Iraq: Beyond the Gallows

Many observers have assumed that Saddam Hussein’s execution was yet another Iraqi “milestone” timed to serve the needs of a struggling American president. Milestone it was, but indications now suggest that this was, on the contrary, a marker that Washington was desperate to forestall. And for good reason: in pressing for Saddam’s execution, Iran appears to have reached over America’s head and graphically demonstrated that it is now the preeminent political force inside Iraq.

The Bush administration’s provocative posture towards Iran in recent days could thus say more about what has already happened than about what is yet to come. From the vantage point of the Oval Office, raising the specter of a military confrontation with Iran may in fact seem preferable to facing the greatest humiliation of all: the acknowledgement of an Iranian victory in Iraq. Yet it now appears that Saddam’s ignominious end was exactly that: victor’s justice — Iranian victor’s justice. It is a message from Iran to Iraq’s Sunnis that it is Iran, and not the U.S, that is now the dominant force in Iraq. Iran may have been diplomatic enough to call Saddam’s execution a “victory for the Iraqi people,” but the blunt message heard across the region is that Iran will not relent in asserting its title as the region’s leading power.

Soon after the hanging, fears from various elements in the region were expressed by one Gulf commentator who wrote that “If Iranian hegemony is really implanted [in Iraq] — and that phase has begun to be evident — then it is incumbent on all the political activists in the country [to realize] that we will be facing a ‘Sunni holocaust,’ and any whiff of civil war will mean assured Sunni victims.” [Translation from Missing Links.] This commentator’s sentiment echoes another warning last month made by Saudi cleric, Sheikh Musa bin Abdelaziz, who claimed that “Iran has become more dangerous than Israel itself.”

One of Iraq’s Sunni political leaders, Salih Muahaed al-Mutleq, unequivocally asserts that Iran had a decisive role in Saddam’s execution. And while Sunni rumors about Iran’s role in the execution circulate in Iraq and across the region, the circumstantial evidence that Iran was behind Saddam’s end continues to mount. Furthermore, while the execution caused a mini-firestorm in Washington and European capitals, in Iraq the video of the hanging has widened the chasm between Sunni and Shia. Saddam’s execution is now viewed much like Lenin’s murder of the Romanov family, nearly one century ago — everyone now knows there’s no going back.

In fact, as our correspondent in the city reports, Baghdad citizens nearly universally agree, if there was any doubt about whether the nation is in the middle of a bloody civil war, Saddam’s execution has put those doubts to rest. Not only is the execution blamed by Sunnis and moderate Shias alike on Nouri al-Maliki, the decision to execute the former dictator on the Eid al-Adha is viewed as a direct insult to Sunnis.

Salih Muahaed al-Mutleq, the leader of the Sunni-supported Iraqi National Dialogue Front (the fifth largest political list in the Iraqi National Assembly), said in a telephone interview that it was a mistake to view Saddam’s execution “solely as an American decision.” This is, he said, “a common mistake in Iraq and particularly among Sunnis. It is also a mistake for the Americans to view the execution as somehow a miscalculation. This was an Iranian decision and it was directed against all Sunnis.”

Mutleq’s views might be dismissed as typically Sunni, but as one of the chief negotiators for the Sunnis over the writing of the Constitution, Mutleq is in a better position to understand Maliki, and the Dawa Party, than (in his words) “the class of scholars in Washington who style themselves Iraq experts.” Mutleq derives his credibility from his history as an outspoken Saddam critic — albeit the leader of a community in which Saddam might be expected to retain significant popularity. “I am personally against Saddam and I wanted him to be tried and punished for his crimes against the Iraqi people,” Mutleq said. “But the way that Maliki behaved showed that the hanging was motivated by sectarian hatreds. The significance of its impact on Iraqis and Sunnis cannot be underestimated. It is now clear that it was implemented not by official elements, in spite of Maliki’s approval, as much as it was by the al-Mahdi criminal militias.”

Dr. Kheir al-Deen Haseeb, the Director General of the Center of Arab Unity Studies in Baghdad — a man widely viewed, like Mutlek, as a well-known Sunni anti-Saddam activist (he was imprisoned and tortured by Saddam’s secret police before leaving his country) — also blames Maliki for the way in which Saddam’s execution went forward. “Everyone focuses on the cries of ‘Moqtada, Moqtada, Moqtada ,’” he says. “But the place where Saddam was hanged was carefully chosen to show Sunnis that none of them are safe. It was chosen because it is highly sectarian. The Al-Kadimiyah area is fully Shia. Why would they take him there if this was not a sectarian murder, but a legal execution? In normal cases all executions take place in Baghdad Central Prison.” Haseeb is not only outspoken in his condemnation of the execution, but enraged by those who believe that the execution was “botched” — that it was a matter of simply incompetence on the part of the Maliki government that embarrassed them. “This was done quite purposely. There was no embarrassment involved,” he says.

Haseeb also condemns the idea that the videotaping of the execution was a matter of circumstance. “This was well-planned,” he says, “and was carried out by a member of the Iraqi Parliament. The parliamentary member who did this is Mariam al-Rayes.” (Repeated calls to Ms. Al-Rayes for her response to this claim were not returned. We note that there is some disagreement on this point, — it was earlier reported by Newsweek that the recording was made by Ali Al Massedy, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s official videographer.) Haseeb is quietly certain that it was Al-Rayes, a former member of the National Assembly and Nouri al-Maliki’s foreign policy advisor, who did the taping. Al-Rayes is emerging as one of Prime Minister Maliki’s most important advisors, and was outspoken in criticizing Arab governments who did not quash protests that erupted following the execution. There should be no period of mourning for the dictator, Al-Rayes said in the wake of the execution, and those Arab nations who called for mourning should be viewed as enemies of the Iraqi people. “This is a confiscation of the rights of thousands of Iraqis who died under the oppression of the [Saddam] regime,” she said.

Another hint of Iran’s role in the execution comes from a recent BBC report, stating that the execution took place “at an especially constructed gallows at a compound that once served as the military intelligence headquarters of the former regime. This was the building where those accused of aiding Iraq’s former foe, Iran, were brought during the Sunni ascendancy.”

The message for the Bush Administration should be clear: shifts in military strategy cannot undo the fact that the political struggle for Iraq has already been lost.


  1. Haider Al-Awadi wrote:

    Wonderful, you kill a monster – make him into martyr and suddendly everyone has more problems, just to make sure donld rumsfeld gets off.
    Shucks – why not you just kill ten muslims every qurbani eid you should have more potential terrorists.

  2. steve laudig wrote:

    What if the Germans had captured Stalin and put him on trial for his various pogroms and gulag filling activities and then executed him, would ethnic Russians have a similar patriotic reaction as Sunnis are having now? I acknowledge all the incidental differences [ethnic/political vs. theological/ethnic], it’s the powerful emotions one must look at.

  3. bob k wrote:

    The US military turned Saddam over to
    the Shite hangman to further our policy
    of provoking an all out civil war between
    Sunnis and Shites in the Mid East. Divide and
    conquer is always the imperial strategy. Get
    your enemies to kill each other. It worked
    for the Zionists, the christians and moslems
    are killing each other after the false flag operation of 9-11.

  4. Please tell me what desroying Iraq and hanging Saddam Hussein accomplished. We could be in Iraq for the next 100 years and never have total peace. This was a mission of president Bush…to destroy Saddam Hussein. If the attack on Iraq had really been about weapons of mass destruction we would currently be at war with Iran and Korea.

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