No sooner had the grainy cell phone video of Saddam Hussein’s execution been broadcast across on the Internet than angry mobs began to fill the streets of Iraq, protesting not only the hurried nature of the act, but the manner in which it was conducted. Both objections are crucial to understanding the reality of Iraq today, a reality that was made glaringly obvious by the scene in Saddam’s death chamber: sectarian divides have widened to a point where the idea of a unified Iraq with a representative government is no longer realistic.
Since the “coalition of the willing” first invaded Iraq in 2003, the constant focus has been on establishing a single nation with a democratically elected government that could serve as a model of reform and progress throughout the Middle East. Iraqis who braved insurgent attacks to go to the polls elected a national leadership representative of the country’s Shiite majority, and the Shia have made no effort to conceal their animosity for the Sunni minority that oppressed them for nearly three decades.
After Saddam was captured and brought to trial for crimes against the Iraqi people, Shiites in Iraq’s government replaced the presiding judge because he was deemed too lenient. After the conviction and subsequent sentence of death, government officials in Baghdad began to say the execution could happen by the end of the year. Despite demands from the United States that Saddam be afforded due process under the law, the Shiite government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki rushed Hussein to the gallows in what could only be described as a mob lynching caught on tape.
Now I’m not saying Saddam should not have been executed. Perhaps more than anyone in history he deserved to die for his regime’s murder of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis during his twenty-four years as head of state. But the timing and manner of the proceedings did more to damage Iraq’s chances for survival as a unified nation than any incident since the bombing of the Golden Dome Mosque in Samarra in 2004.
First, let’s discuss the timing. Saddam was executed just days after an Iraqi appeals court upheld his death sentence and on a day that Sunnis begin celebrating the Feast of the Sacrifice, a Muslim festival known as Eid al-Ahda. Iraqi law prohibits executions on Muslim holidays and the move was interpreted as an affront to Iraq’s Sunni minority.
An even larger issue than the timing, though, is the conduct of the execution itself. Images of Saddam being taunted by a mob of Shiite henchmen with shouts of “Moqtada,” “Moqtada,” a reference to radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, prompted protests in Sunni areas of Iraq and sparked outrage throughout the Sunni-dominated Middle East. In Samarra, Sunnis broke into the Golden Dome Mosque carrying a mock coffin and photos of Saddam Hussein. The choice of the Golden Dome was a deliberate one. It was the bombing of this mosque by Sunni insurgents that led to the ongoing sectarian violence that is tearing Iraq apart today.
Which brings us back to the premise of this article. Both the timing and the conduct of Saddam’s execution were meant as a message from the Shiite majority to the Sunni minority: we are in charge now and there is nothing you can do about it. Shiites are consolidating their power and retaliating for decades of abuse at the hands of Saddam Hussein’s Sunni regime.
The International Herald Tribune recently wrote the following: “Not one of the Iraqi officials who discussed the sequence of events was able to explain why Maliki had been unwilling to allow the execution to wait until it could be better organized. Nor would any explain why those who conducted it had allowed it to deteriorate into a sectarian free-for-all that had the effect, on the video recordings, of making Saddam, a mass murderer, appear a pillar of dignity and restraint, and his executioners, representing Shiites who were his principal victims, seem like bullying street thugs.”
The explanation is simple, and it is the reason that a unified Iraq is doomed to failure. The Shia are not truly interested in national reconciliation. They have control of Iraq and they do not intend to relinquish any of their newly acquired power. The timing and conduct of the execution, along with the airing of video images of Hussein’s final moments, are deliberate actions by the Shiite majority that will undoubtedly increase sectarian violence and destroy any chance of preserving an Iraqi nation.