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Saddam’s Execution Provokes Political Debate

January 1, 2007 at 10:45 PM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: Iraq after the execution of Saddam Hussein. We begin with a look at the former dictator’s final hours.

In the middle of the night on Sunday, in the back of a pickup truck, Saddam Hussein’s body was returned to the people of his tribe for burial. An Iraqi flag draped the coffin and mourners prayed for him.

Before he was buried in his hometown of al-Awja, the circumstances surrounding his execution had become an internationally televised drama. This silent video of the hanging, released Saturday, shows a outwardly calm Saddam Hussein, resigned and ready to accept his fate.

But yesterday, another video surfaced via the Internet, apparently captured on the camera cell phone of a witness. These images are blurred and shaky. The pictures and sounds reveal the chaos of Saddam’s final moments.

As he’s moved into position, the Shiite guards taunt Saddam, a Sunni, with sectarian slogans. Someone calls out, “Go to hell!” At one point, the Shiites can be heard cheering the name of Muqtada al-Sadr, the powerful Shia cleric.

IRAQI: Muqtada! Muqtada! Muqtada!

RAY SUAREZ: Saddam defiantly replies, “Is that what you call manhood?” A judge tries to quiet the room, and the condemned man begins to pray as the floor falls away under his feet.

For more, we turn to Adeed Dawisha, professor of political science at Miami University of Ohio. Born in Iraq, he’s now a U.S. citizen and has written extensively on the Middle East.

And Thabit Abdullah, a Baghdad native who’s an associate professor of history at York University in Toronto.

'A very small step'

Professor Abdullah, does this execution mark the end or the beginning of something in Iraq?

THABIT ABDULLAH, Associate Professor, York University: Every single change that would occur in Iraq would have to be measured by very small, incremental steps. So with that in mind, yes, I do think that the execution of Saddam marks a very small step.

And that small step is that it will, in my opinion, give the existing government some flexibility -- not a lot, but some flexibility -- in trying to reach out to some of the alienated elements who had been part of the old regime, of Saddam's regime, to perhaps draw them into reconciliation talks.

In fact, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, right after the execution, in the statement he made on Iraqi television, openly called for members of the Baath Party -- and he mentioned the Baath Party -- to enter into reconciliation talks, and also stretched out an arm or an invitation to the old officers of the Iraqi army to again enter the fold.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Dawisha, do you agree that this execution marks an opportunity, as Professor Abdullah suggests?

ADEED DAWISHA, Miami University: That may very well be the case. Saddam had been almost like a symbol to the old Baathists. The insurgency had been going on without him for the last three years.

And so we really don't know here whether new leaders had emerged that would be able to unify this insurgency. All we know is that, of all the leadership of the Sunni community, many of them have left Iraq. The others have gone underground.

And as a result of that, the only person that provided some kind of a symbolic unity for them was Saddam Hussein, so his removal might provide an opportunity.

I dare say, however, I think that's a very small hope because of the increasing kind of enmity between the two communities -- the Shiites and the Sunnis -- which makes me feel rather depressingly and, unfortunately, that we have gone way beyond the death of Saddam.

Confidence in Iraqi leaders?

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Dawisha, what about the status of the Maliki government? The prime minister confidently said, after the sentence was pronounced earlier in 2006, that Saddam would not live to see 2007. He cleared the paper roadblocks; he cleared the security roadblocks, made sure that it happened this weekend.

Is that a message to the country that this government is in control?

ADEED DAWISHA: You know, the government will be seen as being in control when it actually deals with the real problems of Iraq, when it deals with its own problems: rampant corruption amongst its ministries; the infiltration of the militia into its security agencies.

You notice that, for example, in that video, nobody shouted the name of Maliki. They were shouting the name of "Muqtada, Muqtada, Muqtada." That should tell you something about the condition of the government of Nouri al-Maliki.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Abdullah, on the Maliki government, what's your take?

THABIT ABDULLAH: I agree with what Professor Dawisha said. In fact, when I spoke to friends and relatives shortly after the execution, they were rather resigned.

Many of them who had, and myself included, waited all their lives to see the end of this regime, their joy was rather subdued, because the real matters at hand was the insecurity, the lack of electricity, the corruption, as Professor Dawisha said, and these are the issues that will ultimately make or break the government.

I should mention one other thing: It was rather depressing, also, to see the manner and the haste with which the execution took place. The fact that it took place in such haste gave the impression that, in fact, these were Shia militias who were executing this individual who represented the Sunnis.

And I think this is a terrible mixing and muddling of the whole legacy of Saddam. Saddam's regime was not necessarily a Sunni versus a Shia regime. It was rather a heinous dictatorship that targeted first and foremost the secular democratic forces in Iraq and, in fact, repressed Sunnis with as much severity.

But the way in which the execution took place, with the shouting of slogans, not only of Muqtada but also al-Hakim's name was mentioned there, gives the impression that, in fact, these are Shias out for revenge, and this is what a lot of Sunnis, who are not necessarily pro-Saddam, are extremely fearful of.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Professor Abdullah, does it send the message? Does the message come from that video from the death chamber that there is a Shia ascendancy and you Sunnis better get used to it?

THABIT ABDULLAH: I think some Sunnis will interpret it this way. This certainly could have been avoided. And we can list a number of terrible events that have happened since 2003 which could have been avoided.

And chief among them are the terrible mismanagement and crimes, really, that the American occupation have perpetrated, especially the Abu Ghraib. This is yet another incident that shows the incompetence of both the American administration and now the Iraqi administration in managing what would certainly have been a very turbulent period, the post-Saddam period.

But the execution should have -- I don't see why it had to take place during the Islamic holiday. I don't understand why it had to take place with such haste.

The Kurdish population and the Kurdish parties are upset because the second trial that dealt with the Anfal campaign, which killed nearly 200,000 Kurds, is now cut short, or at least the most important element is removed from it.

There are many other issues which could have been dealt with much better had this not taken place under such chaotic and hasteful circumstances.

The Anfal trial

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Dawisha, what about the Anfal trial? That's the trial that was currently going on, where Saddam was also a codefendant. But he was the star defendant, as it were, and he was taken out of the middle of those proceedings and executed.

Is it important for the country to continue to hear these charges read out, to continue to hear the witnesses? And will they pay as much attention with no more Saddam?

ADEED DAWISHA: They will not pay as much attention without Saddam. The whole limelight was being put on Saddam.

And I can understand the Kurdish complaint that, when you take Saddam away, you're taking the limelight off the trial, and therefore you're taking away the ability of people to hear the sufferings that Professor Abdullah talked about, in terms of the hundreds of thousands of Kurds being killed, the gassing of Halabja, and things like that.

The problem that I see is the length of the trial itself now. It's been going on for two years. And this trial was as messy as the execution itself, where Saddam began to use it as a stage for his own pontification, his own posturing.

And I would have thought he would have done the same thing in the next round with the Kurds. So maybe -- it's very possible that it was a good thing for the Kurds that Saddam was gotten rid of, instead of giving him the stage to say things about the Kurds that they probably would not have liked to hear.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, gentlemen, before we go, I'd like to get a quick reading from both of you on how this looks in the rest of the Arab world, where Saddam was a big figure for many decades.

Professor Abdullah?

THABIT ABDULLAH: Those that benefited from Saddam Hussein will mourn him. Those which were harmed, who were harmed by him will rejoice.

But above that, right now in the Middle East there is such an intense fear of American imperialism or American neo-imperialism in the region that anyone who stood up to the Americans, even Saddam Hussein who actually came to power with U.S. aid in 1963, or rather the Baathists did, and then received generous support during his war with Iran, was suddenly transformed into some sort of a champion for the Arabs.

This, in my opinion, is a very sad indicator of how confused the Arab world is. To see people mourning such a terrible dictator who harmed the Palestinian cause, who harmed the cause of progress in the region as a whole is a very depressing statement, as to the low levels that the Middle East has sunk.

RAY SUAREZ: And, Professor Dawisha, your quick thoughts, please?

ADEED DAWISHA: Yes, I agree wholeheartedly. I think that the Arab world is divided, probably the Gulf States and, of course, in Iraq where it would be against him. But certainly the West, all north of Africa, Syria, Georgia will certainly be very sad about his death.

There was an opinion poll done about three or four months ago in Jordan, in which it showed that Saddam was the most popular Arab leader. And that tells you something about the confusion that goes on in the Arab world today.