Getting it wrong

January 17, 2007

It took three blows of an ax to sever the head of Mary Queen of Scots. If they had wanted to be quick about it, the English should have used a rope instead - a long piece of rope, like the one that abruptly disconnected the head of Saddam Hussein's half-brother on Monday.

Iraqi government officials maintained an air of mortification after the alarmingly botched execution. Sunni kinsmen of the executed convict expressed a fervent desire to believe that he had been mutilated intentionally. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said she wished the two condemned men who went to the gallows, in the footsteps of the taunted tyrant himself, had been accorded more dignity.

But hanging with dignity is a tall order, under any circumstances. Death by noose - whether it comes by way of strangulation, suffocation or decapitation - is a desecrating business. It's meant to be.

So now the Iraqi authorities have created two more martyrs. They've also created the impression - or, more accurately, they've confirmed the impression - that they can't do anything right. The government's supporters can argue that Awad Hamed al-Bandar and Barzan Ibrahim received better treatment than they ever dispensed to their victims when they were in power; this is true, but also beside the point. Safely locked away, the two men were irrelevant; put to death, they are potent symbols of the downfall of Sunni power in Iraq. Expect Sunni insurgents to react accordingly.

At least 100 people were killed in Baghdad yesterday, most of them by two bombs near Al-Mustansiriya University. The United Nations said 34,000 Iraqis all told died in the violence in 2006. If the government's policy of executing leaders of the former regime could put a stop to this, it might make some sort of sense. But it seems to have much more to do with trying to get even while the opportunity lasts - and not being overly fastidious about doing it right. Reconciliation, apparently, can wait.

All this raises a question about the U.S. mission in Iraq: If large numbers of people there want to kill each other, is it fair to American soldiers to put them in the middle of it? It seems the Iraqi government would be more likely to come to its senses and try to address what really needs to be addressed - instead of pursuing vengeance against members of the deposed regime - if the U.S. forces left it to its own devices for a while. Like a hanging, that just might focus a few minds.

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