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Iraq: Unauthorized Execution Video Raises Fears Of Sectarian Backlash

Images of Hussein's execution (Fars) January 2, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- A mobile-phone video of Saddam Hussein's execution is raising tensions around the December 30 hanging of the former Iraqi leader.

The pirate footage contrasts sharply with what Iraqi viewers saw on state television the day of the hanging, a sanitized view without a soundtrack.

Many Sunni Muslims -- in Iraq and elsewhere -- were reported to be outraged that the execution took place on Eid al-Adha, a holy period that marks the end of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca.

But the mobile-phone video that one witness took -- and that is now circulating widely in Iraq and on the Internet -- now provides the missing sounds.

The Soundtrack

And the sounds are those of insults and taunts thrown at Hussein as he faces death.

The insults recall -- and now could heighten -- the bitter divides in Iraq over the former leader.

The sound on the mobile phone video begins with one of the onlookers in the small gallows chamber shouting the name of radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, the spiritual leader of the Imam Al-Mahdi Army.

Another voice praises al-Sadr's uncle, Muhammad Bakr al-Sadr, the founder of the Shi'ite Al-Da'wah Party, who was executed by Hussein in 1980.

The shouting out of these names amounts to cries for retribution -- of blood for blood. In the footage, Hussein counters by asking whether his executioners "consider this bravery." Then someone pleads for calm, and the condemned man has just enough time to call out the names of Allah and his Prophet before the trapdoor opens.

Voices: Muqtada [Al-Sadr]...Muqtada...Muqtada.
Hussein: Do you consider this bravery?
Voice: Long live Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr.
Voice: To hell.
Voice: Please do not. The man is being executed. Please no, I beg you to stop.
Hussein: There is no God but Allah, and I testify that Muhammad is the messenger of God. There is no God but Allah, and I testify that Muhammad...
[trapdoor opens]

The taunts of the witnesses touch on deep sensitivities in Iraq. That is because they give Hussein's last moments the air of an act of personal revenge carried out by the Shi'ite religious parties that now dominate the Baghdad government.

Their rise is seen as threatening by many in Iraq's Sunni Arab community, where Hussein had his power base.

Rising Sectarian Tensions

The question now is how much the video might help to cast the execution as a sectarian settling of accounts -- an image that Washington wanted to avoid.

Hussein was officially executed for crimes against the Iraqi people. He was sentenced to death in connection with the mass killings of 148 Shi'ite civilians from the town of Al-Dujayl following an assassination attempt on him in 1982.

A second trial had also begun against Hussein over the mass murders of Iraqi Kurd civilians in the 1980s.

Even without the mobile-phone video, anger over Hussein's execution has run high in some Sunni-dominated areas. On January 1, hundreds of demonstrators gathered in Al-Dujayl to praise him.

"We condole the Islamic nation and the Prophet Muhammad's nation with death of the mujahid, Saddam Hussein, mercy be up him, and also we condole the brave Ba'athists with the death of their leader Saddam," one masked demonstrator said. "God is great."

Many Sunnis -- in Iraq and elsewhere -- were also reported to be outraged that the execution took place on Eid al-Adha, a holy period that marks the end of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca.

Saudi Arabia said in a statement that "leaders of Islamic countries should show respect for this blessed occasion...[and] not demean it."

Looking For A New Strategy

All this has helped fuel rumors in Baghdad that can only complicate Washington's challenges there. The rumors include charges that the execution was a U.S.-engineered affair to humiliate Muslims.

An image of the Hussein execution (ISNA)

The United States has denied any hand in the timing of the execution. Britain's "The Daily Telegraph" quoted an Iraqi official as saying privately that the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad wanted the execution postponed for two weeks to avoid any appearance of rushing Hussein to the gallows, but was ignored by the Iraqi government.

The latest concerns over how Hussein's death will be regarded in fractious Iraq come as U.S. President George W. Bush is expected to unveil a new strategy for the country possibly as early as next week.

U.S. media are widely quoting sources in the administration as saying Bush will seek to increase U.S. forces by 20,000-30,000 troops. The reported "surge" would aim to help the existing 140,000 U.S. troops stabilize Baghdad and its surrounding provinces.

How such a strategy would be received by the U.S. public and by the opposition Democratic Party-led Congress remains to be seen.

The Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan congressionally established commission, recently recommended that the White House shift its military focus in the country gradually away from direct combat and toward a support role.

It recommended that by the first quarter of 2008 -- barring unexpected incidents -- the only remaining U.S. combat forces should be those needed to protect Iraqi troops.

Saddam Hussein: Looking Back

Saddam Hussein: Looking Back
A DICTATOR'S LIFE: A photo gallery of images from the life of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

MORE: A timeline of the life of Saddam Hussein.

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