(Agencies) – In a world sharply divided on Iraq since the U.S.-led war began in 2003, Saddam Hussein’s death sentence Sunday unleashed fears of fresh violence and new questions about the fairness and impartiality of the tribunal that ordered him to hang.
Underscoring the fault lines that split the international community and widened the divide between Muslims and Christians, Islamic leaders warned that the verdict could inflame those who revile the United States, undermining U.S. policy in the volatile Middle East and inspiring terrorists to strike.
Critics accused U.S. President George W. Bush of deliberately arranging the timing of the sentence, which came down two days before pivotal midterm elections in which Democrats are fighting to regain control of U.S. Congress.
“The hanging of Saddam Hussein will turn to hell for the Americans,” said Vitaya Wisethrat, a respected Muslim cleric in Thailand, where a bloody Islamic insurgency is raging in the country’s south. “The Saddam case is not a Muslim problem but the problem of America and its domestic politics,” he said. “The Americans are about to vote in a midterm election, so maybe Bush will use this case to tell the voters that Saddam is dead and that the Americans are safe. But actually the American people will be in more danger with the death of Saddam.”
In Pakistan, the opposition religious coalition claimed that American forces have caused more deaths in Iraq during the past three and-a-half years than Saddam during his 23-year reign, and insisted Bush should stand trial for war crimes. “Who will punish the Americans and their lackeys who have killed many more people than Saddam Hussein?” asked Hafiz Hussain Ahmed, a senior lawmaker from the Mutahida Majlis-e-Amal coalition, which is critical of Pakistan’s military cooperation with the United States. “What goes around comes around. … in the future, Bush must face the same fate,” Ahmed said.
Reaction was mixed across the Arab world. Some Muslims saw the sentence as divine justice, but others denounced it as a farce, maintaining that Iraq is more violent now than it was under Saddam. “If Saddam is condemned to death, then they must make it fair and sentence Mr. Bush to death … and they should send Israel’s Ehud Olmert to death, too, because of what he did in Lebanon,” said Ibrahim Hreish, a jeweler in Amman, Jordan.
But Sunday’s verdict, which had been widely expected, was welcomed by key U.S. allies, who said Saddam got what he deserved for crimes against humanity committed during years of brutal dictatorship. “I welcome that Saddam Hussein and the other defendants have faced justice and have been held to account for their crimes,” British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett said in a statement. “Appalling crimes were committed by Saddam Hussein’s regime. It is right that those accused of such crimes against the Iraqi people should face Iraqi justice.”
Australia’s foreign minister, Alexander Downer, called Saddam “an evil tyrant” and said the death sentence, which will be subject to an automatic appeal before he can be hanged, came as no surprise.
Amnesty International questioned the fairness of the trial, and international legal experts said Saddam should be kept alive long enough to answer for other atrocities. Only then, they said, will Iraqis brutalized by years of his despotic rule see true justice done. “The longer we can keep Saddam alive, the longer the tribunal can have to explore some of the other crimes involving hundreds of thousands of Iraqis,” said Sonya Sceats, an international law expert at the Chatham House foreign affairs think tank in London. “The problem really is that this tribunal has not shown itself to be fair and impartial, not only by international standards, but by Iraqi standards. There is significant evidence of political pressure,” she said.
Chandra Muzaffar, president of the Malaysian-based International Movement for a Just World, also voiced concerns that Saddam’s trial was flawed because it “violated many established norms of international jurisprudence, such as in the way the court was constituted and how the charges were brought against Saddam.” “But Saddam was undoubtedly a brutal dictator, and even though I wouldn’t subscribe to the death penalty, he deserves to be punished severely for the enormity of his crimes,” said Chandra, a well-known Muslim social commentator. Chandra said there was bound to be a violent reaction in Iraq.
Underlining the volatility, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani said in Paris that he thought the trial was fair but refused to elaborate, fearing his remarks could inflame tensions.
In Russia, the Kremlin-allied head of the international affairs committee in the State Duma, or lower house of parliament, told Ekho Moskvy radio the sentence will deepen divisions in Iraq. But the official, Konstantin Kosachyov, said he doubted that Saddam would actually be executed. “A death sentence will apparently split Iraqi society even further,” Kosachyov said. “On the other hand, it seems to me that the death sentence against Saddam Hussein will probably not be carried out. It will be stopped one way or another, either by the president of Iraq or by other means. It is most of all a moral decision, retribution that modern Iraq is taking against Saddam’s regime.”
Some denounced the verdict as a pre-election maneuver to shore up support for Bush’s Republicans. “The Bush administration, which has lost the trust of the American people, needs some sort of victory,” said Abbas Khalaf, Iraq’s ambassador to Russia during the Saddam era, denouncing the proceedings as “a purely political trial.”
Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt called the verdict “deeply satisfying,” despite Europe’s opposition to the death penalty, but stressed that it won’t solve Iraq’s problems. “The judicial process is an important settlement with the past, but the big challenge for Iraq’s people is the future and the big compromises required for maintained freedom, secured peace and sustainable reconciliation,” he said.
Kuwaitis, who suffered a seven-month Iraqi occupation in 1990-91, applauded the Baghdad court’s decision that the former Iraqi president should hang for crimes against humanity. “This is good news,” said Kuwaiti political analyst and former oil minister Ali al-Baghli.
“Saddam deserves to be hanged because of the atrocities he inflicted on his people for the past 35 years and on his neighbours also. He sent millions of people to their deaths.”
Iran said it hoped Saddam, who was convicted over the deaths of more than 148 Shia men from the Iraqi town of Dujail, would still be brought to book for offences it accuses him of committing during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.
“Saddam’s execution is the minimum sentence that should be issued, but it does not mean that his other crimes, particularly the imposed war, should be ignored,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini said ahead of the verdict.
Ali Farhoudi, a 38-year-old veteran of that conflict, expressed a widely held view among Iranians that the noose was too merciful a punishment for the former Iraqi president.
“What I have suffered during the war will never be compensated, even if he is hanged 100 times,” Farhoudi said.
Soroush Ramazani, too young at 17 to remember the war, said Saddam deserved to be tortured to death for his crimes. “Maybe in the afterlife the tortures that God will give him in hell will be a better punishment,” said Hossein Vahidi, 24.
There was sympathy for Saddam, however, among Palestinians who had admired him for defying the United States and for firing missiles at Israel in the 1991 Gulf War. He also sent money to families of Palestinian suicide bombers.
“I am very sad today. Giving the death penalty to the Iraqi president is oppression, it is unfair,” said weeping housewife Najah Jabajy, 30, in the West Bank city of Nablus.
Osama Issa, a 23-year-old tradesman, said: “This is an insult to the Arabs. Saddam committed big mistakes. But look at Iraq today: blood and daily massacres.”
In Baghdad itself, gunmen in two Sunni districts battled U.S. and Iraqi troops shortly after the verdict was read out.
Shias, the majority now dominating Iraq, swarmed into the streets, yelling in joy that the secular Sunni Arab who oppressed them for three decades is now likely to be executed.
The reactions underscored the deep sectarian divisions in Iraq more than three years after the U.S.-led invasion.
“This is the least Saddam deserved,” said Ali al-Dabbagh,
spokesman for the Shia prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki.
Elsewhere in the Arab world, reaction was muted, even though many view Saddam’s trial as a U.S.-orchestrated mockery.
Mustafa al-Sayyid, political scientist at Cairo University, described the trial as “victor’s justice”, adding: “The law on the basis of which this trial was conducted was not an Iraqi law but a foreign law, imposed by occupation authorities.”
Magdi Mohamed Ahmed, a 51-year-old Egyptian street vendor, decried what he called a “show trial sponsored by America” and said Saddam would die a “martyr for his nation”.
Hilal Khashan, a political science professor at the American University of Beirut, said such sentiments might be common, but that a humiliated Saddam could no longer move Arab masses. “He is not seen as a hero, he’s a fallen leader who has exited Arab consciousness,” Khashan said.
Baghli, the Kuwaiti analyst, said other Arab leaders should take note of Saddam’s fate and realise their immunity from punishment might not last: “You don’t know – one day or another the situation will be upside down, like in Iraq”.