WASHINGTON, April 10 (UPI) -- Suddenly, it was gone. Overnight, the regime of Saddam Hussein had vanished, leaving behind a dangerous mixture of euphoria, looting and pockets of resistance battling for a cause that was not so much lost as spirited away, as if in some magician's cloud of smoke.
Not only had Saddam himself vanished, but so had every other senior Iraqi official. Where was Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, the smooth-talking front man of an oppressive regime, last seen with -- of all people -- Pope John Paul II? Where was Saeed al-Sahhaf, Saddam's fast-talking court jester and so-called minister of information, who only the day before had been assuring journalists that there was no danger of a U.S. breakthrough into Baghdad? Where were all the other middle-aged men in baggy uniforms who sat with Saddam in the news clips?
Analysts say Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was premature Wednesday in consigning Saddam to the "pantheon of failed dictators" along with Hitler and Romanian despot Nicolae Ceausescu. They do not believe that Saddam is buried under the rubble of a bombed Baghdad restaurant.
If Saddam is not found dead, or caught alive, it will be the worst of all possible closures for the war against Iraq. It will give hope to his followers, and once the euphoria has faded, will cast a threatening shadow over Iraq. This situation requires a corpus delecti -- and a recognizable one at that -- or a fallen leader to be sent to trial.
Without Saddam, there is the danger of replicating the Afghanistan situation. After nearly two years of fighting, Osama bin Laden's terror organization al-Qaida has been weakened, the Taliban regime has been ousted, but bin Laden himself continues to elude capture. So has Mullah Omar, the spiritual leader of the Taliban, and bin Laden's close ally.
If Saddam gets away, liberating Iraq will be a bitter-sweet victory for both President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Both leaders focused on the Iraqi despot as the target of the U.S.-led coalition's military action. Regime change will have been achieved, but not Bush's vow that Saddam will be made to pay for his crimes.
Arabs throughout the Middle East were stunned by the speed of the collapse of the Iraqi regime. In the long run, no one had expected Iraq's army to be any match for the "Anglo-Saxons" -- a favorite Arab media label for the U.S. and British forces -- but they had expected the Republican Guard and the Fedayeen militia to make a strong last stand. The collapse of the Iraqi military has been humiliating for the Arab world to witness.
In this respect, Saddam's disappearance has been providential in providing the "why" of the army's ignominious defeat. Many Arabs never had much admiration for Saddam, so the rumor that he had betrayed his own army and made a secret deal with Washington has the double appeal of providing cover for a collective shame and exposing the coalition's "perfidy."
There is, of course, no evidence that any secret deal was made with Saddam. But to conspiracy-minded Arabs, it's a plausible explanation.