The Execution of Saddam Hussein

Jan 3, 2007 | AIJAC staff

Update from AIJAC

January 3, 2007
Number 01/07 #01

The end of year hiatus in Updates witnessed a number of events which invite comment and analysis – not least the continuing conflict and kidnappings in the Palestinian territories and the passage at last of long-discussed (but very limited) UN sanctions on Iran’s nuclear program. However, it seems impossible to avoid commenting first on the implications of the execution of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein on the weekend.

We lead off with respected Middle East scholar Fouad Ajami, who puts Saddam’s fate into the wider context of the Middle East political paradigm from which he sprang. He points out that a cleverer and more realistic ruler, such as Syria’s Hafez al-Assad, would never have found himself in a similar position – so wrapped up in swagger and a claim to be the “knight of Arabism” challenging the world’s foremost powers, that he was unwilling or unable to deal with the reality of the balance of power. Saddam, he argues, ironically made the Arabs even less politically consequential, while increasing direct US involvement in the region and creating political opportunities for the hated Persians. For this detailed look at the reasons for Saddam’s fate, CLICK HERE.

Next, the always insightful Prof. Barry Rubin looks at the implications of Saddam’s execution. He says that there is a possibility that Saddam’s fate can be part of a democratising trend, if there is not too much exaltation of the former dictator. He points out that throughout the Middle East, even anti-democratic forces now have to pretend to favour democracy, and while most Arabs will doubtless continue to claim Saddam as a “hero” for fighting Israel and the West, the key will be how Iraqi Sunnis judge his disastrous leadership. For Rubin’s full analysis, CLICK HERE.

Another Israeli view comes from top columnist Yoel Marcus, who says he cannot understand the uproar over the death penalty for Saddam, and that while he generally opposes the death penalty, for mass murdering war criminals an exception should be made. He also argues that Saddam’s death was absolutely necessary for hopes of progress toward stability in Iraq. For his argument, CLICK HERE.

Deluded to the last

Fouad Ajami

The Sunday Times, December 31, 2006

Saddam did not have to end on the gallows. He was the tyrant who simply failed to comprehend anything outside his own brutal world.

It was inevitable that the man condemned to the gallows would speak of his imminent death in religious terms. It has always been like this with Saddam Hussein.

The quintessential secularist who had terrorised the Shi’ite seminarians of Najaf and the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood with equal brutality fell back on religious symbolism whenever calamity struck.

There was that time, in 1991, in that uneven battle with an American-led military coalition, when he told his commanders that “angels of mercy” would come to the aid of Iraq’s army and that thus they would emerge victorious over the infidels. He had lost his air force, his army was surrendering in droves, but there remained the outward piety.

There was the moment, in the aftermath of that war, when the Islamic invocation Allahu Akbar (God is greatest) was added to Iraq’s flag, and there was the fitting spectacle, during his long trial, of Saddam the steadfast believer turning up at court with a copy of the Koran to face the victor’s justice.

He had risen through the underground, and through the intensely secular Ba’ath party, only to end it all with an appeal to the “merciful God who helps those who take refuge in him and who will never disappoint any honest believer”.

Curiously, it did not have to end this way for Saddam Hussein.

THE Tikriti upstart took apart a turbulent country and reduced it to silence and obedience. He also mastered, by all appearances, the rules of his neighbourhood. He was once, in the 1980s, an enforcer of the Sunni Arab order of power, its gendarme against the hurricane of the Iranian revolution from the east.

A child of destitution and petty crimes, he befriended the emirs and sultans of the Arabian peninsula and the Gulf. He took up his sword against the “fire-worshipping” Persians, and gave himself the task of quarantining the revolutionary brigades of Ruhollah Khomeini.

The Arabs needed swagger, and the Tikriti adventurer supplied it. They had been haunted by their technological inferiority, and this new order on the Tigris that came into its own a quarter-century ago held out the promise of a regime at home with modern weapons.

Grant the man from Tikrit his due; he had a keen sense for the mood of the crowd and of “the street”. He had come into a void: Egypt had walked away from its pan-Arab burdens, and the perennial hunger of a thwarted culture for a would-be redeemer gave Saddam his moment in the sun.

The role that had been Gamal Abdel Nasser’s in the 1950s and 1960s was there for Saddam to claim. In the way of a neighbourhood enforcer he was shrewd and cunning: he walked with the rulers of Arab lands, partook of their summits, but the menace was never far away.

The man who dispatched his forces to Kuwait on the morning of August 2, 1990, played by his own rules. A principality with a long settled history of its own was declared the “19th province” of the man’s dominion. He had been strapped for cash and he came to collect it. He had fought for the Arabs against Iran, and the conquest of Kuwait was, by his lights, the payoff due him for being Saif al-Arab, the sword of the Arabs.

He was rebuffed and thrown back across an international frontier; his scheme had backfired. The avenger of the Arabs, their standard-bearer, made legitimate a big western military presence in the lands and sea lanes of the region.

Even before the Anglo-American war of 2003 decapitated his regime, the country he had put forth as a Prussia of the Arabs, destined to unite them, lay prostrate at the mercy of the Powers, its oil and trade subject to an international regime, its air space and a good chunk of its land mass under the control and supervision of outsiders. And on Iraq’s borders those “brotherly” regimes he had sought to herd into his sphere of influence had scurried for cover in search of western protection. “The knight of Arabism” had delivered the Arabs into a new season of tutelage and dependence.

THE paradox of this man is easy to see: had he been possessed of a scant measure of introspection, Saddam might have wondered at the ironic turn of fate that has made his country — and a good deal of the region around it — a battleground between the Pax Americana and Persian power.

He loathed both America and the Iranians. In his moments of hubris he thought of himself as a worthy challenger of the Pax Americana; he was convinced that America was a declining power, that he could position himself as a master of the Persian Gulf, and that powers beyond would sue for an accord on his terms.

It had been understood for several decades that American imperial power had marked the Saudi realm as a place apart, inviolate and a vital interest of its imperium. Yet Saddam all but ignored those red lines.

He hadn’t thought much of the Saudis, and he set out to overturn the American security doctrine in the oil lands. Nor did he give the Iranian state next door the regard owed it by virtue of its demography and weight in the scales of power.

There can be no better illustration of the man’s obtuseness than the virtual absence today of the Arabs from the contest of nations. From Iraq and the Gulf to Beirut and the Mediterranean, the Arabs now seem spectators to their destiny as the battle unfolds between Pax Americana and the Persians. This, in small measure, was the harvest of what Saddam had sown in the years of blind and clumsy terror.

No one in the Arab world was able to rein him in. His fellow monarchs and rulers were in no position to stand up to him. No Arab cavalry was set to ride to the rescue of his Shi’ite and Kurdish victims. The regime he had put together worked skilfully with the hidden atavisms of the Arab world.

He presented his dominion, and the terror at its heart, as a pan-Arab secular enterprise. But Arab nationalism had been, for decades, covert Sunni hegemony, and the ruler in Baghdad had going for him the silent acquiescence of his world. No League of Arab States operatives ever threatened Saddam Hussein, and the circle of brutal men around him, with moral and political censure.

He assassinated or put to death great Shi’ite men of letters and jurisprudence. But the Shi’ites were strangers to the Arab courts and to the intellectual class alike. They were the Arab world’s stepchildren.

In the most cruel of historical swindles, Saddam “Persianised” his Shi’ite countrymen, even though Shi’ism in Iraq was Arab through and through, its adherents bedouin Arabs who had converted to Shi’ism at the hands of clerics in the trading towns of Najaf and Karbala.

No Arabs of note stepped forth to contest this forgery; the bigotry of the man was but an extreme version of the bigotry of his world. In the same vein, the terror unleashed against the Kurds in the 1980s took place against the background of a wider Arab silence.

That petty tyrant in Baghdad did not descend from the sky. He emerged out of the Arab world’s sins of omission and commission. It is no surprise today that Arab rulers — Egypt’s master in particular — speak with dread of Saddam’s execution.

He ruled alone, he hoarded public treasure; he gave every sign that he had in mind a dynastic succession for one of his sons after him; he made a mockery of national elections. In all this he was at one with his neighbourhood.

“You go not till I set you up a glass, where you see the inmost part of you,” Hamlet says to his mother. In his years at the helm of political power, and in those shameless protests in the Palestinian territories and in Jordan that have erupted now and then in support of this terrible man, Saddam Hussein has held up a mirror for the Arabs. And the image in the mirror has never been pretty.

IT IS the luck of Saddam’s victims that he was so unusually brazen, and that he never read the balance of forces in the world beyond Iraq, Iran and the Arab order of states.

It was never fated or maktoob (written), as the Arabs would say, that Saddam would be flushed out of a spider hole by American soldiers, and that he would be condemned to “execution by hanging until death”, as the appeal court in his country ruled. Had he let well enough alone, had he read America’s mood after September 11, 2001, he might have been able to stay out of harm’s way.

On Saddam’s western border, his nemesis Hafez Assad, like him a man who had risen from obscurity and poverty to the commanding heights of political power, and very much in Saddam’s mould in his attitude toward authority and dissent, died in power, a natural death. Syria gave Assad a grand funeral and had no choice but to acquiesce to the succession of his son.

The Syrian despot had been careful not to offend the Powers. He had all but erased an international frontier, stripped the small Lebanese republic of much of its independence. But he had done it over the course of two long decades, and he had done it, it has to be sadly admitted, with a green light granted him by the Pax Americana in 1990-91, a reward for riding with the posse that Bush the Elder had assembled to evict Saddam from Kuwait.

Assad’s caution may have been the temper of the man. Conceivably, it was also the caution of his community of Alawites, an esoteric faith of the insular Syrian mountains.

Saddam lacked the guile that might have spared him. His military machine was all rust and decay, but he swaggered and let the world think that he had perfected a deadly arsenal of weapons of mass destruction.

A great military expedition was being readied against him in Washington and London, but he gambled to the bitter end that the American leader would not pull the trigger. It never dawned on him that the mood had darkened in Washington after 9/11, and that the military response that had begun in Kabul was heading his way.

It did not really matter that Saddam Hussein had not been directly implicated in the terrors of 9/11, and that those terrors had had their origins in the political cultures of Egypt and the Arabian peninsula. Truth be told, Saddam had drawn the short straw.

Kabul and the Taliban had not sufficed, the campaign against radical Islamism had to make its way to the Arab wellsprings of jihadism. Egypt and Saudi Arabia were off limits; they lay within the American orbit. Saddam’s regime was the perfect target of opportunity — menacing but in reality weak and isolated. He was a Wizard of Oz; behind the curtain his realm was a domain of make-believe.

The Iraq war may now be an orphan in the court of American opinion. But on the eve of it well over 70% of the American public favoured upending Saddam’s regime.

In retrospect, the scaffolding of the war would come under steady attack, and the critics would maintain that there had been no operational links between Saddam and Al-Qaeda. But those fine distinctions had no standing and no force in the countdown to war. It was Saddam’s fault that he drew attention, and fire, when ducking for cover would have been the better part of wisdom.

It will be said on the “Arab street” and by the critics of the Iraq war worldwide, that this verdict, and the entire judicial process that issued the death sentence, were an affair of the American occupation, cut to America’s political needs. Iraqis from Kurdistan to Basra will pay these quibbles no heed.

If it took a foreign war to bring about this justice, and to introduce into Arab politics the principle of political accountability, so be it.

So much of the political and economic life of the Arabs today — the satellite television channels railing against the West, the intellectuals who condemn the West in perfectly good western idiom, the oil industry that sustains practically all that plays out in the region — has its origins in western lands.

Nuremberg, too, was the victor’s justice. The Iraqis who endured the tyranny while the world averted its gaze from their suffering are owed their moment of satisfaction.
Fouad Ajami is the author of The Foreigner’s Gift: The Americans, the Arabs, and the Iraqis in Iraq. He teaches at Johns Hopkins University


King Saddam meets his end

Barry Rubin


Though the dictator is dead, dictatorship is far from dead – at least in the Middle East. But perhaps the execution of Saddam Hussein, the man who not only terrorized but also mobilized Iraq for almost 40 years, is another step in that direction.

Saddam was really a king. If he had lived a century ago or more would have established a dynasty, passing down power to his son. That was his intention, to create a republican monarchy. This, of course, is what happened in neighboring Syria, where Hafez I left the throne to Bashar I.

Even democratic revolutions – as well as Communist ones – concluded that the continued life of the king was not possible if the new order was to succeed. The English revolution executed King Charles I in 1648; the French, King Louis in 1793; and the Russians, Czar Nicholas II in 1918.

In each case, too, the inoculation did not take at first. The British took the monarchy back permanently, the French temporarily, and the Russians got Czar Joseph Stalin the Terrible.

Of all these deposed kings, Saddam was the most personally deserving of his fate. Charles was stubborn; Louis, ineffective (though he did plot with the revolution’s foreign enemies), and Nicky, foolish in the extreme. None of them were deliberate mass murderers.

IN WILLIAM Shakespeare’s Richard II, the main character, himself one of Britain’s most incompetent rulers, urges his courtiers to sit on the ground in mourning “and tell sad stories of the death of kings,” continuing: “How some have been deposed, some slain in war, / Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed, / Some poisoned by their wives, some sleeping killed.”

These were the models for regime change in the early 17th century. The king might be brought down by the nobles, killed in battle, overthrown by the revival of the dynasty he displaced, or assassinated. Above all, in Shakespeare’s theme, is death, the true king of all. Death merely allows the king, for a brief time, to “monarchize, be feared, and kill with looks,” then disposes of him with a pinprick.

WHAT IS missing here, however, because it only arrived on the scene much later, are the concepts of democracy and revolution, the notion that the people are the king and the ultimate arbiters of the nation’s fate.

Even if Saddam was thrown out of office by American and British armies, the situation has moved far beyond that point. In Iraq today it is numbers that count, quantity over quality.

This is the age of democracy, even if it is often most palpable by its absence, in which case this is the era in which political forces must at least pretend to be democratic. When groups come along which are profoundly anti-democratic – a status of which one of the most important indicators is the systematic use of terrorism – many will reinterpret them in the spirit of the age.

Much will be written about Saddam’s execution. What is most important? In the wider Middle East context it is how Saddam is interpreted. To many, the great majority that accepts radical Arab nationalism and even lots of Islamists, Saddam is basically a hero. He fought America; he fought Israel; he (at least made believe) supported Arab causes.

IF THIS is what prevails, then there is no hope for the Arabic-speaking world. For in that case Saddam’s mismanagement, wasteful wars, murder, torture and intimidation are simply not important. And if these things do not matter, they will continue to be repeated and exalted.

Within Iraq itself the key issue is whether Saddam will be seen as the greatest Sunni communal leader of modern times. Clearly, the Shi’ite and Kurdish majority hated him and is glad he is dead. If the Sunni minority – which he rewarded in many ways while treating them terribly in others – wants a new Saddam-type figure (even if an Islamist) rather than conciliation, Iraq’s civil war will be long and bloody.

“There is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more dangerous to handle,” wrote the Italian Niccol Machiavelli, perhaps history’s greatest political analyst, “than to initiate a new order of things… partly from the incredulity of mankind, who do not truly believe in anything new until they have had actual experience of it.”

If one knows only dictators – both on the political level and that of the individual in society – it is a long, hard process to establish a different kind of order. If one exalts dictators, such change is an impossible task.

The writer is director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center at IDC Herzliya and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs.


Better off dead

By Yoel Marcus

Haaretz, January 1, 2007

It is hard to comprehend how the execution of a cruel dictator, personally responsible for the murder of more than one million Iraqis, Iranians, Kurds and Shi’ites during his 24 years in power, came as such a shock to the high-minded souls of the world, especially those in the European Union who called the hanging of Saddam Hussein a “barbaric act.”

It was enough to give a person apoplexy to listen to the radio debate on Sunday between those bleeding hearts who denounced the execution of one of the greatest mass murderers since World War II on the grounds of their fundamental opposition to the death penalty, and those who felt it was justified. How could anyone listen to the astounding response of one of these “men of principle” to the question of whether he would have spared Hitler, and keep quiet?

In Israel, as in many countries around the world, there is no death penalty. Not only was Rabin’s assassin, Yigal Amir, not sent to the gallows, but he tied the knot recently and will soon become a father. On the other hand, Israel did not hesitate to hang Adolf Eichmann.

What does that say? That we have double standards? Not exactly. It says that we draw a line between criminal murder and genocide. A leader who doesn’t blink an eyelid at employing chemical warfare to murder thousands of Kurds and an equal number of Shi’ites, and then buries dozens, if not hundreds, of them in mass graves, who is capable of launching an eight-year war against Iran that ends up killing a million people, is not an ordinary murderer. He is a war criminal who deserves to be put to death.

We are talking about a tyrant who controlled his people by sowing fear and acting like a barbarian. Iraq’s numerous prisons, including the one where Saddam was executed, were full of people who were brutally tortured and killed solely because they said something they shouldn’t have, or were turned in by informers.

I was surprised to read Nahum Barnea’s column in Yedioth Ahronoth praising Saddam’s courage. “He went to his death honorably, without asking for pity, without clasping the feet of his executioners. He did not give his enemies that last bit of satisfaction.” For starters, the world only saw what the person who stage-directed the execution wanted us to see. During the trial he wasn’t such a hero. With the Koran in his hand, he tried to save his skin with all kinds of excuses, the most pathetic of them being that he was still the president of Iraq.

Ruthless dictators of Saddam’s ilk are not afraid of death. The heads of the Nazi party – Hitler, Goebbels, Himmler and Goering – committed suicide. Other Nazi leaders, sentenced to death in the Nuremburg trials, went to the gallows with heads held high, without begging for mercy. Alfred Rosenberg, the ideologue of the Nazi race theory, shouted “Death to the Jews” before he died. Saddam, according to Al Jazeera, said “Long live Iraq” and “Long live Palestine.”

The common denominator between the Nazi murderers and Saddam was an obsessive desire to wipe out the Jews. Saddam was a megalomaniac who pledged to burn Israel to a crisp. He began to build the first nuclear reactor in the Arab world with the express purpose of putting an end to Israel. He encouraged and financed suicide bombings and terror against Israel’s civilian population, and fired 40 Scud missiles at us to show the Palestinian terror organizations and Hezbollah that the home front was Israel’s Achilles’ heel.

What is hard to understand is how a vicious tyrant who dunked his opponents in acid or cut off their arms and legs could remain in power for a whole generation without being challenged. In the end, he had more arrogance than brains. He didn’t prepare an escape route for himself, and was mistaken twice in not believing that America would use force against him.

He invaded Kuwait without any justification, prompting an international coalition to attack him. He invaded Iran without any justification and pulled out eight years later without achieving anything, leaving half a million Iranians dead. He knew he had no nuclear or biological weapons, but he arrogantly chased the UN inspectors out of Iraq. His people suffered hunger and want in the wake of UN-imposed sanctions – until the occupation came and brought him down.

Stability in Iraq is still a long way off. But if Saddam had remained alive in jail, the chances of restoring calm anytime soon would be zero. People would be afraid that sooner or later he would get out from behind those bars and return to power. Hence his execution was not a punishment. It was the end of an era. Saddam Hussein is better off dead.


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