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Iraq: What Impact Will Hussein's Death Have?

A torn down statue of Saddam Hussein being hit with shoes in Sadr City on December 26, 2003 (epa) December 30, 2006 (RFE/RL) --  With Iraq in the grip of a worsening insurgency, what impact will former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's execution have on the country? RFE/RL correspondent Breffni O'Rourke spoke with International Crisis Group senior political analyst Joost Hiltermann in Amman about the possibilities.

RFE/RL: What difference will Saddam Hussein's death make to Iraq?

Joost Hiltermann: Well, I think in the short term, the execution of Saddam Hussein will further polarize Iraqi society, because even though Saddam Hussein is not particularly liked by the majority of the Sunni Arab community, he is by default the only symbol they have at the moment, and his death will -- for them -- ratify their exclusion from the new political order in Iraq, because the execution is being carried out at the behest of the Shi'ite and Kurdish parties, which are seen by Sunni Arabs as wanting to disenfranchise them.

"He also still has a certain reputation in the Arab world more broadly, and so his execution will be seen by many in the Arab world really as an attempt by Iran, in particular, to settle scores for the Iran-Iraq War."

RFE/RL: Will Hussein's death worsen the insurgency, or will it take away some of its steam?

Hiltermann: I think we will see only a short-term spike in violence in response to the execution when it occurs. But in the longer term it will have very little impact, in the sense that Saddam Hussein is no [longer] seen as the leader of those who were removed from power in 2003, and [Iraqis] will in fact be able to move in new directions, now that his long shadow has been removed.

RFE/RL: So Hussein has become basically irrelevant in the present Iraqi equation?

Hiltermann: Yes, that is certainly correct, in the medium and long term.

RFE/RL: However, he has termed himself a "sacrifice," and asked Iraqis to unite to face the enemy. Do you think he will be turned into a martyr?

Hiltermann: Well, he will certainly be seen as a martyr in some quarters, again because he retains a certain symbolic power, not only among the Sunni Arab community in Iraq, but also among some secular Shi'ites -- people who were part and parcel of the former regime. He also still has a certain reputation in the Arab world more broadly, and so his execution will be seen by many in the Arab world really as an attempt by Iran, in particular, to settle scores for the Iran-Iraq War.

RFE/RL: The trial of Hussein was criticized as unfair by leading human rights groups, as well as by the UN Human Rights Council and states like the Vatican. Do you think it will come back to haunt the West?

Hiltermann: There were many irregularities in the trial, and many procedural problems, and the trial generally was perceived as biased. The larger problem is that in the current climate in Iraq, where the attempt to rebuild Iraq has utterly failed, and society has become greatly polarized, this trial could not succeed. The effort to try Saddam Hussein could not succeed even if this had been a fair trial -- opinion is so polarized now -- this is just seen as an incident of victor's justice.

RFE/RL: Will this clear the way for Ba'athists to return to their jobs, as experts in the economy and administration?

Hiltermann: To the extent that the current leaders of Iraq are willing to allow former senior Ba'athist Party members to return to positions in government, the execution of Saddam Hussein will help, because clearly they no longer have an identifiable leader to rally around. But the whole effort to reverse the de-Ba'athification process is fraught with difficulty, and it is hard to see how progress can be made in the coming months on this.

RFE/RL Iraq Report

RFE/RL Iraq Report

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