Vol. 5 Num 926 Sat. January 06, 2007  

Post Breakfast
A dictator's last defiance

Last Saturday, as Iraq and most of the Muslim world celebrated Eid-ul-Azha, the festival of sacrifice, Saddam Hussein, former strongman of Iraq met his destiny at the gallows. The indecent hasty execution of the fallen leader during the time of Hajj opened more windows of debate rather than the required closure.

Saddam's surrender to coalition forces on December 13, 2003, his arrest and his subsequent trial became the source of contention among international jurists. Matters were also not helped with the manner in which the charges were framed, evidence gathered and the court composed. Many pointed out that the trial appeared to be directed towards the achieving of revenge rather than justice and reconciliation. Latest developments tend to uphold such an opinion.

The first judge, an ethnic Kurd, resigned because of government interference in the trial. His successor, also Kurdish, turned out to be less than partial with open personal grievances against the fallen dictator. The judicial process was also affected by three of Saddam's defence lawyers being shot down in cold blood. Some of the others in the defence team went on strike to protest the lack of protection afforded to them. The court then appointed new lawyers who had no past experience in the ramifications of international criminal law. The evolving situation led Ramsay Clark, former US Attorney General and member of Saddam's defence team, to express his unhappiness in the manner in which the trial was being carried out.

Saddam must have realised what fate had in store for him. This affected his response and action in the court. Contrary to his meek submission to the coalition forces at the time of his capture, Saddam gradually, started exhibiting signs of defiance. His old personality resurfaced in his response to the judicial process. This continued even on the day of execution. He refused to have his head covered and prepared to meet the gallows without any struggle. His last letter and the manner in which he met his death, has now transformed the despot in the Arab streets into a sacrificial victim.

I met Saddam for the first time in 1981 during the Iraq-Iran war. I acted as an interpreter between him and the late President Ziaur Rahman during the latter's efforts to bring about a cease-fire between the two warring countries. I met him several times after that in the course of my diplomatic assignments. He struck me as not only being a xenophobic extreme nationalist but also an ambitious, arrogant leader who did not care too much about world opinion or international legal principles. He also appeared to be relatively confident about his relations with the USA and Europe underlining more than once the importance of oil in international politics. He was also proud about the manner in which he had managed to create 'a sense of unity' among the different sects of people living in Iraq. While doing so, he liked to compare himself with the former Yugoslav leader Marshal B. Tito who had brought unity to another 'fragmented country'. He also took pride in the empowerment of women in Iraq compared to the neighbouring 'feudal' Arab countries. It was also very clear from his comments that he believed that he was a man of destiny, for whom, the use of chemical weapons or use of mustard gas or the killing of thousands of civilians meant nothing as long as his objectives could be realised.

This last trait did not endear him to me. His subsequent actions against his own unarmed civilian population, the invasion of Kuwait and his fondness for using the country's wealth to meet the needs of himself and his family members were examples of poor judgment.

All of this is however in the past.

The question that needs to be answered now is whether the execution of Saddam needed to be carried out with such haste and whether such a course of action will ensure stability in sectarian strife-torn Iraq.

Latest reports coming out of Iraq suggest that the internal situation within Iraq is far from stable. The latest tabulation by the Iraqi ministries of Health, Defence and Interior has shown that 14,298 civilians, 1,348 police and 627 soldiers have been killed in the violence that has raged in that country last year. The United Nations has however reported a higher figure of as many as 100 violent deaths per day. The US death toll, meanwhile, has also, climbed to at least 3,002 by the final day of 2006. Apparently, 113 US servicemen died in December, which made it the bloodiest of 2006. This cumulative figure is incidentally higher than the number of people killed in the USA due to the terrorist acts of 11 September 2001. News agencies have also reported the gory statistics that more than 25,000 persons of US origin have been wounded in Iraq over the past three years.

The latest incidents also indicate that the sectarian divide is hardening. Demonstrations carried out in the Golden Dome area of Shiite Samarra after the execution reflected that many Sunni Arabs might now be more actively supporting the small number of Sunni militants fighting the country's Shiite-dominated government. One may recall in this context that bombing of the Golden Dome shrine, by Sunni extremists 10 months ago, triggered the current cycle of retaliatory attacks between Sunnis and Shiia, in the form of daily bombings, kidnappings and murders.

US strategists need to understand that until Saddam's execution, most Sunnis sympathised with militants but avoided taking a direct role in the sectarian conflict. The current Sunni protests, however appear to be signalling a spreading militancy. Arab analysts have pointed out that Sunnis all over the world were not only outraged by Saddam's hurried execution, just four days after an appeals court upheld his conviction and sentence, but also incensed by the unruly scene in the execution chamber, captured on video, in which Saddam was openly taunted even as the trap door was opening.

It would also be interesting to note here that the judge who first presided over the case that resulted in Saddam's death sentence has commented that the former dictator's execution at the start of Eid was illegal according to Iraqi law, and contradicted Islamic custom. Judge Rizgar M Amin, a Kurd, has clarified that the law states, "No verdict should be implemented during the official holidays or religious festivals."

To this was added the views expressed by Finnish Foreign Minister Erkki Toumioja (holding the EU Presidency on that date) wherein he not only reiterated the EU's opposition to capital punishment but also pointed out that the court case against Saddam 'gave cause for some serious objections'. The Afghan President, a creation of the US, also appeared to criticise the timing of the execution.

Such opinions, for obvious reasons, have not helped the Coalition objectives and the Iraqi government's cause. It has helped to transform the defiant Saddam into a nationalist martyr who was executed not in the interest of justice.

The prevailing circumstances have also forced President Bush to shift his rhetoric about the reality of the situation in Iraq. It is no longer -- "absolutely, we are winning." Now he is saying, "we are not winning, but we are not losing." It is also very clear that US voters and public opinion want an orderly exit and that the Democrats, currently holding the upper hand in the Congress, are not 'buying Bush's big lie.'

US President Bush and his advisers now have to consider a surge of new options and a fresh strategy on how to deal with the expanding insurgency in Iraq. From that point of view Saddam's execution will have to be treated as a 'milestone'. In this context it will also have to be understood that just sending more troops to support Maliki will not resolve the crisis. More troops might mean more casualties in the ever-growing sectarian crisis. What is needed is a coalition of moderates where the Shia and Kurdish communities should be persuaded to cede more powers of governance to the Sunni minority. Otherwise, the sense of growing insecurity among the Sunnis will raise tension, deepen mistrust and fuel violence. What is required is a constructive engagement without partisanship. This course of action, along with a clear prospective timetable for eventual repatriation of Coalition troops from Iraq, will help to create an ambience of stability so desperately needed within the federation. Gloating over Saddam's execution will not help.

President Bush and his allies in Iraq have to be more mature and less vindictive. This must also be seen to be so. Otherwise there will be greater intensification of the sectarian conflict and the nascent civil war. This eventually will lead to Balkanisation of Iraq and the fragmentation of the country. The USA has to decide what it wants.

Muhammad Zamir is a former Secretary and Ambassador who can be reached at