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Iraq: Hussein Execution Video Proves Damaging For Premier

Official footage of Hussein being led to execution (epa) January 4, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Following the release of unauthorized video footage showing former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein being taunted before his execution, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has ordered an inquiry into who was responsible for the footage. But the video has already inflamed tensions between Iraq's Shi'a and Sunnis and called into question al-Maliki's control of his own government.

While many Sunni Arabs expressed outrage at the scenes of guards taunting Hussein before he was hanged, the rushed execution on the onset of Eid al-Adha, a religiously significant holiday marking the end of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, shocked many Iraqis.

Video Widens Sectarian Divide

In al-Maliki's statement released after Hussein's execution on December 30, he described the event as ending the "policy of exclusion, discrimination, and marginalization, from which Iraq suffered for 35 years." However, in the eyes of many Sunnis, the rush to execute Hussein and the accompanying fracas only heighten their feelings of marginalization.

Both the execution's timing and the revelation of the subsequent video have caused outrage among Iraq's Sunni Arabs. The government's execution of the former Iraqi leader at the beginning of Eid al-Adha was perceived by many Sunnis as an affront. As for the mobile-phone video footage, it reinforced the highly sectarian perception of the execution itself.

Salim al-Jaburi, a member of the Sunni-led Iraqi Accordance Front, said on January 3 that the video would push some Sunnis further away from the political process and make national reconciliation more difficult, Reuters reported the same day.

"The timing of the execution and the footage shown hurt the feelings of those who have the desire to join the political process," al-Jaburi said. "The big question now is how serious is the government in calling for national reconciliation. It now has to prove it."

More importantly, the voices of several guards heard invoking the name of Muqtada al-Sadr in the video moments before the execution strengthens the belief among Sunni Arabs that members of the Imam Al-Mahdi Army and other Shi'ite militias have infiltrated the Iraqi security forces at the highest levels.

An Interior Ministry source said that the team given the responsibility for implementing the execution was dismissed, and instead militia members were the ones who carried out the death sentence, Al-Sharqiyah television reported on January 3.

Sunnis as well as U.S. officials have long accused al-Maliki of being either unable or unwilling to rein in the Shi'ite militias. The shouts of "Muqtada" from the select group of guards and witnesses allowed to attend the execution will certainly do nothing to convince them otherwise.

Embarrassment For Al-Maliki

The whole affair concerning Hussein's treatment and the release of the video has become increasingly embarrassing for the government of Prime Minister al-Maliki. Not only has the issue brought a firestorm of domestic and foreign criticism, but it also raises questions about al-Maliki's leadership.

Demonstrators protest Hussein's execution in Tikrit (epa)

The fact that an unauthorized video of the execution was shot and released without al-Maliki's consent indicates a blatant breach of security protocol, which undermines his authority.

Shortly after the execution, national security adviser Muwaffaq al-Rubay'i told CNN that Hussein was treated with respect throughout the execution process. "There was absolutely no humiliation" when Hussein "was alive and after he was executed."

Asked in the same interview if people in the execution room danced around Hussein's body as it hung from the noose, al-Rubay'i described this as a "normal reaction." Al-Rubay'i has continued to defend the behavior in the execution chamber, though he has said that legal action would be taken against anyone found to have made unauthorized videos of the execution.

Furthermore, Hussein's execution was supposed to be carried out in a solemn manner, as evidenced by the government-released video that showed the hangman placing the noose around the neck of a composed Hussein. That footage was not only released to dispel any doubts as to whether the execution actually occurred, but it was meant to convey a sense that justice was served in a respectable manner.

However, the unauthorized footage showed that all decorum was abandoned and the execution turned into a spectacle that seemed more geared toward enacting revenge than justice. Indeed, U.S. officials were concerned over the legal issues centering on whether the three-man Presidency Council needed to ratify the execution order before it was carried out, a process that was bypassed. Ignoring this process further brings into question the motives behind al-Maliki's desire to quickly execute Hussein in a seemingly less-than-transparent manner.

In fact, President Jalal Talabani, who comprises the council with the two vice presidents, released a statement on January 2 indicating that he was unaware of the timing of the execution, Al-Sharqiyah reported. Kurdish lawmaker Mahmud Uthman also said that the Kurdish leadership only learned of the execution on Iraqi state television and no Kurdish officials were in Baghdad for the execution, KUNA reported on January 3. Kurdish officials had previously urged the government not to execute Hussein before the Anfal trial was completed.

Making A Martyr Of Saddam

The treatment of Hussein depicted in the unauthorized video may have inadvertently transformed the former Iraqi dictator into an even larger figure, with many in the Sunni Arab world condemning the taunts and the release of the video. Hussein's relative dignity in contrast to the unruly behavior among some of the guards and witnesses who taunted him has now turned him in the eyes of some into a victim of a vindictive Shi'ite-led government.

Pakistanis protest Hussein's execution in Karachi (epa)

For many in the Arab world, Hussein's trial was viewed as illegitimate, particularly while Iraq is still under U.S. occupation, and the rush to execute him has exacerbated this belief. To some Sunni Arabs, the decision to execute Hussein fell squarely on the shoulders of the United States, no matter what the Iraqi government said.

"The most import that the decision on the execution [of Hussein] was not made by politicians, despite their desire to make such a decision," said Muhammad Bashar al-Faydi, a spokesman for Iraq's Muslim Scholars Association, Al-Jazeera satellite television reported on December 31. "It was made by the occupation and so the occupation is the party that executed the former Iraqi president."

Finally, the spectacle of Hussein's execution has come to overshadow his past crimes. It is unclear how the Anfal trial will proceed without Hussein and many of the atrocities that he was accused of committing may never be brought to light.

Ironically, in the town of Al-Dujayl, where Hussein was found guilty in the killing of 148 Shi'a in 1982, the town erected a mourning tent and scores of locals offered their condolences over Hussein's death, Al-Sharqiyah television reported on January 2. Many covered their faces, for fear of reprisal attacks.

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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