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Balanced Fare: We Report, You Deride

Monday, October 21, 2002

Riding the Tiger - Dismount to Follow

"Tens of thousands of Iraqi prisoners stormed out of their cells to freedom today after President Saddam Hussein declared an amnesty that appeared to have all but emptied a sprawling, nationwide network of prisons that have served as the grim charnel houses of one of the world's harshest police states.

...Mr. Hussein's reasons for emptying the prisons were shrouded in the blanket of secrecy that envelops much in Iraq...

But much else suggested that the growing threat of war with the United States may have spurred what is undoubtedly the most punitive government in the Arab world toward a sudden gesture of magnanimity.

Among Iraqi exiles, the common view was that President Bush, in demanding the ouster of Mr. Hussein, has already struck at the foundations of his power, by serving notice that the days of the 65-year-old president, an absolute ruler since he seized power in 1979, may be numbered by America's military might....

Diplomats in Baghdad with memories of the rapid collapse of Communist power across Eastern Europe in 1989 said Mr. Hussein and his aging inner circle in the Revolutionary Command Council may be drawing on that experience, concerned that the specter of war with the United States could cause a crumbling of loyalties that could bring the government tumbling down from within.

But the Eastern European example, and the scenes of frenzy that developed at Abu Ghraib, suggested that gestures by autocratic regimes to release pressure can have unexpected results, signaling to people who have lived for years in fear of the state that their rulers may be wavering, and that ordinary people, gathered in large numbers, can take power into their own hands. That lesson seemed unavoidable today, as the crowds forced some cell blocks open, while jailers mostly stood passively by."

Oh, we love this story. But it gets better:

" For two hours, as the crowds gathered in their thousands outside the gates, the prison release looked like it was turning into a rally for Mr. Hussein. Young men, apparently government supporters, led relatives of the prisoners in firing Kalashnikov rifles into the air...

Once the prison gates collapsed, the mood changed. Seeing watchtowers abandoned and the prison guards standing passively by or actively supporting them as they charged into the cell blocks, the crowd seemed to realize that they were experiencing, if only briefly, a new Iraq, where the people, not the government, was sovereign. Chants of "Down Bush! Down Sharon!" referring to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel, faded. In one cell block, a guard smiled broadly at an American photographer, raised his thumb, and said, "Bush! Bush!" Elsewhere, guards offered an English word almost never heard in Iraq. "Free!" they said. "Free!"

The Times saves that for their big finish. And how great would it be if this signals a big finish for Saddam.

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