No one should cry any tears for Saddam Hussein, who will no doubt be executed within a matter of days. He was a vicious butcher who terrorized his own people, and ran a regime of fear in which arbitrary execution and torture were a staple, and the majority of Iraqis — being Shiites and Kurds, both communities suffering episodes of mass murder at his behest — will see justice done by his execution.
Still, the circumstances of his trial and likely execution offer little cause for satisfaction among those who will trumpet it as vindication for their support of the Iraq war. Saddam Hussein was a long-time U.S. client, who fell afoul of Washington not when his men butchered the Shiites of Dujail or gassed the Kurds of Halabja or unleashed chemical munitions on Iranian troops as U.S. advisers watched; his unforgivable transgression was to invade Kuwait and take control of its oil reserves. Even then, the role he had played as a U.S. client remained too important for the first Bush Administration (the grownup one) to have him toppled from power in a popular revolt — if his own armed forces weren’t going to do the job and replace him with a friendlier and more reliable strongman, then Washington wasn’t going to facilitate the Shiites and Kurds doing it, because they knew (as the second — infantile — Bush Administration may be in the process of discovering) that this would empower Iran.
The Shiites and Kurds welcomed the end of Saddam, but three years later, they may no longer be thinking much about the old dictator, because the horrors of the new Iraq are upon them. Saddam has been tried by a failed state, in a process whose legitimacy has been questioned by many of the same Western human rights groups that championed the suffering of his victims.
The process, and his execution, instead of uniting Iraqis in common purpose as they put the past behind them will instead be viewed entirely through a sectarian prism. The Shiites and Kurds will celebrate; the Sunnis will protest. And, more importantly, their war will continue. Saddam is but a footnote on the pages of today’s Iraq story.
And the most telling indictment of what the U.S. has wrought in Iraq came from Kofi Annan, the U.N. Secretary General appointed because of support from Washington and who always remained close to Washington moderates such as Colin Powell, in his valedictory BBC interview. Annan, freed from the shackles of his diplomatic role, told a basic truth that few dare utter in the U.S. media:
If I were an average Iraqi obviously I would make the same comparison [that life was worse now than under Saddam]… they had a dictator who was brutal but they had their streets, they could go out, their kids could go to school and come back home without a mother or father worrying, “Am I going to see my child again?”
(He forgot to mention the electricity, and the jobs, and the freedom of women to move around outside the home, and the fact that much of Iraq’s professional class has fled — that even many of the democratically elected leaders of the new Iraq actually live, to all intents and purposes, in Jordan or London — and so on, see Juan Cole for more.)
Thus the backdrop of Saddam’s execution — that the average Iraqi was safer under his barbarous dictatorship than they are now. So while Bush will likely take the opportunity to pontificate about how the execution symbolizes the closing a dark chapter yadda-yadda-yadda, the reality is that Iraqis are now living an even darker chapter as a result of the U.S. invasion. Rather than bringing any kind of closure to the suffering of Iraq, Saddam Hussein will be just another corpse in the daily body count that shows no sign of ebbing.