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Experts doubt effect of Saddam capture on al-Qaida morale

WASHINGTON—Nearly obliterated by Sunday's stunning news of Saddam Hussein's capture was a bomb explosion apparently intended to kill Pakistan's military president, Pervez Musharraf.

"It sent a chill down my spine," said Joseph Cirincione, a nuclear proliferation expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "That's a country with 30 to 50 nuclear weapons."

Saddam's capture may decrease attacks in Iraq by members of his Baath Party, Cirincione said, "but it is largely irrelevant to the larger war against terrorism. Saddam means nothing to al-Qaida and all the al-Qaida-like forces."

The war on terrorism lost a figurehead in Saddam, not a mastermind or even a major leader. Although his capture gave the United States and the Bush administration a huge psychological victory in Iraq, the effort to defeat the forces of anti-American terrorism worldwide was mostly unaffected.

Still, the placid surrender of the second most wanted man in the world may have sent a message to Osama bin Laden that more resources could be brought to bear on running him to ground.

Even as he basked in the news from Iraq, President Bush acknowledged a distinction Sunday.

"The war on terror is a different kind of war, waged capture by capture, cell by cell and victory by victory," he said.

The president didn't mention his year-old rationale that war against Saddam was necessary to defeat terrorism. That rationale—and its accompanying claims of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction—has been dropped from administration pronouncements.

Some experts expect al-Qaida and its adherents to stage a major attack to regain the initiative, as the humbling of Saddam pushes recent terrorist strikes in Turkey and Saudi Arabia to the back pages of newspapers.

"There's no doubt that al-Qaida's desire to remain foremost in the news has suffered a grievous setback," said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at the RAND Corp., a research and analysis company in Washington. "This may put more pressure on al-Qaida to act, and to provoke them to elbow their way back into the news."

There's no doubt, Hoffman asserted, that the news about Saddam was "enormously disquieting" to bin Laden.

"In terms of sending a message and demonstrating American resolve, it's quite significant," Hoffman said. "With all of Saddam's resources, if he can be found then it has to discomfort bin Laden."

He predicted that Saddam's capture would encourage terrorist leaders to change habits and upgrade their security. This creates both challenges and opportunities for terrorist-hunters, Hoffman said.

The challenges come in trying to find someone who may burrow in more deeply. The opportunities may arise "when someone is trying to move from one bolt hole to another or is forced to change their tradecraft in trying to avoid detection," he said.

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What causes experts to temper the administration's jubilation over Saddam is the realization that this was a man who could barely control his own destiny, much less that of others who were fighting the United States.

"Given the location and circumstance of his capture, it makes it clear that Saddam was not managing the insurgency, and that he had very little control or influence," said Sen. John "Jay" Rockefeller, D-W.Va., the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee.

"That is significant and disturbing because it means the insurgents are not fighting for Saddam, they're fighting against the United States."

Added Hoffman: "Saddam obviously wasn't a master of terrorists. But this is a psychological blow to anyone who plies the trade of fear and coercion."

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Jean-Robert Leguey-Feilleux, who's been teaching a course in international terrorism for 30 years at St. Louis University, was unconvinced that Saddam's capture would demoralize al-Qaida.

"I don't think this is going to put much of a dent in bin Laden's network," he said. "Al-Qaida is capitalizing on the unpopularity of the U.S. occupation in Iraq and has recruited for its forces, much as in the Afghan war against the Soviet Union. For al-Qaida, this U.S. involvement is a blessing."

The American involvement in Iraq also has diverted attention from the pivotal Islamic country of Pakistan, thought to be the hiding place of many al-Qaida leaders, including bin Laden.

Sunday's bomb exploded moments after Musharraf's motorcade passed a bridge near Pakistan's capital, Islamabad. It marked the second assassination attempt on Musharraf since he incited extremists by assisting in the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

"The larger war against terrorism is going on in Afghanistan, Pakistan and other places in south Asia and in terror cells around the world," said Carnegie's Cirincione.

"The president has reason to celebrate," he said, "but we should all be worried about what would happen if Pakistan loses control over the warheads or the country falls into the hands of fundamentalists."

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(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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