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"The most regrettable thing in the whole affair of the capture of Saddam is that the Iraqis didn't kill him first. This is because the American force that came to their defense was an occupation force before his capture, and will remain an occupation force after it as well. The United States owes Saddam a lot for making it possible for it to enter the depths of this region so easily and giving it the fastest victory. He gave it the authority to redraw the map of the region. More than all that, Saddam put into America's mouth excuses it never dreamed of, with which it could say to the world that it owned the monopoly on the distinction between good and evil, and that it was right in all its policy."

These observations by senior columnist Abed al-Wahab Badrahan in an editorial in the London-based Arabic newspaper Al Hayyat, the day after Saddam Hussein's capture, are perhaps the essence of the "Arab sense" of the drama that took place at the beginning of this week.

The BBC Arabic station went looking for that "Arab sense" on the day Saddam's capture became known. Exceptionally, the station canceled its scheduled program and instead broadcast a program of "Conversations with Listeners." A person who gave his name as Basel from Jordan did not hesitate to say that "we are all with Saddam," and that it is not Saddam who is the problem, but rather the American occupation. When an Iraqi citizen who lives in Germany came on the open line and thanked God for the capture of Saddam, Basel scolded him vociferously for his gall: "It is not Arabism to talk that way," Basel shouted.

The meaning of this Arabism was clarified by the semi-official Egyptian newspaper Al Ahram, which receives a government subsidy. In an editorial headed "What Will Happen after Saddam," the newspaper enumerated all the sins of America. "The truth is that the American-British occupation is what has destroyed Iraq's capabilities and its infrastructure, torn Iraq apart by destroying its mechanisms and not only its military commands, stirred up the civil war by appointing a governing council on an ethnic and racial basis - caused thousands of citizens to be unemployed, desecrated all that is sacred and imposed oppression, collective punishment and killing. This occupation is what has brought about the actions of the Iraqi national resistance against it, whether Saddam is free or under arrest."

Thus, Al Ahram has added a new term to the Iraqi and Arab lexicon: Iraqi national resistance. This is a proud, monolithic resistance, and it makes no difference whether it is gangs of looters, Al- Qaida people or supporters of Saddam. National resistance is a stirring term, so much so that it seems more compelling than military victory. It is a kind of nostrum for the heavy feeling of distress that descended upon some Arab intellectuals when Iraq fell so easily nine months ago, and now when "the popular hero," as Egyptian publicist Galal Dawidar called Saddam, was caught in his lair without a battle and "he did not even have the courage to commit suicide like Hitler did to the sounds of Wagner," in the words of Lebanese publicist Ghassan Tawini.

A leader's honor

Arab leaders said nothing on the day of the capture, nor on the following day. On such a day they let the intellectuals speak. King Abdullah of Jordan was mostly interested in the reactions in Parliament to his speech about development plans for Jordan, Syria was in the midst of receiving important visitors from abroad, and throughout the Maghreb they were showing pictures of the Moroccan king, but with no statements about Saddam. In Egypt there was an uninformative report that President Hosni Mubarak had "received a phone call" from U.S. President George W. Bush; Mubarak was shown on state television taking an intense interest in the production of a new textile factory that employs several thousand Egyptian workers. He looked at the charts and at the machines, showed that he was in good health, and that his government was doing things for the economy; he said something about the Palestinian problem, but said nothing about Saddam.

"And what is it you want him to say? That he is happy about the disgraceful fall of Saddam? This is no longer a matter of a policy position toward Saddam, but of a colleague," explains an Egyptian intellectual, "and when a colleague falls in such a disgraceful way, inside a lair he built for himself, with a beard and ragged clothing, this casts a shadow on the rest of the leaders who are still walking among us in suits. This is a question of class honor, the leader class, and not a question of the fate of Saddam as an individual."

A leader's honor is not something that is his own private possession; it always concerns the entire community, the "Arab nation" like the "Western nation." From the leader's honor is derived the honor of the nation he leads and beyond that, of the entire cultural circle that he represents. Hence the anger at Saddam. "The capture of Saddam has been expected since the fall of Baghdad," wrote Sultan al-Khattib in the Jordanian newspaper Al Ra'y, "but not in the way he was captured, a way that does not testify to the courage that every ordinary Arab citizen bears in his breast as he goes forth to fight his enemies even with an old rifle or a knife blade, so as not to die in hiding or in his bed. Saddam has inflicted disaster upon us twice - once when Baghdad fell and once when he fell without exacting a price, in order to join the convoy of those who beg for mercy and seek amnesty, or what is called `a fair trial.' Saddam is `Arab property' and bears responsibility for the regional honor, a region in which there are clear codes. An ordinary citizen goes forth to fight his enemies even with an old rifle" - and how much more so a leader. Therefore, the outcry against him is not on a personal basis, about his madness or even about the huge damage he inflicted on Iraq and his countrymen. These of course will always be mentioned, but the "greatness" of the damage he has caused is what he has done to the Arab region: His policy made it possible for the United States to go deep into the Arab space, desecrate what it holds sacred and set new rules of good and evil there.

"Iraq is Iraq before Saddam Hussein and after him," wrote George Haddad in the Jordanian newspaper Al Dustur. "The focus on the character of a single person is nothing but the colonialists' stubborn way of blurring the motives (for resistance) and justifying their own barbarity ... The final result will be the lesson that the Iraqis will teach the world, as those who live will see."

Now all the cards are in the hands of "the national resistance." It is the national resistance that will restore honor and liberate an occupied Arab homeland. "This is the way people from whom even the fantasy has been taken speak," says a Jordanian journalist. "These are people who would pay a great deal in order for Saddam to remain a kind of hidden imam. The subject of fantasies that will one day come true. A mystery that will nourish an Arab and not just an Iraqi narrative. Now they are left only with bin Laden as the bearer of the Islamic dream. But this is not the dream of the Arabs, the nationalists who are trying to deal politically and not religiously with the alien. The difference between Saddam and bin Laden is that Saddam developed an Arab national narrative. He was `the new Arab,' the Arab who does not bow down before the West. He is the real leader at a time when the Arabs feel persecuted by the America of George Bush. Bin Laden cannot represent Arab nationalism. He is against it. He wants a single Muslim nation."

Hence it is the right of the Iraqis in particular and the Arabs in general to be the ones to eliminate a leader like Saddam. "My feelings of pain from the fall of Saddam would vanish had Saddam been gotten rid of by members of the Iraqi nation, as it is the Iraqi nation that has the right to settle accounts and punish the one who has tortured it," wrote the Egyptian Galal Dawidar. "How saddening and painful it is that the first announcement of Saddam's fall came from (Paul) Bremer, the representative of the American occupation."

Here, as in Darhan's remarks in Al Hayyat, the problem is who sets the standards and who determines what a suitable punishment is. There are rules that must not be broken, and Saddam broke them, "not at the political or social level of a leader's behavior toward his people - that is something to which we are accustomed, that is the reality in which we act," explains the Jordanian journalist, "but rather the sin that he sinned toward the Arab unity of a common fate. Not the commonality of Arabs as opposed to the cruel Western world, but a commonality that locks us all into a common distress, with the same kind of leaders and one variety of regime. We are always squinting to see whether anyone is deviating from this, to make sure that some democracy isn't sprouting up somewhere among us, with new codes and a different kind of politics. And suddenly Saddam comes along and opens Iraq's legs wide to the West. For this he has to be punished and the punishment has to be Arab. This is my interpretation of what our intellectuals are writing."

This is not what Saddam is going to be tried for when he goes on trial, but rather "ordinary" crimes: genocide, mass torture, abuse and stealing public property, and of course dozens more charges that will justify the death sentence, by an Iraqi tribunal which they are already now trying to set up. "The Iraqis will get their satisfaction," says the Egyptian intellectual. "For the rest of the Arabs there will remain only the judgment of history, and in such a trial a leader is not executed, and they don't even beat their breast. They find other guilty parties, preferably Americans."