Dec. 30, 2006 | The body of Saddam, as it swung from the gallows at 6
a.m. Saturday Baghdad time, cast an ominous shadow over Iraq. The
execution provoked intense questions about whether his trial was fair
and about what the fallout will be. One thing is certain: The trial and
execution of Saddam were about revenge, not justice. Instead of
promoting national reconciliation, this act of revenge helped Saddam
portray himself one last time as a symbol of Sunni Arab resistance, and
became one more incitement to sectarian warfare.
Saddam Hussein was tried under the shadow of a foreign military
occupation, by a government full of his personal enemies. The first
judge, an ethnic Kurd, resigned because of government interference in
the trial; the judge who took his place was also Kurdish and had
grievances against the accused. Three of Saddam's defense lawyers were
shot down in cold blood. The surviving members of his defense team went
on strike to protest the lack of protection afforded them. The court
then appointed new lawyers who had no expertise in international law.
Most of the witnesses against Saddam gave hearsay evidence. The trial
ground slowly but certainly toward the inevitable death verdict.
Like everything else in Iraq since 2003, Saddam's trial became
entangled in sectarian politics. Iraq is roughly 60 percent Shiite, 18
percent Sunni Arab and 18 percent Kurdish. Elements of the Sunni
minority were favored under fellow Sunni Saddam, and during his long,
brutal reign this community tended to have high rates of membership in
the Baath Party. Although many members of Saddam's own ethnic group
deeply disliked him, since the U.S. invasion he has gradually emerged
as a symbol of the humiliation that the once-dominant Sunni minority
has suffered under a new government dominated by Shiites and Kurds.
Saddam was a symbol of Sunni-Shiite rivalry long before the U.S.
occupation. In 1991, while he was in power, he had ferociously
suppressed the post-Gulf War Shiite uprising in the south, using
helicopter gunships and tanks to kill an estimated 60,000. After the
invasion, many Shiites wanted him to be captured, while many Sunnis
helped him elude capture. When Saddam was finally caught by U.S. forces
in late 2003, Shiites in the Baghdad district of Kadhimiya crossed the
bridge over the Tigris to dance and gloat in the neighboring Sunni Arab
district of Adhamiya, provoking some clashes. After his capture,
students at Mosul University, in Iraq's second-largest and mostly Sunni
Arab city, chanted, "Bush, Bush, hear our refrain: We all love Saddam
Hussein!" and "We'll die, we'll die, but the nation will live! And
America will fall!"
As the U.S. consolidated control over Iraq, meanwhile, Sunni alienation
increased. The American occupiers adopted punitive measures against
members of the Baath Party, who were disproportionately though by no
means universally Sunni Arab. The army was dissolved, sidelining
400,000 troops and the predominantly Sunni officer corps. Thousands of
Sunni Arab civil servants and even schoolteachers were fired.
A "de-Baathification" committee, dominated by hard-line Shiites like
Nouri al-Maliki (now prime minister) and Ahmed Chalabi, denied large
numbers of Sunni Arabs the right to participate in political society or
hold government positions on grounds of links to the Baath Party.
Sometimes politicians were blackballed simply because a relative had
been high in the party.
As Iraq spiraled down into a brutal civil war with massive killing and
ethnic cleansing, many Iraqis began to yearn for the oppressive
security of the Saddam period. After the destruction of the golden dome
of the Shiite Askariya mosque in Samarra last February, Iraqis fell
into an orgy of sectarian reprisal killings.
By the time of Saddam's trial, sectarian strife was widespread, and the
trial simply made it worse. It was not just the inherent bias of a
judicial system dominated by his political enemies. Even the crimes for
which he was tried were a source of ethnic friction. Saddam Hussein had
had many Sunni Arabs killed, and a trial on such a charge could have
been politically savvy. Instead, he was accused of the execution of
scores of Shiites in Dujail in 1982. This Shiite town had been a hotbed
of activism by the Shiite fundamentalist Dawa (Islamic Call) Party,
which was founded in the late 1950s and modeled on the Communist Party.
In the wake of Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini's 1979 Islamic Revolution in
neighboring Iran, Saddam conceived a profound fear of Dawa and similar
parties, banning them and making membership a capital crime. Young Dawa
leaders such as al-Maliki fled to Tehran, Iran, or Damascus, Syria.
When Saddam visited Dujail, Dawa agents attempted to assassinate him.
In turn, he wrought a terrible revenge on the town's young men. Current
Prime Minister al-Maliki is the leader of the Dawa Party and served for
years in exile in its Damascus bureau. For a Dawa-led government to try
Saddam, especially for this crackdown on a Dawa stronghold, makes it
look to Sunni Arabs more like a sectarian reprisal than a dispassionate
trial for crimes against humanity.
Passions did not subside with time. When the death verdict was
announced against Saddam in November, Sunni Arabs in Baquba, to the
northeast of the capital, staged a big pro-Saddam demonstration. They
were attacked by the Shiite police that dominate that mixed city, who
killed 20 demonstrators and wounded a similar number. There were also
pro-Saddam demonstrations in Fallujah and Mosul. Baghdad had to be put
The tribunal also had a unique sense of timing when choosing the day
for Saddam's hanging. It was a slap in the face to Sunni Arabs. This
weekend marks Eid al-Adha, the Holy Day of Sacrifice, on which Muslims
commemorate the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son for God.
Shiites celebrate it Sunday. Sunnis celebrate it Saturday -- and
Iraqi law forbids executing the condemned on a major holiday. Hanging
Saddam on Saturday was perceived by Sunni Arabs as the act of a Shiite
government that had accepted the Shiite ritual calendar.
The timing also allowed Saddam, in his farewell address to Iraq, to
pose as a "sacrifice" for his nation, an explicit reference to Eid
al-Adha. The tribunal had given the old secular nationalist the chance
to use religious language to play on the sympathies of the whole Iraqi
The political ineptitude of the tribunal, from start to finish, was
astonishing. The United States and its Iraqi allies basically gave
Saddam a platform on which to make himself a martyr to Iraqi unity and
independence -- even if by unity and independence Saddam was really
appealing to Sunnis' nostalgia for their days of hegemony.
In his farewell address, however, Saddam could not help departing from
his national-unity script to take a few last shots at his ethnic
rivals. Despite some smarmy language urging Iraqis not to hate the
Americans, Saddam denounced the "invaders" and "Persians" who had come
into Iraq. The invaders are the American army, and the Persians are
code not just for Iranian agents but for Iraqi Shiites, whom many Sunni
Arabs view as having Iranian antecedents and as not really Iraqi or
Arab. It was such attitudes that led to slaughters like that at Dujail.
In his death, as in his life, Saddam Hussein is managing to divide
Iraqis and condemn them to further violence and brutality. But the
Americans and the Shiite- and Kurd-dominated government bear some blame
for the way they botched his trial and gave him this last opportunity
to play the spoiler.
Iraq is on high alert, in expectation of protests and guerrilla
reprisals. Leaves have been canceled for Iraqi soldiers, though in the
past they have seldom paid much attention to such orders. But perhaps
the death of Saddam, who once haunted the nightmares of a nation, will
soon come to seem insignificant. In Iraq, guerrilla and criminal
violence executes as many as 500 persons a day. Saddam's hanging is
just one more occasion for a blood feud in a country that now has
thousands of them.
-- By Juan Cole