BAGHDAD, Iraq—A perceptible sadness has settled over the hearts of many Iraqis who feel deep ambivalence about the undignified way in which their former dictator was captured.
Even many Iraqis who hate Saddam and couldn't wait for liberation believe it would have been better if he had killed himself instead of giving up without a fight. It's a view that reflects growing Iraqi nationalism and a sense that his meek surrender humiliated all Iraqis.
Among the majority who are thrilled about Saddam's capture, many are calling for his quick execution, setting up a possible collision course with humanitarian groups and organizations such as the United Nations.
"I am not happy, because it was unbelievable to have a leader surrender in this way," said Akeel Abdul Razak, 47, a Shiite. "At least he could have resisted using a knife or his own hands. He surrendered like a rat. I'm sad because it makes Iraq look weak. It's related to our nationality, not our religion."
If anything, Abdul Razak, who guards a busy parking lot beside a mosque in Kadhimiya, a Shiite neighborhood, should be pleased that Saddam was captured. Four of his children died during bombings in the 1980s Iran-Iraq war, started by Saddam, and he lost a brother in the war. He says Shiite soldiers had to prove their loyalty more than Sunni officers.
Saddam's capture seems to have heightened ethnic violence. Since the 1930s there have been clashes on the bridge over the Tigris River that separates Kadhimiya from Sunni-dominated Adhimiya. Residents from each neighborhood have crossed the bridge to cause trouble or defend perceived slights against their honor.
The day after Saddam's capture was announced, Shiites from Kadhimiya crossed the bridge and started dancing in the street in Adhimiya. Sunni residents in Adhimiya went out in the street to reply, and before the night was over, more than a dozen people were dead.
Six of the Saddam sympathizers who attacked a police station in Adhimiya that night were killed by coalition forces attempting to restore order. Their bodies lie in refrigeration at the Kadhimiya Teaching Hospital, the second-largest hospital in Baghdad. It is a privileged medical center that before the war was connected not to the Health Ministry but to the Republican Palace. Doctors and nurses there spoke of the need for a recovery period or a convalescence for the Iraqi psyche.
"It would have been better if he killed himself. If I was in his position, I'd fight until they killed me. You know the Arab mind, the dignity is so important," said Dr. Moayed Bashir, 33, who specializes in cardiology. Bashir, a Shiite from a town near Nasiriyah, watched the Shiite uprising and their brutal suppression by Saddam following the 1991 Gulf War.
"I am not a psychiatrist, but I think the picture of the very hard man, the brave leader, the strong Arab leader—even his enemies thought he was brave—the way that he was presented in the videotape was very hard for them to take. The nationality of Iraq has been humiliated."
In the Sunni Triangle, those feelings go deeper, and many residents reject the idea that Saddam is in custody.
"Today I came from Ramadi, and all the talk in the cars and buses is that the man they captured is a double. The real Saddam has been seen in Falluja," said Yousif Ali, 40, a clerk in the Ministry of Education. "Actually, I believe this. I know someone in Falluja who said they saw him. Hundreds of people believe this and they demonstrated about this" on Tuesday.
For those who follow hard-line religious beliefs, phrases in the Quran about fighting unbelievers during the time of the prophet Mohammed have been interpreted to mean that if unbelievers insult Muslims, Muslims must respond with war. If there is no insult, you respond with peace.
"For me, if you are an unbeliever or a believer, that is between you and God. For now, we are waiting to see if things go well. If so, we will deal with the Americans in peace," said Bashir. "Definitely the Americans didn't come for our sake only. They have their own interests. But if they help us, okay. We are a broken country now."
In the wealthy Mansur neighborhood, there were mixed reactions at a restaurant once favored by Saddam's despotic younger son Qusai, who was killed along with his brother, Odai, in a raid in Mosul in July. But Ali Mohe, 25, a college student studying business and management, and his younger brother, Amar, were 100 percent gleeful about Saddam's capture.
"The way he was captured was very good," Mohe said. "If Saddam were searching for the Americans instead, he would eat them alive. The death penalty is the minimum he deserves. We want him to be tortured as long as possible, and we hope the Iraqi people will be allowed to decide this."
While Saddam's capture removes any fear that he might return, his arrest isn't necessarily seen as an end of the regime. For many people in Iraq, Saddam's era ended with the fall of Baghdad.
"The capture is only the last scene in the movie," Bashir said. "You can't expect to find full happiness in the Iraqi people now, at least not the happiness you expect, because Saddam killed the happiness in their hearts during these 35 years."
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.