Violence and turmoil lessen death's impact

Execution not likely to unite Iraq, observers say


Hussein Executed

December 30, 2006|By Paul Richter | Paul Richter,Los Angeles Times

Many Iraqis and Americans have looked forward to the day when justice would catch up with Saddam Hussein. Yet, when it arrived, it seemed to be much less than the historic turning point once anticipated.

With Iraq beset by violence and turmoil, the dictator's demise no longer appeared to signal the beginning of new order. After a trial marked by disruption and controversy, the execution seemed only another reminder that the country's divisions remain deep and seemingly insoluble nearly four years after the American invasion.

"If everything had followed the coalition plan, if everything were calm now, this could have been the biggest event of the year, maybe the biggest event in the post-invasion," said Henri J. Barkey, a former State Department official and Mideast specialist. "This is not just a sideshow. But everyday existence is so grave and grim, it's not what it might have been."

Ever since Hussein was toppled from power, Bush administration officials have pinned their hopes on a procession of developments - the elections, the capture of the former leader and the killing of terrorist leader Abu Musab Zarqawi, to name a few - to reshape opinions in the United States and Iraq about the American mission.

But while some of the events have affected public opinion, none has so far succeeded in persuading most Americans that things have fundamentally changed for the better.

"I just don't see this as a big turning point," said Daniel P. Serwer, a former U.S. diplomat and State Department official now at the U.S. Institute for Peace.

Even among some officials in the Bush administration, the potential for a positive reaction to Hussein's death was considered limited.

Any positive reaction among Americans also is likely to quickly give way to disenchantment over the number of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq. The count stood at 2,990 late yesterday and is expected to reach 3,000 this weekend.

In Iraq, the execution of Hussein has commanded attention but is unlikely to outlast the daily struggle faced by most Iraqis.

"People in Iraq today are concerned with very basic things these days. Will this put more food on the table, make the streets safer, put more electricity in the wires?" Serwer asked. "The answer is likely not. So many people will not see this as that big."

Two years ago, it appeared that Iraqis were beginning a dialogue about their common history and Hussein's place in it. If the country had made greater steps toward a unified view of their history, then Hussein's execution might have more weight, said Nathan Brown, a specialist in Arab politics at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

But with the country increasingly fractured along sectarian lines, "this is a bit more of a sideshow that it would have been," Brown said.

Hussein's execution would also have carried more significance had his trial been carried out differently, some of the analysts said.

Barkey, who is now at Lehigh University, believes the Iraqis made a major mistake in trying Hussein for the killings of 148 Shiite men and boys in the town of Dujail after an assassination attempt, rather than for the gassing of Kurds that killed about 5,000 people.

By executing Hussein for "a relatively minor crime ... you're leaving this important chapter open," Barkey said. The attacks on Kurds were clear violations of international laws, he said.

"It's one of the reasons the United States went to war, and yet they're leaving that unresolved," Barkey said. "It's very problematic."

He said that decision has let many Kurds feeling that "they are being cheated - they have not received justice."

Juan R. Cole, a Mideast specialist at the University of Michigan, said the nature of the trial would also tend to further divide Iraqis, rather than heal past wounds.

He said that since the charges concerned Hussein's reprisals against members of a revolutionary Shiite party, Dawa - which happens to be the party of the current and last Iraqi prime ministers - the execution would look to many Sunnis as simple score-settling.

"This can be read as the Dawa party and a Kurdish judge taking revenge on Saddam," Cole said. "To the Sunnis it will look like just one more slap in the face ... This is the opposite of national healing and will just deepen the divisions."

Cole said he expected adverse Sunni reaction to the execution, pointing out that about 20 demonstrators were killed in Sunni-dominated Baqubah after the verdict was announced.

Even so, he agreed that the verdict's political significance will be limited.

"It won't change anything on the ground," he said.

Paul Richter writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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