still, she said, Saddam's capture ''signifies a true break from the past by showing he cannot come back into power,'' a fact not lost on the average Iraqi.

A lot now will depend on how Saddam's detention and trial are handled. ''It will be very important to make whatever process he is put through as fair and as transparent as possible,'' Crocker said.

The capture came just days after Washington banned France, Germany, Russia and other opponents of the war from bidding on U.S.-financed reconstruction contracts.

That move reopened old wounds and undercut efforts to internationalize the reconstruction and win a reduction of Iraq's foreign debt, estimated at about $120 billion.

The timing of Saddam's capture could help former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, who headed for Europe on Monday as Bush's personal envoy on the Iraqi debt issue as Villepin said Europe was ready to negotiate on the issue.

Both French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Shroeder who led international opposition to the war welcomed Saddam's capture.

Bush at Monday's news conference did not back down from his policy on reconstruction contracts. But, striking a conciliatory note, he added: ''France and Germany I have reached out to them. They've reached out to us. It's in our national interest we work together.''

Bush said that, despite the weekend capture, ''the work of our coalition remains difficult and will require further sacrifice.''

Tom Raum has covered national and international affairs for The Associated Press since 1973.

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