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Iraqi Official Arrested for Recording Saddam’s Execution

January 3, 2007 at 6:10 PM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: The first person arrested in this inquiry into Saddam’s death we learned today was a guard on suspicion that he took that cell phone video. What can you tell us about where that part of the investigation stands right now?

JOHN BURNS, Baghdad Bureau Chief, New York Times: Well, the Maliki government has been scrambling since it became apparent to them — I would say about 72 hours too late — that they were in the face of a real public relations disaster, and more than a public relations disaster, a sequence of events that have painted them in an extremely unattractive light.

So, beginning today, they’ve begun to try and gain and call back what they can. They’ve told us that they’ve arrested a guard, not — we’re pretty certain, although he’s not named here — in one of those baraclavered, bomber-jacket-wearing, rather thuggish-looking executioners that we saw on the platform with Saddam, but probably an interior ministry guard standing at the bottom left, as you faced the gallows of the steps leading up to the gallows.

There’s been a little bit of a blame game going on amongst Iraqi officials themselves as to who else took cell phones in there. We know that the official party of 14 that was flown in an American Black Hawk helicopter from the Green Zone to the execution block was thoroughly searched by the Americans, in what turned out to be the last, really, 30 minutes in which they had custody of Saddam and control of the situation.

They were searched again when they got to the execution block. Those officials had their phones, even their keys, taken away from them. But we know that at least two or three other officials of the Maliki government did have cell phones. And the implication is that some of them were keeping a recording.

Indeed, we know from one of the correspondents who dashed back to the heliport in the Green Zone to see the helicopter return with, if you will, the execution party, at sometime around 7:00 in the morning, that when they got off the helicopter, some of them gathered around one of their number and appeared to be watching a cell phone video.

A rushed execution

MARGARET WARNER: The heart of the matter, of course, is how this horrible spectacle was even allowed to unfold, with the taunting of Saddam while he's on the gallows. What more have you been able to learn about that? I mean, who was supposed to be in charge of this?

JOHN BURNS: Well, we learned more almost by the hour. I learned tonight, for example, from the national security adviser, Mowaffak al-Rubaie, who was there, who told us that there were people with cell phone cameras, although he was not, that the rush to carry this execution out, which resulted in Maliki signing the execution order sometime between midnight and 1:00 a.m. on Saturday morning, was because they wanted to close the Saddam chapter in the year 2006.

They wanted to start the new year -- it was kind of a talismanic thing. They wanted to start the new year with the page turned.

As a result of that, everything was done in a tumble-down fashion. The Americans had what they called an exola program, that is to say, they had told the Iraqis that they needed 10 hours' notice to get Saddam ready and to deliver him into Iraqi physical custody for the execution.

But all of this really collapsed after the Americans did what they had to do and delivered Saddam with some decorum aboard a helicopter to the execution block, handed him over, signed the papers. At that point, they lost control. And, indeed, they physically withdrew, as General Caldwell, the command spokesman told us today. And after that, bedlam ensued.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, that national security adviser, Rubaie, was also quoted today as saying that there had been infiltration of the execution party in some fashion. Does that sound plausible to you, that people got in there who weren't meant to be there?

JOHN BURNS: This whole event had the most terrible, ghastly -- I'm sorry to use the phrase -- beauty about it, in the sense that it told us so much, almost in a Shakespearean way, about all else that is happening in Iraq.

We know that the interior ministry, which controls the prison, including the block where Saddam was executed, has been infiltrated -- and severely infiltrated -- by Shiite militiamen, particularly the Mahdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr, whose name was chanted by some of those interior ministry guards in the execution chamber.

It's one of the taunts to which Saddam was subjected. So the fact that they got in there was not so surprising. What it tells us is just how pervasive that infiltration of the interior ministry is.

Attempts to delay the execution

MARGARET WARNER: The other major thing that happened today was, as you said, the U.S. government is also distancing itself from the events. General Caldwell's comments and also the State Department spokesman confirmed what you'd reported a couple days ago, that the U.S. had tried to delay the execution.

How vigorous were those efforts? And you mentioned one reason now that has been given to you for why Maliki said no. But what's the understanding of that, why he wouldn't delay?

JOHN BURNS: When General Caldwell and other senior American officials I've spoken to in the last 48-72 hours speak about this, the timber in their voice changes, a shadow falls across their face. They are terribly upset by this.

They had committed themselves to carrying this out in a graceful manner. They've always wanted to make this government stand up on its own, to distance themselves from it. The problem is that they remain accountable before international opinion for what this government does, and the government really will not stand up, up until now.

This is only the latest in a chapter of incidents -- probably the worst -- which have shown that this government really is not capable of creating the kind of civil society that the United States wants to see created here, which would be the basis for an American troop withdrawal.

So there was the problem, that the United States pushed this thing as far as they could with Maliki, but had taken a prior decision -- I would guess by Mr. Bush himself and the White House -- that, at a certain point, if he continued to insist on a rapid, on a hasty execution, that they would simply fold their cards and say, "It's your country. You do what you like."

My guess is lessons will be learned from this. And if, indeed, the president sends more troops here, I think you're going to see a new mood and a tougher mood amongst American military commanders and American officials here.

And they're going to be, metaphorically, at least, banging their fists on the table and saying, "Listen up. As long as we have our boys here dying to defend and sustain your government, there are things we expect. And what we do not expect is the kind of thing we saw on Saturday morning."

'A new Baathist resurgence'

MARGARET WARNER: So, finally, John, is it too early to say yet what the political impact is of this inside Iraq?

JOHN BURNS: No, it's not too early. It's given a new resurgence to the Baath Party. The Baath Party today named its new leader to succeed Saddam Hussein, who was one of the nastiest people of the old regime, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, a real natural-born killer. He's still at large, leading the Sunni insurgency.

Thousands upon thousands of people have flocked to Saddam's grave. You've seen the images of this. The Baath Party emblem is being displayed again. Thirty-foot-high mosaics are being erected in Sunni towns to him. It's back to the future, if you will.

That's a really serious problem for the United States and for the Maliki government, who had hoped for the last year, year-and-a-half, that the Sunni insurgency could be persuaded to lay down arms and to sue for peace, to negotiate for a place at the table, if you will.

The other part of it, of course, the political puzzle is that we've seen very clearly into the dark soul of this government. And it's very hard to believe that, if they could botch something like this, this badly, and allow it to descend into a sectarian debacle that they did, that this government is capable now of restoring itself and, if you will, taking the high road.

Looking into the faces of American officials and to General Caldwell today, my sense is that they're really in a state of despair about that.