After the death of a dictator

The Journal’s Ahmed Kayssi was travelling through the Middle East when Saddam Hussein was hanged in Baghdad on Dec. 30. Here he reports on the immediate reaction in the region

Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of SCIRI, the dominant party in Iraq’s ruling coalition, greets his supporters after the Eid al-Adha prayer in Baghdad, Iraq, Sunday, Dec. 31, 2006. A day after the former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein was executed, al-Hakim led the Shiite Eid prayers near his party’s headquarters in Baghdad, and congratulated the Iraqi people on the execution of the former dictator.
Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of SCIRI, the dominant party in Iraq’s ruling coalition, greets his supporters after the Eid al-Adha prayer in Baghdad, Iraq, Sunday, Dec. 31, 2006. A day after the former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein was executed, al-Hakim led the Shiite Eid prayers near his party’s headquarters in Baghdad, and congratulated the Iraqi people on the execution of the former dictator.
Former Iraqi finance minister Kamil Al-Gailani told the Journal he supports Saddam’s execution.
Former Iraqi finance minister Kamil Al-Gailani told the Journal he supports Saddam’s execution.

Amman, JORDAN —Around the world, the reaction to the former Iraqi leader’s execution was swift. Much of the Arab indignation focused on the timing of Saddam Hussein’s execution, which coincided with the holy Muslim festival of Eid-Ul-Adha. The day following the execution, Egyptian newspaper Al-Wafd’s front-page headlines were “Bush slaughters Saddam in Eid-Ul-Adha,” and “America mocks Muslim sensitivities.” Traditionally, the Muslim festival of Eid-Ul-Adha—one of two main Muslim nolidays of the year, the other being Eid-Ul-Fitr at the end of Ramadan—is considered a joyous occasion in which people are urged to reconcile their differences and make peace.

Saddam’s execution shortly before the Eid-Ul-Adha prayer caused an outrage in Egypt, where Al-Ahrar newspaper reported that many mosque sermons declared that “the execution of an Arab leader by the occupying powers is a message to Muslims that must be clearly understood: the enemy is fighting our religion and not the persona of Saddam.”

Saudi Arabia’s Al-Watan, however, reported that Saddam’s execution in Eid-Ul-Adha, although unusual, was not unique. It detailed an execution that took place 13 centuries ago, also in Iraq, of a man called El-Ja’ed bin Dirham, who was killed by the authorities in a very public manner on that same day.

Not all Arab writers mourned Saddam. Egyptian writer Safinaz Kadhim, for example, wrote an editorial in the international daily Asharq Al-Awsat distancing herself from the Egyptian Journalists’ Union’s decision to condemn Saddam’s execution.

Kadhim accused Saddam sympathizers of hypocrisy for their indifference while Iraqis suffered under Saddam. “Where was all of this anger when Iraqis were being slaughtered and tortured and executed by the hundreds and thousands every minute over the past quarter century?” she asked.

Many Arab newspapers agreed that Saddam deserved to be punished for his crimes, but were equally critical of the Americans and the current Iraqi government. An unsigned editorial in the influential Saudi daily Al-Eqtisadiah summarized the mainstream Arab view: “Saddam committed many reckless actions that cannot be justified, but what followed Saddam under the American occupation was sheer madness. It is a political madness that is nurtured by self-interested entities that killed Saddam at this sensitive time, giving the impression that they want to perpetuate the anarchy and sectarian violence in Iraq.

”Other Arab writers questioned why Saddam was executed before all of his crimes were adequately investigated.
“Why did they kill him now before his trials were concluded?” asked Mohammed Al-Ash’hab in the international daily Al-Hayat. “Is it because the increasingly heinous crimes that Iraqis are experiencing at the hands of the occupation forces and the armed militias are becoming as bad as the actions of the former regime?”

Predictably, the Iraqi reaction to Saddam’s death was emotional and polarised. In predominantly Shiite and Kurdish regions of the country, people took to the streets, firing guns in the air in celebration.

Many Shiites and Kurds in Iraq actively fought against Saddam, and subsequently suffered brutal reprisals over the years. In the Sunni parts of Iraq, the reaction was more subdued. While some, particularly in the areas that benefited from Saddam’spatronage, took to the streets to protest his execution, most Sunnis, who feel marginalised under the current Iraqi government, did not publicly celebrate despite also suffering under Saddam’s regime.

Former Iraqi finance minister Kamil Al-Gailani told the Journal that he approved of Saddam’s execution.

“Most Iraqis of all backgrounds have wanted him dead for years. This should be the natural end of every oppressor,” he said. Al-Gailani, an unpartisan politician who served in the Coalition Provisional Authority established by the Americans immediately after the war ended in 2003, did not approve of the circumstances surrounding the execution.

“Why the need to kill someone in such a vengeful way? This will only reinforce a negative image of Islam by people who know little about the religion,” Al-Gailani said.

When asked about the Iraqi reaction to the execution, Al-Gailani rejected the media characterization of Sunnis in Iraq. “Who says that most Sunnis are upset that Saddam is dead? Has anyone conducted an opinion poll?” he asked.

“People should not forget that the first group targeted by Saddam’s Baath party after they came to power in 1968 were Sunni officers, politicians, and thinkers,” he added. “The only thing in which Saddam did not discriminate was in his oppression of others,” Al-Gailaini said.

“Everyone who disagreed with him, regardless of their background, was made to disappear. In my opinion, a majority of Sunnis are glad that Saddam is gone, and the ones who are unhappy don’t like the way it came across as an act of sectarian vengeance,” he added.

Harvard medical student Dunia Abdul-Aziz wasn’t happy with Saddam’s execution.

“I’m not a big fan of capital punishment, and I wasn’t relieved despite the fact that I hated him so much,” she said. “He deserved to be held accountable for all the crimes that he committed. Now, his
victims will never get closure,” she added. In 2004, Abdul-Aziz travelled from her home in Boston to the Jordanian capital Amman, where she spent a year working with the charitable organization Caritas
Internationalis to provide medical and humanitarian assistance to Iraqi refugees and forced migrants in Jordan.

She said that her experience with Iraqi refugees, who came from diverse backgrounds, sensitized her to the considerable fear and mistrust that exists between Iraq’s communities and allowed her to understand the various reactions to Saddam’s death.

“Some Christians blamed Islam for the violence, and the Sunnis and Shiite communities were housed in different parts of Amman to prevent any clashes,” she said. “Even as refugees, many people did not
forget the tensions that are driving a wedge between Iraq’s different communities,” she added.

While Iran, Israel, Kuwait, and the United States welcomed the news of Saddam’s execution, most European countries used the occasion to voice their opposition to capital punishment.

The United Kingdom, which took part in the invasion of Iraq in 2003, also reaffirmed its opposition to the death penalty while stressing that, as a sovereign country, Iraq had the right to punish Saddam in accordance with its own laws.

Conversely, countries that opposed the invasion of Iraq, such as China and Russia, warned that Saddam’s execution would inflame sectarian tensions in a country already in the midst of a bloody conflict.

The Vatican went even further, describing Saddam’s killing as “tragic.” But nowhere was the anger at Saddam’s execution more palpable than in the Arab world, where thousands of protesters took to
the streets following news of the execution, waving pictures of the deposed Iraqi leader and burning American flags and effigies of President George W. Bush.

In Egypt and in much of the Arab world, the current democratically-elected Iraqi government, which tried and executed Saddam, is dismissed as American-controlled. Consequently, the decision to kill Saddam is widely attributed to the Americans. Queen’s political studies professor Wayne Cox believes that Saddam’s trial was flawed. “Basically, Saddam wasn’t held accountable for his most serious crimes, and the fairness of his trial was questionable by international standards,” he said.

According to Cox, the Arab reaction to Saddam’s execution was influenced by lingering resentment towards American policies in the Middle East. “The official American position from the beginning of the Iraq war was that it had the right to make decisions about regime change in the Middle East,” Cox said. “This provoked many Arabs.
“By executing Saddam, the Iraqi and American governments made him a martyr in the eyes of marginalized Arabs who now see him as a person who actually stood up to the United States and died for it.
“As such, I can’t see the insurgency in Iraq dying out at all,” Cox said. Cox said he can’t be optimistic about Iraq’s future.

“Regardless of who wins next year’s American presidential elections, the Americans will soon leave Iraq and the mess will be left for the international community and Iraqis willing to take the risk,” he said.

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