ON OCTOBER 20, Saddam Hussein blinked. In the face of an American president's resolve to disarm him, the Iraqi dictator opened the gates of his jails and freed his nation's thieves, rapists, and murderers. (Exempted from his amnesty were prisoners deemed American or Zionist spies.)
Two days later, a crowd of 200 people, most of them women, stormed the Ministry of Information in Baghdad demanding to know the whereabouts of relatives who had not been released. The same day, a larger crowd with similar questions pressed officials at a secret police detention center outside the city. On October 29, thousands of families in Erbil, a city in the north managed largely by the Kurdistan Democratic party, demonstrated in front of the United Nations mission to publicize the plight of their missing kin.
For a man who has survived his army's defeat in Kuwait, the uprisings and international sanctions that followed, and a series of attempted coups and rebellions in the last decade, Saddam Hussein seems to have made an uncharacteristic mistake on October 20. The tyrant's act of mercy may have emboldened his subjects.
As Kanan Makiya, author of "Republic of Fear," a history of the Iraqi Baath party, said Wednesday, Saddam's amnesty decree "suggests the first cracks are appearing in the authority of the regime. This is a hint of things to come. It is a hint of how easy this war is going to be" to win. Some Saddam watchers in the U.S. government concur. "These demonstrations show there is increasing pressure on the regime. There is anger at the grass-roots level," one U.S. official said Wednesday.
There are some outside the government who believe last month's demonstrations may actually be key to toppling the Iraqi regime. About a month before the demonstrations in Baghdad, Peter Ackerman, a former investment banker and the founder of the International Center for Nonviolent Conflict, held a one-day seminar with 50 Iraqi exiles in the Netherlands to discuss how grass-roots anger can be used to bring Saddam's government down.
Ackerman has experience with this sort of thing. He conducted similar training seminars for Otpor, the student movement in Serbia that helped end the reign of Slobodan Milosevic. A proponent of regime change in Iraq who does not oppose the use of military force to secure that end, Ackerman believes that Iraq may be ripe for revolution without an American shot being fired. "These mothers who congregated are as much of a threat to Saddam as the mothers of the disappeared were in Argentina," he says.
At the recent seminar, Ackerman showed a video he produced entitled "Bringing Down a Dictator." It chronicles the opposition movement in Serbia and shows how the Otpor campaign in the spring of 2000 paved the way for the demonstrations that followed a few months later. When residents of Belgrade stormed the parliament in October, the police refused to put down the riot. Had the police and military been confronted with violent demonstrators in the spring, they would have been more hostile to the demonstrators in October, or so goes the theory, and less willing to break their ties to the government. "When you remain nonviolent," says Ackerman, "those ties wither and erode. There is a strategic purpose to nonviolent tactics."
Between 1997 and 2000, the U.S. government poured approximately $22 million in covert and public funding into political resistance movements in Serbia. No such program on anything like that scale exists for Iraq. Most of the American initiatives to topple Saddam are aimed at supporting U.S. military intervention--military training for Iraqi exiles, for example, or an effort to identify potential high-level defectors in the Iraqi army (the CIA established two field offices in northern Iraq last month largely for this purpose). But the State Department has at least played an advisory role in Ackerman's recent activities, which include three meetings with Kurds in the last year.
Shortly after the seminar in the Netherlands, the Iraqi exiles who had participated began calling their contacts in Iraq, according to one of the seminar's organizers, Ismael Zayer, who writes for the London-based Arabic newspaper al-Hayat. Zayer says that in the last month he and others have conducted small seminars in other Arab countries for the purpose of training Iraqis to organize. While conceding that the demonstrations following the release of prisoners were probably spontaneous, he confidently predicted in a phone interview Wednesday, "You will see more of these demonstrations in the future." And he added, "We do believe that the tactics of nonviolence and confrontation in Serbia can be repeated in Iraq very easily, and we are trying to go for it."