BAGHDAD,(Reuters) – U.S. troops began the year with news their 3,000th comrade had died since the 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein but led to a war that has split Iraq and raised alarm at home.
For Iraqis, the new year brought fears that Saddam’s hanging on Saturday — widely seen on television and the Internet — had inflamed sectarian passions and could polarise the country even further.
The death toll milestone was reported on Sunday by the Web site www.icasualties.org, which said the death of Specialist Dustin Donica on Dec. 28 and that of a soldier killed by a roadside bomb in Baghdad on Saturday brought the total to 3,000.
December was the deadliest month for U.S. forces in the past two years, with 111 dead, according to the site. There has so far been no official confirmation of the 3,000 figure, likely to be seized on by critics of George W. Bush’s conduct of the war.
Bush’s spokesman Scott Stanzel said the president, who was on holiday at his Texas ranch, “grieves for each one that is lost”. “He will ensure their sacrifice was not made in vain.” Bush is to unveil a new strategy on Iraq this month, which could include sending more troops to try to quell the violence in which hundreds of Iraqi civilians die every week.
Bush has been considering a range of options for Iraq, but has rejected any timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops.
Fellow Sunni Arabs at Saddam’s graveside in his native village, Awja, vowed revenge on Sunday on the Americans and Iraq’s Shi’ite led government, and vented their fury at Shi’ite officials seen in an Internet video taunting him on the gallows. “The Persians have killed him. I can’t believe it. By God, we will take revenge,” said one man from Mosul, referring to Iraq’s new leaders’ ties to Persian-speaking, Shi’ite Iran. “All we can do now is take it out against the Americans and the government,” another mourner said.
More mourners arrived at Awja on Monday, and Saddam’s eldest daughter Raghd made a surprise visit to a sit-in held by hundreds of her father’s Jordanian supporters to condemn his execution.
Hundreds of protesters including Islamists, deputies and opposition figures gathered in front of a building where a grouping of 14 professional unions is based, carrying pictures of Saddam and chanting anti-American and pro-Saddam slogans.
Raghd, who is exiled in Jordan, remained quiet throughout her short visit but used a loudspeaker to thank the participants for their support before leaving. “I want to thank you for this show of support. May God protect you,” she said.
One of the banners held by protesters read: “Leader Saddam the father of martyrs”.
On Sunday, dozens of Palestinians held a protest in Baqaa refugee camp north of Amman, following prayers which mourned Saddam’s death. In the southern city of Karak, a tent set up by Jordanian Saddam supporters welcomed thousands of sympathisers, organisers said.
Raghd and her children were granted asylum by King Abdullah in 2003 after she fled with her sister to Jordan after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. She took a leading role in organising her father’s legal defence for his trial for crimes against humanity, and has been put on Iraq’s 41 “most wanted” list. But officials said Raghd had abided by a request not to use Jordan as a platform to make political statements to the ere granted asylum by King Abdullah in 2003 after she fled with her sister to Jordan after the U.S.
Around 200 Saddam supporters demonstrated in a Sunni Arab stronghold of Baghdad, Adhamiya, chanting angry slogans denouncing a Shi’ite cleric whose supporters were heard taunting Saddam in the moments before he was hanged.
Tens of thousands of Iraqis have died in the almost 4-year-old war. More than 70 people were killed in car bomb attacks on Shi’ites on Saturday, hours after the execution.
The sectarian passions that have pushed Iraq towards civil war since Bush’s forces overthrew Saddam could be further inflamed by the hanging video posted on the Internet.
The jerky Web footage, apparently shot on a mobile phone, showed people in the execution chamber chanting the name of Shi’ite cleric and militia leader Moqtada al-Sadr and Saddam smiling back, saying: “Is this what you call manhood?”
Seemingly accusing his captors of misrule, he replied to a taunt of “Go to hell” by asking: “The hell that is Iraq?” Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has seen his fragile authority among fellow Shi’ites enhanced after he forced through Saddam’s execution just four days after the appeal court upheld his conviction for crimes against humanity for killing Shi’ites.
Maliki urged Sunni insurgents to make peace. But many fear Saddam’s death may simply prolong the cycle of violence.