Bu-lat-lat (boo-lat-lat) verb: to search, probe, investigate, inquire; to unearth facts

Volume 3,  Number 11              April 13 - 19, 2003            Quezon City, Philippines

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Baghdad's Easy Fall Fuels Arab Conspiracy Theories

By Paul Taylor

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CAIRO (Reuters) - As Arabs struggle to come to terms with the stunning fall of Baghdad, conspiracy theories are rife about why Saddam Hussein disappeared and his security forces put up so little fight.

Many refuse to believe how Iraqi defenders melted away before U.S. invaders and are groping for explanations in either a betrayal by the country's political or military leaders, or some secret deal to smuggle Saddam out of the country.

Lebanese Parliament speaker Nabih Berri was among the first to air such rumors of a covert arrangement to bundle Saddam out of Iraq in exchange for an end to the bloodshed.

As U.S. tanks swept almost unopposed into Baghdad on Wednesday, Berri suggested Saddam might have taken refuge in the Russian embassy, prompting an immediate denial from Moscow.

"Before all else, you must know why the Russian ambassador returned to Baghdad and what (U.S. National Security Adviser) Condoleezza Rice did in Moscow. Is Saddam Hussein in the embassy?" Lebanon's national news agency quoted Berri as saying.

An aide to Berri joined the dots, saying his boss meant to suggest Saddam had been granted sanctuary in a U.S.-Russian deal in return for an end to Republican Guard resistance.

It was neither the first nor the last such theory in circulation as Arab media and citizens sought to explain what has been widely perceived as a humiliation.

The respected London-based, pan-Arab daily al-Hayat spoke in a front-page banner headline on Friday of a purported "deal" that brought about the collapse of Iraqi resistance.

Arab street

"Informed Iraqi sources said the absence of an effective role of the Republican Guard over the past three weeks of the war can be attributed to contacts between the 'allies' and some leaders of these units, during which they gave assurances not to harm them," al-Hayat said.

"What reinforces this news is the disappearance of large numbers of Iraqi forces as well as their heavy equipment as the attacking forces advanced," it said.

The newspaper said senior Iraqi officers allegedly involved in such a deal might have been promised a role in postwar Iraqi security forces needed to end anarchy and restore order.

Commentators on pan-Arab satellite channel al-Arabiya talked in shock and disgust of a "deal" as they watched U.S. marines and Iraqis bringing down a giant statue of Saddam, hours after the entire Iraqi leadership had vanished.

With reputable media airing such theories, it is no surprise that many in the so-called "Arab street" are convinced there was some underhand plot behind the fall of Baghdad.

Saad al-Nayly, a student in the Saudi capital Riyadh, said: "It's not reasonable that a small town like Umm Qasr can hold out for two weeks, then the capital which has the army and fedayeen falls in a few hours." Armed Iraqis in parts of Umm Qasr, the most southerly Iraqi town, resisted British forces for several days.

"Saddam gave them Iraq in return for a deal to save his life," said Sahar Imam, a communications expert in Amman.

"We had hoped he would have a grain of nationalism in the last minute... We did not believe that they would enter Baghdad with this ease and we feel he handed over Baghdad with his own hands," he said.

Many Arabs would apparently rather believe in a betrayal than in the superior power of the U.S. military, which pounded Iraqi command centers and Republican Guard units with air raids and artillery for almost three weeks before capturing Baghdad.

Much of Iraq's military hardware was destroyed out of sight of television cameras, and Arab television stations have shown little footage of the wreckage, fueling the speculation in many Arab minds that a deal was struck.

"The game is over and its a sellout," said Salem Khaled, an angry Jordanian clerk.

"Either Saddam is an agent or this is a soap opera," said Mohammad Ateyeh, a government clerk in Jordan. "Why didn't he resist and why did he allow the Americans to pass over the bridges? Why didn't he dig trenches? He had missiles, why did he not use them? This man has cheated the whole Arab nation."

"Arabs and Muslims do not believe what has happened and the coming days will reveal these secrets," Amman shopkeeper Jalal Aboud said. "I don't think Saddam was killed as some believe. He's hiding in a place known only too well to the Americans."

(With additional reports from Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman, Lin Noueihed in Beirut and Andrew Hammond in Riyadh)

April 11, 2003


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