Hussein verdict fuels divide

Reactions split along Iraq's sectarian lines

November 06, 2006|By Borzou Daragahi | Borzou Daragahi,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- The trial of Saddam Hussein that ended yesterday with a guilty verdict and death sentence for the former Iraqi leader, once viewed as a means of reconciliation and justice, instead seemed to fuel the sectarian division that grips the country.

Some Shiites and Kurds celebrated. Some Sunnis mourned angrily. For large swaths of the Iraqi people, Hussein has ceased to be the mesmerizing patriarch who once towered over their nightmares and lives. Many interviewed yesterday and in recent months said they had laid him to rest long ago, more worried about the internecine violence racking the country.

"The verdict was right, but prolonging it faded the cheerfulness," said Sameer Asadi, a 38-year-old taxi driver in the southern Iraq city of Basra.

Though Iraqi government officials argue that putting Hussein to death could stymie the hopes of Sunni insurgents, many of those battling daily against U.S. and Iraqi forces long ago dispensed with Hussein as an inspiration, perhaps even before he was found and arrested by U.S. troops nearly three years ago.

The verdict, however, will be felt by many in Iraq as another in a series of divisive jabs in the continuing battle between Iraq's long-oppressed majority Shiite Muslims and once-powerful Sunni Arabs now incensed over their loss of centuries-old dominance.

Hussein and seven co-defendants faced charges of crimes against humanity for the deaths of 148 Shiite Muslims, who were killed after a failed assassination attempt against the Iraqi leader in the town of Dujail in 1982. Hussein and two other defendants received the death penalty yesterday, which will be automatically appealed, while four defendants received lesser sentences and another was acquitted of charges.

The yearlong trial might or might not have met international standards for war crimes tribunals. Several human rights organizations that monitor such trials said yesterday that it didn't. "We're concerned that flaws in the trial process will jeopardize much of the trial's impact," said Miranda Sissons, head of the International Center for Transitional Justice's Iraq program said in a release.

U.S. officials hailed the verdict as a triumph of "transparency" and an example of the kind of due process denied Iraqis under the former regime.

"Saddam Hussein's trial is a milestone in the Iraqi people's effort to replace the rule of a tyrant with the rule of law," President Bush told reporters in Waco, Texas. "It is a major achievement for Iraq's young democracy and its constitutional government." But such lessons on the healing power of the courtroom and virtues of law may well be lost in contemporary Iraq, where the hundreds who die each week in civil warfare dwarf the 148 Iraqis killed by Hussein's regime after the 1982 assassination attempt in Dujail.

As the verdict was broadcast on television, war cries broke out on both sides of the sectarian divide.

Noisy demonstrations broke out in Shiite districts of the capital. Revelers pointed their AK-47s into the air and let loose a 15-minute burst of celebratory gunfire. Many held of posters of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose followers nightly snatch Sunni Arab men off the streets and torture them with electrical appliances before shooting them in the skull.

"God avenged the killer of my sons," said a 65-year-old woman in the Shiite city of Najaf who gave her name as Um Hassan. She said she lost two of her four boys to Hussein's security forces in the 1991 crackdown on a Shiite insurrection in southern Iraq. "The death penalty is not enough," she said. "I want him to be buried alive twice, as he did with my sons."

Even Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the pious Islamic activist leading this fragmented country, joined in the celebration of fellow Shiites.

"This is the day where you see the dictator after arresting him in his miserable hole, being tried facing the penalty he deserves," comparing him unfavorably to al-Sadr's father and uncle, who were both famous Shiite clerics killed by Hussein's regime.

"Iraqis have the right to smile and rejoice a little for the death sentence issued against this criminal and his minions," he said in a television address.

In Sunni Arab towns and neighborhoods, however, there was sullen anger and public displays of support for the former dictator. Clashes and mortar fire in Sunni neighborhoods in the capital left at least four dead. They held up Iraqi flags and framed portraits of the man they still call "our president," humiliated that he was to be hung like a common criminal.

"He did not throw them into a big hole and set them on fire," Ameen Adib, one of Hussein's defense lawyers, said of the 148 victims from Dujail. "He just gave them justice. If I were to judge Saddam Hussein, I would have given him a medal for his conduct in this issue."

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