Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Saddam's Killing Provokes the Predictable Response in Iraq and Beyond

As the Iraqi government comes under international criticism for the manner in which Saddam Hussein was executed, U.S. officials are doing their best to distance themselves from the chaotic hanging, with Major General William Caldwell emphasizing that the Americans "had absolutely nothing to do with the facility where the execution took place." The U.S. would have "done it differently" if it had been their responsibility, he said.

The leaked video of the execution -- apparently taken on a cell phone smuggled into the gallows room -- has sparked angry Sunni Arab protests throughout Iraq and has drawn international condemnation over the blatant sectarian nature of the hanging. The criticism has pushed Iraqi officials to promise investigations of the incident, and apparently, the individual who took the video has been arrested. But even without the evidence provided by the video, the execution might have been seen by Sunnis as a sectarian vendetta, and to the international community might have had the look of an unjust killing after an unfair trial. Before the execution, the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights urged Iraqis not to be hasty in carrying out the sentence, especially since the appeals court ruling required careful study.

It was also almost certain that the hanging would trigger an upsurge in sectarian violence in Iraq, regardless of the manner in which the execution was carried out. Still though, the level of anger and violence is alarming even the most seasoned observers of Iraq, such as University of Michigan professor Juan Cole. In responding to the attack by Sunni protesters on the Shiite Askariyah Shrine in Samarra, Prof. Cole wrote at his blog, "Folks, this is very bad news." Explaining the significance of the shrine, he wrote,

The Askariyah Shrine (it isn't just a mosque) is associated with the Hidden Twelfth Imam, who is expected by Shiites to appear at the end of time to restore the world to justice. (For them, the Imam Mahdi is sort of like the second coming of Christ for Christians). The Muqtada al-Sadr movement is millenarian and believes he will reveal himself at any moment.

The centrality of the cult of the Twelfth Imam, a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad who is said to have vanished in 873 AD, helps explain why the bombing of the Golden Dome on February 21 of 2006 set off a frenzy of Shiite, Sadrist attacks on Sunni Arabs. Last February, stuck in a Phoenix hotel because of a missed flight and without an internet connection for my laptop, I blogged from my Treo that it was an apocalyptic day. Sadly, it was, kicking off a frenzy of sectarian violence that has grown each subsequent month.

For Sunni Arabs to parade a symbolic coffin of Saddam through the ruins of the Askariya shrine won't be exactly good for social peace in Iraq. Can't that site be properly guarded or something?

It's also possible that the sectarian strife and anti-U.S. anger could spill out well beyond Iraq. Already, protests have been taking place around the world against the execution, with many Muslims pointing out the timing of it contravened Islamic custom, since it fell on the beginning of the Eid-al Adha holiday. reported,

Libya and Yemen, which tried to prevent Saddam’s sentence, strongly reacted to the execution. Libya declared three days of mourning. Hamas also considered the decision a ‘political murder’. The Organization of Islamic Conference expressed its concerns about the increase of conflicts between the religious sects and appealed to Iraqis for peace.

A protest in Jordan was attended by Saddam Hussein's daughter, and Muslim youth have hit the streets of India, including the cities of Kerala and Srinagar. In a demonstration on Wednesday, protesters in Srinagar chanted anti-U.S. slogans.

Anti-American sentiments ran high as protesting Muslims accused US President George W. Bush of conspiring against the Muslim community.

"It is a conspiracy of America against the Muslim community. They want to destroy the whole of Muslim world. We as members of Muslim community demand that all the Muslim countries should come together, unite and fight against America," said Muzaffar Ahmed, a protestor.

While American officials try to distance themselves from the execution and criticize the blatantly sectarian way in which it was carried out, the perception that it was made in America will be difficult to extinguish. This is, after all, Bush's war, and the killing of Saddam after an unfair trial fits in well with all the general pattern of U.S. policy towards Iraq, especially the refusal to acknowledge that weapons of mass destruction did not exist in the country.

The overall ramifications of this execution remain to be seen, but it is safe to say that nothing positive can possibly come out of it. The only question is the degree to which it will contribute to further sectarian strife and revenge killings.

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