Sectarianism laid bare


The ghoulish display in Saddam's execution chamber will not surprise Iraqis, who live daily with the bitter Shia-Sunni divide, writes Lara Marlowe

Like everything the Americans have done in Iraq, Saddam Hussein's execution was poorly planned, and when it backfired the US refused to take responsibility for the taunts that drowned out the dictator's last prayers, or the hooded men who danced around his dead body.

The ghoulish display was further proof of the result of the US invasion: Iraq is now nominally governed, with US help, by fundamentalist Shia Muslims allied with Iran and determined to wreak vengeance on the Sunnis who persecuted them.

Saddam's request to be killed by a firing squad rather than hanged like a common thief was denied. The illusion of an orderly, dignified execution lasted only a few hours, because at least one of the two dozen people in the execution chamber in Khadamiya filmed Saddam's death with a mobile telephone camera.The telephone picked up where the official video left off, with a hangman in leather jacket and ski mask slipping the noose over Saddam's head.

As Saddam begins his last prayers, someone chants "Moqtada! Moqtada! Moqtada!" Moqtada al-Sadr is the leader of Iraq's most powerful militia, the Mahdi army. In 2004, the US promised to catch him "dead or alive", but he is still at large, and is probably the most popular man in Iraq.

The Mahdi army operates death squads that seek out and kill Sunni men. It controls several government ministries, and is close to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of the Dawa party.

The blood feud between the Sadr family, the Shia Dawa party and Saddam Hussein runs deep. In 1980, Saddam had the party's founder, Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr, and his sister Bint Houda tortured to death. Before they died, Bint Houda was raped in front of her brother. Baqir al-Sadr's beard was burned and nails were pounded into his head.

Moqtada al-Sadr - the militia leader whose name was chanted at Saddam seconds before his death - is the grand-nephew of Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr. Moqtada's father and two of his brothers were also murdered on Saddam's orders, in 1999. Moqtada pressed for Saddam to be hanged quickly.

With the sarcasm he often used as a dictator, Saddam derided the men who taunted him on the gallows. "Is this how you show your bravery?" he asked.

"Go straight to hell!" one of the executioners shouted back.

"Is this the bravery of Arabs?" Saddam Hussein challenged them.

One voice - probably the Iraqi attorney general Munkith al-Farun - attempted to interfere. "Please, I am begging you not to. The man is being executed," he says.

"Long live Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr!" another man shouts.

The trapdoor beneath Saddam's shackled feet opens and his neck drops to one side. The Shia in the execution chamber dance around his body, chanting slogans of celebration.

There were celebrations in many poor Shia neighbourhoods, such as Sadr City, the vast slum in east Baghdad that is ruled by the Mahdi army. But educated Shia, such as Adil al-Zubeidi, an architect whose brother was jailed in Abu Ghraib prison for 10 years by Saddam, said the spectacle made them ill at ease. "It felt like vengeance, not justice," al-Zubeidi said.

Khaldoon, a Shia doctor in Baghdad with whom I communicate by e-mail, said he and his wife were disgusted by the hanging, though Saddam killed two of his wife's brothers. "We support the European and church point of view that only God gives life and only God can take it," Khaldoon wrote to me. "There is no doubt that he was a tyrant, but blood will harvest more blood." Sunni Muslims protested in Aadhamiya and Mansour, the shrinking bastions they still control in west Baghdad, and in the cities of Mosul, Kirkuk and Saddam's home town of Tikrit. "Maliki, you coward, you are an American agent!" one demonstrator shouted, referring to the prime minister who had vowed to hang Saddam before the end of the year.

Iraqi police arrested unknown numbers of Sunni demonstrators. Given that the security forces are infiltrated by Shia militias, the detainees' chances of survival are poor. Yet despite the danger, Sunnis continue to flock to Saddam's grave in Awja, the village where he was born.

Outside Iraq, Sunnis demonstrated in Tunisia, Yemen, Turkey and the Palestinian territories. For hours on end, Sunni north African Arabs vented their rage on Radio Soleil, which caters to the Maghreb community in France.

US officials sought to distance themselves from the lynch mob in the execution chamber. A rumour circulated - never officially confirmed - that Zalmay Khalilzad, the US ambassador to Baghdad, asked the Maliki government to postpone the execution for two weeks.

But Saddam was in US custody until half an hour before his death, and a US Black Hawk helicopter flew him and 14 Iraqi officials to Khadimiya prison; it is hard to believe the US could not have postponed the hanging. Nor is it likely that mobile cellphones went undetected through multiple security checks.

As criticism mounted, Gen William Caldwell, a US military spokesman in Baghdad, told a press briefing: "You know, if you're asking me would we have done things differently, yes, we would have. But that's not our decision. That's an Iraqi government decision." Iraq has a tradition of savaging its leaders. When the royal family was massacred in 1958, the British-backed prime minister, Nouri Said, attempted to escape dressed as a woman. The mob tore him to pieces and dragged the stump of his body through the streets.

The disgraceful behaviour in the execution chamber in Khadimiya probably shocked westerners more than Iraqis; Iraqis know what is going on, how dozens of people are murdered daily simply because they are Sunni or Shia.Similarly, when US soldiers were torturing Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib, the Iraqis knew about it long before the US high command. Thomas E Rick's book Fiasco; the American Military Adventure in Iraq recounts how Sheikh Harith al-Dari, the chairman of the Association of Muslim Scholars, tried to alert a US civil affairs officer to sadistic treatment in Abu Ghraib in early 2004. "We don't act that way," the officer told al-Dari. "If you've got pictures, documents, you show me." Four months later, after images of the torture at Abu Ghraib had gone around the world, Sheikh al-Dari sent a sarcastic message to the US officer: "Have you seen enough pictures now?" The same Sheikh al-Dari this week predicted the telephone video of Saddam's death would deepen hatred between Sunni and Shia.

Ninety-five per cent of respondents to a poll conducted by Al-Jazeera television's website thought the fact that Saddam was executed on the first day of the religious festival Eid al-Adha showed the US hates Muslims. The fiction that Saddam's hanging was a purely Iraqi affair didn't wash with angry Sunnis.

"The US used him, then they gave him as a present to Iran," said Wala'a Said, an Iraqi political activist in France. "The Americans say, 'It wasn't us,' but they're the occupiers!" For form's sake, Nouri al-Maliki announced an investigation into the abuses. There was talk of postponing the executions of Awad al-Bandar, a former judge, and Barzan al-Tikriti, Saddam's half-brother and a former intelligence chief. But on Thursday, Maliki confirmed their deaths would go ahead as scheduled. From Washington, an unrepentant Bush administration appealed for the Iraqis to take "appropriate care".