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December 19, 2003 -- THERE are three essential rules for men to live by: Never write checks to your mistress on an account you share with your wife; never wear any article of clothing featured in a New York Times fashion supplement; and, if you're a dictator-on-the-run, never carry 500 pages of key information about your resistance movement around in your suitcase.

The circumstances and images of Saddam's capture will reverberate for decades, with profound psychological and practical consequences in the Middle East and beyond. But the most immediate and tangible results have come from the documents he carried.

With breathtaking speed, our intelligence professionals in Iraq began scouring those papers for actionable data. They found it. And they continue to find it.

In Baghdad, Samarra and elsewhere, U.S. Army units launched a series of raids that scooped up key coordinators and financiers from the Ba'athist resistance, along with significant numbers of the middle managers and line supervisors of terror.

One raid brought in over 70 enemy operatives, another netted 30. Less visible operations round up more of the sponsors of terror every day.

This matters. It's huge. Contrary to Howard Dean's sour-grapes whining, Saddam's apprehension certainly has made America safer. Even more obviously, it's making Iraq a safer place for our troops. The calculus isn't hard: When you take into custody significant numbers of Ba'athist terrorists - directors, financiers, middlemen, assassins - it keeps GIs alive.

Attacks on our troops will continue, and cynics will discount our success. But just wait. After the Ba'athists still at large squander their assets attempting to prove that they remain a viable force, strikes against our forces will dwindle in number.

We'll see flurries of attacks as the transition to Iraqi self-government approaches, then in an attempt to influence the U.S. presidential elections. But our enemies have been severely crippled in a single week. They'll never fully recover.

We'll never know how many potential attacks were prevented by the arrest of hundreds of key players in the resistance or by the seizure of their funds and weaponry. But we can be assured that many American soldiers will return, alive and well, to their families who otherwise would have died or been disabled. Countless Iraqi lives have been saved, as well.

And there's even more good news: The ultimate power of the documents seized with Saddam is even greater than the information actually in those pages. Apart from the wave of arrests weakening our enemies, the beauty of the thing is that, while the die-hards have heard that we captured Saddam's personal papers, none of those still on the loose know exactly what was in those documents.

No resistance leader, double agent or back-alley facilitator knows whether or not his name and whereabouts were on one of Saddam's lists. None knows for certain which safe houses or money conduits have been compromised. They don't know which arms caches or rendevous points we're watching in the dead of night.

It's their turn to live in fear of ambushes.

What your enemy doesn't know you don't know is almost as powerful as knowing it.

The movers and shakers in the Ba'athist terror movement are diving for cover, praying they haven't been compromised. When your primary worry is your own safety, it's hard to organize an effective resistance campaign.

And frightened men make mistakes, which lead to other mistakes. We just need to keep up the pressure.

Saddam was traveling light. The documents he kept with him would have been of two kinds: Indispensable information of enduring value, and recent reports not yet destroyed. All of it helps us.

Beyond the data guiding our current operations, much of the information will take time to come into focus. Some names and references will remain unclear until other captured documents or interrogation results suddenly lead to the "Ah-hah!" moment.

Saddam wasn't lugging around the collected works of the Ba'athist terror movement. But he was packing the Cliff Notes. Just in time for our mid-term exams.

Unless you're an anti-war Democratic presidential aspirant who's been yelling "Where's Saddam?" for the last six months, there's no downside to this week's cascade of successes in Iraq. Even with all that's been written on the subject, we haven't begun to realize the importance of these epochal events.

But there's one thing of which we can be certain: Our soldiers have given all of us a tremendous holiday gift by capturing the Herod of our time before he and his henchmen could slaughter more innocents.

Ralph Peters is the author of "Beyond Baghdad."

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