The ghost of Saddam Hussein

Tareq Y Ismael
30 January 2007

On the morning of the first day of the Muslim feast of sacrifice, 30 December, 2006, Arabs and Muslims were greeted by the spectacle of Saddam Hussein's execution. Yet they registered the death of Iraq's strongman and the leader of one of the most powerful Arab nations for three decades with little enthusiasm. Instead, the event served only as an emblem for the sectarian madness that has come to dominate Iraq. A month on, has anything happened to alter this perception?

Apart from the legality of Saddam's trial, which was described by Human Rights Watch as "deeply flawed", marking "a significant step away from respect from human rights and the rule of law", the ambivalence felt by Arabs and Muslims came mainly as a consequence of the timing and circumstance of the execution.

Tareq Y Ismael is professor of political science at the University of Calgary, and editor of the International Journal of Contemporary Iraqi Studies. Among his many books are Middle East Politics Today: Government and Civil Society (University Press of Florida, 2001); (co-edited with William W Haddad) Iraq: The Human Cost of History (Pluto Press, 2003); and (with Jacqueline S Ismael), The Iraqi Predicament: People in the Quagmire of Power Politics (Pluto Press, 2004)

Also by Tareq Y Ismael in openDemocracy:

"The Iraq Study Group report: an assessment" (8 December 2006)

Saddam Hussein's execution coincided with the start of the Sunni celebrations of Eid al-Adha, the Shi'a celebrations historically beginning one day later. It is doubtful that this act of unbelievable provocation was happenstance. Rather, it was a reminder by the incumbent Nouri al-Maliki regime of ascendant Shi'a power and the sectarian logic it intends to enforce.

Throughout the Muslim world, the execution came to reinforce two important points:

▪ it reveals the cultural ignorance of the United States in its dealings with other peoples - the execution coinciding with a religious holiday, and moreover, contradicting the dignity that the dead are afforded in Islamic custom (even for Saddam)

▪ it underlines the challenge of lawlessness with which the west has come to deal with Arabs and Muslims.

While it has been suggested that the US attempted to delay the execution, only to be overruled by the al-Maliki government, this is suspicious; the al-Maliki regime, existing only by the good graces and protection of the US, is largely perceived as an extension of American power, and its "sovereignty" notwithstanding, it is hardly an independent actor. On this matter, perception is key.

The circus of Saddam's execution was a metaphor for the sectarian logic that now dominates Iraqi society: Saddam Hussein surrounded and mocked by the partisans of the Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, his death met by an outburst of Shi'a confessional chants. Where under other circumstances, the dictator's end might have been might met by ecumenical celebration, a hope for new national beginnings, it was under these circumstances an act of blood revenge by a Shi'a lynch-mob.

This sectarian script was established early, as Saddam Hussein was tried and executed not for his larger crimes against the Kurdish people, or Iraqi society writ large, but instead for the Dujail massacre = where Shi'a were the primary victims. Hussein was, of course, quite ecumenical and indiscriminate in his violence, so to hang him for his crimes against the Shi'a community was but to convey Shi'a pre-eminence in the "new Iraq" and to fan the flames of the sectarian divide.

From life to legend

It is a perverse irony that Saddam Hussein, essentially a petty thug, emerged from the grisly fiasco with his dignity and pride intact. Facing his masked tormentors with religious conviction and composed dignity, he cursed the Americans and lionised the Palestinian people. The tyrant thus won undeserved victory in death by appearing a champion of the Arab cause. In the wake of his demise, critics of Saddam bitterly lamented that his brave posture before death has only obscured his real and bloody legacy. Yunan Rizk, an Egyptian historian, wrote in al-Ahram: "Saddam has died but the legend has begun".

Also in openDemocracy on Iraqi politics, violence and justice:

John Sloboda, "Sparing Saddam: beyond victor's justice"
(14 November 2006)

Anthony Dworkin, "Saddam's trial: questions of justice"
(20 November 2006)

Sami Ramadani, "Iraq: not civil war, occupation"
(7 December 2006)

Reidar Visser, "Washington's Iraqi ‘surge': where are the Iraqis? "
(12 January 2007)

Zaid Al-Ali, "The United States in Iraq: the case for withdrawal"
(19 January 2007)

At the regional level, the hanging has led to a hardening in Arab public opinion against Iran. In addition to supporting Saddam's hanging, Iran is widely interpreted as giving implicit sanction to the American enterprise in Iraq; unquestionably, Iran has emerged as a major (perhaps sole) victor in the Iraqi quagmire, its regional influence having expanded as its clients now form the major power-bloc in post-war Iraq. 

The Sunni Arab world is increasingly mobilised against the bogeyman of ascendant Shi'a power, with several Arab Gulf states now agitating for a common front against the Iranian threat; some even suggest that they will invest in nuclear technology to counterbalance that of Iran. At the crudest level, the shift in regional power has encouraged the resurrection of popular anti-Shi'a tropes, with the loyalty of Arab Shi'a frequently coming under attack. Shi'a is becoming a byword for fifth-columnist - in effect, rehabilitating a theme first raised by Saddam in his war against Iran and expulsion of Iraqis of Iranian origin.

The hanging of Saddam Hussein has ended his era in Iraq's turbulent history, but its repercussions for Iraq's future may prove disastrous. Iraq's sectarian violence continues unabated, and Iraq's social infrastructure - the education, health, and human resources needed for any successful society - suffers from both neglect and targeted destruction.

The American project in the country, having reinforced the noxious "political sectarianism" in Iraqi politics, may be seeing its endgame, George W Bush's "surge" notwithstanding. The violence that the American invasion and occupation initiated has now developed its own twisted logic, far too complex for the Americans to reverse. Now that the American misadventure in Iraq has inaugurated a toxic regional politic, the long-term and regional implications of the chaos in Iraq cannot be overstated.

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