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Retaliation Threats Mount as Officials Say Saddam’s Execution Likely by Saturday

December 29, 2006 at 6:10 PM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: The Saddam Hussein story, and to Jeffrey Brown.

JEFFREY BROWN: And we begin with an update from Baghdad, from Nancy Youssef, the Iraq bureau chief for the McClatchy Newspapers. I talked with her moments ago.

Nancy, it’s been a very confusing day. What’s the latest you have as to the timing of the execution?

NANCY YOUSSEF, McClatchy Newspapers: Well, you’re absolutely right. It’s been very confusing, with a lot of contradictory statements.

The latest that we’re hearing is that Saddam Hussein will, in fact, be executed tonight, before 6:00 a.m. local time, which would be before 10:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time.

We’re waiting for that because we’ve heard several reports that he would be executed, that he wouldn’t be executed. It seems that this all hung on whether — on Saddam Hussein could be executed before Eid al-Adha, which is a Muslim holiday called the Festival of Sacrifice.

There was some question as to whether someone could be executed on this holiday, which celebrates Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, Ishmael, for God. And it appears that they have decided that they can, in fact, execute him before that holiday starts. It’s scheduled to start for the Sunnis at noon local time.

JEFFREY BROWN: Who, in fact, is involved in making the decision at this point? Is it the prime minister’s office, the government? Is the U.S. involved? Do we know?

NANCY YOUSSEF: Well, the prime minister’s office says that this is his decision, that he will sign the order. The U.S. has tried to say that this is an Iraqi decision and that they’re not involved.

Indeed, some of them are frustrated in part because of the back and forth, that this process appeared throughout the day to be confusing and at times hastily put together.

But the prime minister has been very assertive in saying that this is his decision and that this is being put together by his team, which includes his national security adviser, his minister of justice, and some leading members of parliament.

JEFFREY BROWN: Among the conflicting reports was whether Saddam had yet been turned over to the Iraqis by the U.S. Do you know any more on that?

NANCY YOUSSEF: That’s right. The Iraqi officials had said around 7:00 or so that they had custody of Saddam Hussein. And this was significant because, once they have custody of him, that’s sort of the telltale sign that his execution is, in fact, imminent.

And so, when they said that, people assumed that this was coming. The U.S. then came back and said about an hour later, “We, in fact have not handed him over.” And the Iraqi government sort of backed away from that statement, saying that they were working on it and that it was simply being held up with logistics and paperwork, but that, in fact, he would be executed.

We will know in the next few hours if, in fact, that is the case.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Nancy, when it does happen, is it known where it will happen and under what circumstances?

NANCY YOUSSEF: Well, what the officials are telling us privately is that this will happen at Camp Cropper, which is where Saddam is being held. That is near Baghdad International Airport on the west side of the city.

We don’t know much about the circumstances other than that the government plans to videotape it. They say they will not distribute the videotape but that they will keep it for their records.

It appears that Saddam will be alone. His family has the time to come to Iraq to see him. And the government has said that there will be a cleric, and a doctor, and a judge in the room when it happens.

JEFFREY BROWN: So you say videotape, but there’s no effort or, in fact, an explicit effort that it not be a public event?

NANCY YOUSSEF: Well, I think there is some concern that, if they make it public, that it will really inflame sectarian tensions in this country, which is already in a sort of fragile state. I think that’s why they’re not going to publicly distribute this videotape.

The key question will be: What do they show? As you recall, when Uday and Qusay, his sons, were killed in 2003, they showed videos of his body. But Saddam sort of evokes a much more emotional reaction from people, and so what they show could really shape how people react to it and how much it inflames sectarianism in this country.

JEFFREY BROWN: What’s been happening there today, any reaction, either in the streets or statements from prominent figures?

NANCY YOUSSEF: The streets have been relatively quiet, in part because this all developed throughout the evening when much of the country is on curfew. There are certainly, though, mixed reactions from people. Some are jubilant; some think that this won’t have any effect.

At some of the mosques earlier today, some people said that this was a necessary step, that it had to happen now, while others thought it was sort of unnecessary and that there was no need to do this now when things are so tense in the country.

The nation, though, is certainly bracing itself for tomorrow and how people react, particularly if images come out and the word is official, and as people see this as gratuitous, in terms of when the timing happens. I think tomorrow will be the real test of how people react.

JEFFREY BROWN: Are U.S. officials talking about any extra — U.S. or Iraqi officials talking about extra security precautions because of that?

NANCY YOUSSEF: They are. The Pentagon has come out and said that the U.S. forces are ready. The Iraqi army and police have cancelled leave for all of their soldiers.

We anticipate there will be some sort of curfew, as there has been in the past for events that could really spur violence. So there is certainly a feeling of anxiousness and anticipation for what lies ahead.

The question will be: Can they contain it if it becomes very emotional? And how much energy people really have to show their feels about this?

There is a feeling that, while Saddam was only in power four years ago, given all the events that have happened here, that’s a lifetime ago, and that Saddam is not nearly as relevant to people’s lives as he was once, that people here are really focused on things like finding a job, and getting electricity and water for their families.

So it’s almost impossible to know, because the other half of that is Saddam evokes a lot of very strong, passionate feelings on either side, so there’s certainly a feeling of anticipation.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Nancy Youssef of McClatchy Newspapers, thanks very much.

NANCY YOUSSEF: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right after that conversation, we learned that witnesses are now gathering in the Green Zone.